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Center helps vets deal with wounds of war

E.B. Furgurson III
Contact Reporterpfurgurson@capgaznews.com
That stress gets buried. But it comes back to the surface whether in near term behavioral changes or years lat

Veterans Day is a day set aside to thank the millions who have served our country in uniform. There will be parades and ceremonies, flags and flowers, handshakes and hugs.

But for many of the 21,680,000 veterans, it is another day of coping.

The Vet Center in Annapolis is helping those veterans help themselves. It is a place where many have finally found firm footing on the path back from hell, whether experienced in combat or on a darker internal battlefield.

"I would not be here if it wasn't for this place," said one veteran.

"I can finally smile again," said another.

"It helped me get my family back," said a third.

Mark Chapin, a 20-year Army veteran, spent his career counseling soldiers. He's been the team leader at the Annapolis Street center since it opened there in 2011.

"Men first come back from combat, or return from service, most do not seek help," Chapin said. "They are taught to be driven. They might be grieving a lost buddy, but they are running on auto, told not to think about unpleasant things."

About half of the men and women who come to the center served in Vietnam. Another 25 percent are from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the remaining veterans served in conflicts such as Kosovo and Korea. There are even a few from World War II.

Ten percent are sexual assault victims, both women and men.

"Fully 80 percent of our patients suffer from PTSD," Chapin said. "About 20 percent are here with readjustment issues, marriage and family issues."

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a "mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event," the Mayo Clinic explains.

Many at the Vet Center did not recognize their stress-related issues until years afterward.

"Half of Vietnam vets came back and went to work. They were so busy (that) the events, the stress was buried," Chapin said. "Now that they are retiring they have time on their hands, their minds go back — sometimes those memories are not pleasant."

What might seem innocuous to the rest of us can trigger veterans' memories, prompting flashbacks, sweats, stress and behavioral changes.

"For many Vietnam veterans it is helicopters, particularly Huey helicopters. That 'chop-chop-chop' is a trigger," Chapin said.

For others, it's the weather.

"We get a lot of people in August, September, the dog days of summer. When they walk outdoors out of the AC and get hit with that heat, it takes them back — particularly the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan-era people," Chapin added.

The Adopt-a-Highway program also presents problems for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. "When those groups do a cleanup and leave the bags of trash along the road, those bags trigger memories of IEDs."

For Glen Frazier, 72, of Glen Burnie, a trigger is fireworks.

"It hit me when I went to the Fourth of July on the National Mall, oh, sometime in the 1980s. It was so crowded and the fireworks opened up, I had to leave," he said. "The fireworks, I got flashbacks."

Frazier was drafted into the Army in 1961 and among the first wave of troops into Vietnam when the war escalated in 1965. His job — graves registration.

"We handled all the bodies … when the docs were done we prepared them for shipment back to the states. When the helicopters came back from an operation, first it was the wounded, then the KIAs."

"We'd go out in the field on operations. The medical teams went out and we went with them. The docs did what they could do, then we would move in to handle the bodies."

He stayed in the Army after Vietnam, retiring after 20 years. He then found a job at Fort George G. Meade, where he worked 28 years. It was only after retiring that the buried memories and stress surfaced.

"My wife encouraged me to seek help. People were telling me they could see my reactions, too," he said.

A friend told him about the Vet Center. "I made the call and have been coming ever since. ... I have cried, it's OK to cry here."

For James Sledge, 37, the realization he needed to do something came when the family dog died.

"My mother was talking to me about it and I felt nothing," said Sledge, who served in Kosovo in 1999 during his 20-year hitch. "I did not have any empathy, no compassion or feelings toward the matter. It bothered me."

He said he started asking himself, "Am I that way with everybody?"

Everyone he talked to said they saw it, too.

He went to the Veterans Administration to seek help and was referred to the center.

"I remember how I was, but I can't ever be that person again. I am accepting that person and am going to try and move on."

Daron Woodley, 49, put in 20 years in the Army. He deployed to Bosnia in 1997, Desert Storm in 1991 and Iraq in 2003.

He was a platoon sergeant in Iraq in the 507th Maintenance Division, heavy equipment mechanics. His unit was driving the same convoy in which Jessica Lynch was injured and captured.

"We got lost, split up. We got ambushed. I lost half my people," he said following a group meeting at the center. "We got caught in Nasaria — it should have never happened."

His part of the company got separated that March night in 2003 after part of the column including Lynch's vehicle made a turn into Nasaria instead of going around it.

"You have to make a decision whether it is a good one or a bad one; you pay the consequences later. Seeing that look on my soldiers' faces, like, 'Sergeant, what do we do?' You try to prepare people to say, 'Hey, don't be scared.' But you can't."

He has made progress in the last two years at the center.

"It is good to come here and talk to a bunch of guys who have been through it."

James Smith was a chaplain for over 20 years in the Army. He did four tours in the Middle East, one in Iraq and three in Afghanistan, the last in 2011-2012.

"I had four near-death experiences in a month and half," he said. "Three IED explosions, to my vehicle and the one behind me." And a helicopter crash.

Now retired, Smith works with the Soul Care Initiative, trying to get more churches to reach out to veterans to aid their readjustment.

But he still comes to the Vet Center.

"After 30 years of intense work with soldiers and their families, I needed to take a look at taking care of myself. And here I have a great professional to be my guide."

Andrea, who asked not to use her last name because of the nature of her case, is one of the center's sexual trauma patients.

She suffered the trauma while in the Navy in the early 1980s, but did not seek treatment until the '90s.

"I put a mental block on my mind to protect myself. It was working until I ran into a person from that time in my life and I had, what I call, a quiet nervous breakdown," the Mechanicsville resident said.

"In 1996, I sought help. It was very, very hard to admit," she said.

It was years before she found the center. Through individual therapy and group sessions, she is making progress. "I am finally getting to the point where I can stop blaming myself. The shame is still there, but that is progress for me."

Center counselor Theresa Yoshikawa, who works with sexual trauma veterans, said increased public awareness has helped some seek help.

"The biggest issue we deal with is trust," she said. "When the trust is shattered, it is difficult to trust anyone."

More on PTSD, from the Mayo Clinic:

Many people who go through traumatic events have difficulty adjusting and coping for a while, but they don't have PTSD — with time and good self-care, they usually get better. But if the symptoms get worse or last for months or even years and interfere with your functioning, you may have PTSD.

Getting effective treatment after PTSD symptoms develop can be critical to reduce symptoms and improve function.

Symptoms may include:

•Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event.

•Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks).

•Upsetting dreams about the traumatic event.

•Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the event.

See a doctor if you have disturbing thoughts and feelings about a traumatic event for more than a month, if they're severe, or if you feel you're having trouble getting your life back under control, talk to your health care professional.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, get help right away through one or more of these resources:

Reach out to a close friend or loved one.

Contact a minister, a spiritual leader or someone in your faith community.

Call a suicide hotline number — in the United States, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. Use that same number and press 1 to reach the Veterans Crisis Line.

For more information on PTSD and other military-related health issues, visit www.afterdeployment.org.

Annapolis Vet Center

All combat veterans with an Expeditionary Medal reflected in their records , and victims of Military Sexual Trauma are eligible for services, and need not be registered with the Veterans Administration to seek help at a Vet Center. Your service is your payment for help.

Those not meeting the combat or sexual trauma criteria can be seen by mental health services at the Community Based Outpatient Clinics at Fort Meade and in Glen Burnie or at the Baltimore VA Medical Center.

The Annapolis Vet Center is located at 100 Annapolis St.

It be reached by phone at 410-605-7826 or 877-927-8387.

The center is open from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and 8:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday and Friday. The Center is also open the third Sunday of every month from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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