EDGEWOOD, Ky. – Army Sgt. Shannon Hogan dreads holidays like the Fourth of July. The circling crowds and explosions of fireworks that should symbolize triumph and freedom, take him back to one of the darkest times of his life.
“You want to react, but have to tell yourself that you’re fine. It’s a feeling that’s always there,” he said about his daily struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
As Americans remember veterans on Monday, there are countless vets trying to forget what they’ve seen, what they’ve heard, and what they lived through.
For hundreds of thousands, like Hogan, they have flashbacks and experience the trauma of war all over again.
The statistics are sobering.
The stories like Hogan’s all too common.
About 476,000 of the 21.2 million veterans nationwide were diagnosed with PTSD and received treatment, according to 2011 Department of Veterans Affairs report. And the number of veteran suicides is on the rise across the nation – with 22 veterans killing themselves each day, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
For years, Hogan kept his struggles secret, but talking about it helps him, he said.
“PTSD needs to be talked about—we need to get the word out. We are human beings. We went and did a job that others wouldn’t. We went so they didn’t have to… for that, we wear wounds they can’t see.”
Living Inside A War: One Veteran Continues To Fight
Hogan wanted to be in the Army for as long as he could remember.
“Being a soldier means everything,’’ he said.
From the moment he enlisted on Aug 21, 1997, two years after graduating from Glen Este High School, he couldn’t wait for his first tour.
That day came in 2003.
Hogan, 36, recounts the nondescript, mud and brick buildings in the Middle East during his tour. The sweltering heat was compounded by the thick diesel stench from generators and trucks. It was unbearable, he said. The overwhelming threat of dying at any moment was ominous.
“It’s the closest thing to hell on earth you can imagine,” he said.
But after 30 days, he returned to Fort Riley in Kansas after suffering an epileptic seizure in Iraq.
On July 18, 2004 he was medically discharged from the Army.
He only served 30 days.
But even so he said he is plagued with depression, anxiety, nightmares and flashbacks. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 2009 and remains on medication and in therapy.
It’s a little like being on the battleground at home:
“I access crowds… asking what’s my escape route? When people get too close it’s a potential threat.”
He said he doesn’t think the Veteran’s Administration is doing enough for suffering soldiers.
“The proof is how many vets have taken their own lives on a daily basis,” he said, adding that he tried to kill himself after his discharge.
Scars Hidden, Close To Home
Dr. Kathleen Chard, Director of the PTSD and Anxiety Disorders Division at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center and Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati, has treated hundreds of veterans and civilians suffering from PTSD .
It’s been her life’s work since she graduated in 1994 with her PhD.
“It’s a mental health disorder that happens after a significant traumatic event. It literally overwhelms the system,” said Chard.
It can occur over a long period of time, like several tours of duty in the military, or as quickly as a car accident.
Most victims of PTSD recover in about three months, she said, however, in some cases the mind is not able to fully recover on its own.
“PTSD is, getting stuck in the recovering process,” said Chard.
The mind continues to remember and the symptoms can be overwhelming, even life-altering.
In the Mid-South, which includes Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee , 14,905 veterans were seen for PTSD at the regional Veterans Integrated Service Network. In Kentucky alone, there are 342,000 veterans, according to the United States Census Bureau as of 2012.
In Ohio’s Veterans Integrated Service Network , there were 9,438 veterans seen for potentially having PTSD out of the nearly 900,000 veterans in the state. The Cincinnati VA PTSD clinic treated 1,800 in 2012.
“[They] need help sooner than later,” said Chard. “However, it often takes 8-10 years before someone will come in for treatment. People don’t realize how PTSD affects their life, until it falls apart.”
“People with PTSD have a higher rate of suicide,” said Chard.
The Other Victims of Post-Traumatic Stress
The disorder leaves many victims in its wake.
Denise Meyers wears her son’s dog tags around her neck; his oversized class ring on her index finger.
Meyers sifts through piles of photos of her son, United States Marie Corps Cpl. Andrew “Drew” Meyers, who wanted nothing more than to join the Corps and fight for his country.
He enlisted in 2005 and was deployed soon thereafter with F.A.S.T. (Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team). He never divulged details of his missions, but she knew they were extremely hazardous.
A blown-out knee would send him home in 2009 -- not the same man as he was when
“Did he come back with demons? Yes, we all do,” said Richard Shuey, Drew’s professor at Thomas More College and director of Veteran Affairs.
“The fear for your life changes you. The fear that you’ve harmed others changes you.
We all come back with different levels of demons,” said Shuey, a Vietnam veteran.
Meyers became addicted to painkillers he was prescribed after surgery on his knee. But friends and family said they believe the painkillers also dulled his mental anguish at not being an active Marine any longer.
“When you return, you feel guilty,” said Shuey. “Your fellow servicemen are over there and you’re not there to protect them.”
After a stint in detox for his addiction, Meyers decided that he wanted to go back to the battlefield—the place he felt worthy, the most like himself, and where he could do the most good. He went back in August 2012, this time as a civilian security contractor.
After his contract ended, he returned to Edgewood, Ky., and returned to Thomas More College to finish his degree.
His wounds remained.
“It was this gut-wrenching feeling that took over his body—an overwhelming feeling of worthlessness and not knowing how to handle it,” said his mother, who said she didn’t know how to help her ailing son.
When he was depressed, he drank. He drank to forget. He drank to numb the pain. He drank to blur the flashbacks.
He eventually got the drinking under control, she said, and was working on getting help with PTSD.
He had an appointment with a therapist at the VA, but it was abruptly canceled.
“A card came in the mail cancelling, he was very distraught about that, very disappointed,’’ she recalled.
About Face: One Veteran Loses The War
Days later, when she arrived home from a trip her son told her he wasn’t feeling great and was headed to his bedroom.
The next morning, she went to his room to check on him. The door was locked, which was normal. But there was no response. She picked the locked with a bobby pin; but she was not prepared for what she saw.
Her son was on his hands and knees, balled up in the fetal position.
“I always expected if he died it would be overseas,” she said. “That wonderful young man was put in my arms when he was born, and I held him when he died.”
His death certificate indicated that his cause of death was from alcohol intoxication and positional asphyxia, which is a condition arising when the body is deprived of oxygen, causing unconsciousness or death.
“I guess after 28 years, his mission was done,” she said. “… He’s there to protect me and look after me and be one of God’s soldiers now.”
Veterans Lack Reintegration Into Society
Veteran Nathan Pelletier, executive director at Joseph House, said some veteran PTSD cases are going unnoticed and untreated due to lack of reintegration from the war zone to civilian life once veterans return home.
With a growing veteran population of 300,000 every year, Pelletier said the transition between war and civilian life should be top priority.
Currently veterans returning home from war can be “cleared” in as quickly as one week, he said. And while they have the option to receive medical and career assistance with the VA, it’s not mandatory.
“The soldier doesn’t have a real connection of where to go,” he said. “To be successful, you have to be a civilian again. The military is only part of your journey, then it’s time to find what’s next.”
The 33-year-old West Point graduate, discharged in 2005 after serving in Iraq, said veterans cannot transition from warrior to civilian on their own.
Pelletier flew to Washington, D.C. in September, imploring Congress to take action:
“As an executive director of a local agency supporting veterans in need, I've witnessed what can happen if those who have served our country fall into the ‘gaps’ of an inefficient transition and support network,” he testified at the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “On my very first day of work at the Joseph House, Inc., one of our War on Terror clients overdosed on heroin and nearly died in his room.”
He hopes to launch a program in Cincinnati that would include basic life skills training, healing and career assistance as well as continued monitoring with veterans to assess their continuing needs after discharge.
Kentucky On The Front Lines Of Healing Veterans
Increased incidence of suicide, PTSD and traumatic brain injury prompted the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs to launch the Kentucky Military Personnel Mental Health initiative in January.
Its purpose is to deliver mental health services to active duty members, reservists, veterans, and their families.
Full implementation statewide is projected over the next 18 months.
Similarly, the Kentucky National Guard has joined forces with the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs and the University of Louisville to develop a counseling program that will significantly change the way combat veterans are treated in the Commonwealth.
Capt. Stephanie Fields, Deputy State Surgeon for the Kentucky National Guard,
said the initial goal of the new program is to provide additional behavioral health resources for all of Kentucky's combat veterans without the standard wait period they often experience with the Veterans Administration or their civilian medical provider.
"While everyone acknowledges that the Veterans Administration has been providing excellent treatment, the volume of soldiers has caused considerable wait times," she said Fields.
Experts said the message for families is that PTSD and associated issues are treatable.
"Don't believe what you see on television or in the movies,” said Dr. Eric Russ, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville's Department of Psychiatry, who used to work with the VA, is very familiar with the issues facing combat veterans. “For a long time in mental health, particularly with veterans coming back from Vietnam and other conflicts, we didn't have a good handle on PTSD and depression.
“We do now.”
Drew’s Efforts Live On, Helping Fellow Vets
Drew Meyers's memory will live on to help other veterans who, like him, did not where to turn.
Four years ago, he founded Servicemen to Saints, a campus organization aimed at helping veterans re-adjust to civilian life through community service. The organization worked with Toys for Tots and HONK (Housing Opportunities of Northern Kentucky) painting houses in Covington and Newport. His mom continues the work, heading up the Toys for Tots drive with Servicemen to Saints veterans through Thomas More.
It was also Meyers’s goal to have a lounge dedicated to helping veterans cope.
His dream came true Saturday.
A lounge at Thomas More is now reserved solely for veteran's to discuss their hopes, dreams, and war stories with others of like mind.
It was dedicated to Meyers.
If you are a combat veteran in need, or you know of a combat veteran who can benefit from this program, contact Capt. Fields at email@example.com or (502) 607-1046.