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Military forum puts a face on PTSD

By Samantha Kaspar
On November 10, 2012

  • Futurist David Houle. Photo courtesy of shiftedtransformation.com

Nearly 100 people gathered in GSU's Center for Performing Arts to listen and learn more about military trauma.

"Before and After Deployment: Trauma and the Impact on the Military Family" was held on October 29 as a follow-up forum to an event held in February. The event was held in hopes to increase awareness and understanding of the needs of veterans and their families.

Students at GSU worked with Dr. Phyllis West of Triton College and Social Work professor Lori Glass to create a forum for military members and their families to bring awareness to the issues of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other military traumas. With Governors State being a university with one of the highest number of veterans, Glass believes it is important to move away from statistics and put a face to the issues.

The forum opened with the national anthem, followed by Dean Elizabeth Cada of the College of Health and Human Services acknowledging and thanking the active service members in the audience. Cada stated that 20% of 1.5 million soldiers will return home with mental health issues.

"Wars may end, soldiers may come home, but the families need to reunite to face the future," said Cada.

Veteran Michael Johnson, who was a U.S. Marine Corps Navy Corpsman, spoke of his experience with PTSD after 23 years of military service. "For me, it was taking horrible experiences and trying to process them while continuing to have horrible experiences," said Johnson, who served in the Middle East in both Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom. "When we come back, we're not ourselves anymore. We've left something back there with the war."

Johnson explained that many returning soldiers are too stubborn to admit they have a problem, and often self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. In his case, his PTSD led to anger management issues, marital problems, and sleep loss. He also became an adrenaline junkie with no enthusiasm for life. "It ended my whole life," said Johnson. "Recovery is a lifetime thing for me now."

Johnson believes that returning soldiers should go through a decompression boot camp in order to process what they went through and to learn more about it. "It's up to social workers and family members to help the people coming home to know that it's okay to need some help," he said.

Marquell Smith experienced a different kind of trauma in the military under the Don't Ask Don't Tell Policy. While serving in the United States Marine Corps, Smith dedicated his life to the Marines, working his way to an officer position.

When he discovered a partner of his tested HIV positive in 2006, Smith was forced to talk to his commanders on how to deal with the situation. Although never disclosing his partner's sex, the admission led to an investigation into Smith's personal life.

"They told me that I could stay in the Marine Corps, but I could no longer become an officer," said Smith. He was also not allowed to discuss with anyone what was going on with him. He experienced anxiety after being dismissed, and was initially not allowed to use his GI bill benefits. "I experienced a different war," said Smith.

Today, there is still no clause saying that military members can't be discriminated against for their sexual orientation, and while some benefits now apply to same sex partnerships, others don't.

Since his discharge, Smith has been advocating for equal rights and fair treatment. "I respect the gay men and women in the military, because they serve under a stigma but keep fighting because they believe that it is worth it," said Smith.

Women in the military often face other challenges. Nicole McCoy, 22, joined the Marines Corps when she was 18 and immediately built a reputation for being hard working and trust worthy. "At the beginning, I felt highly respected," said McCoy.

This changed when she was sexually assaulted during her training. After reporting it, she received little help. "I was a large target for rumors. My car was vandalized as well as the door to my room," she explained. "People said I was lying, that it never happened."

McCoy was sexually assaulted three more times during her four years in the Marines. Feeling ignored, alienated, and judged, she began drinking and taking pills. "I was destructive," she said. "I drove my car into ditches. I didn't want to be here because it would just happen again."

"We are told to report sexual assault and rape, but no one says it'll ruin your life if you do," said McCoy, who received hate mail for her report, didn't get letters of recommendation she was promised, and lost the respect of those around her.

Today, McCoy suffers from panic attacks and takes her dog with her wherever she goes because she never feels safe. She works through her Military Sexual Trauma (MST) on her own. "I don't go get the help because I'm more afraid telling someone is going to make it worse," she explained.

But she's become an advocate speaking out against the culture of abuse of women in the military and she recently started an online petition urging the inclusion of active duty military and reservists in an online national database for sex offenders.

When Sharon Orsborn took the stand, she left many tear-filled eyes in the crowd, having experienced PTSD from an outsider's perspective when her 26 year old son committed suicide after his service in Iraq.

When her only son and youngest child decided to enter the U.S. Army, Orsborn was concerned he might not be tough enough, but when they visited him on his graduation she was proved wrong. "I met someone we did not know," said Orsborn. "He was not a little boy anymore."

But by the time he returned home from Iraq, he wasn't even the man she had seen at graduation. Distant and moody, he refused to talk about his experience.

His family saw the change in him, but felt helpless, and in May of 2007 he was found dead in a field in his car with a shot through his head. "They said he died in that field in Texas, but he died on a battlefield in Iraq," said Orsborn. "His spirit was mortally wounded, but his body came back without a scratch."

"The death of my child is the defining moment of my life," she said. "Families should not be left on their own to figure out what to do."

The personal experiences of these veterans and their families allowed the listeners to better understand what military members and their families may go through upon returning from deployment. Spreading awareness of PTSD and MTS can help change things for returning veterans in the future.

"Thanks for listening to us," said Orsborn. "Because when you listen to us, you help us heal."


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