Veteran Stories: Recovering from PTSD

November 28, 2012

It’s hard to know how many veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. We know that the number receiving government compensation for those conditions went up more than 200 percent in the last decade.

Arizona is home to more than half a million veterans and this week on Morning Edition we’re hearing the voices of veterans in KJZZ’s Public Insight Network.

For 27-year-old Eric, of Phoenix, the roots of his PTSD stem from the first of his two tours in Iraq. But it was his latest deployment — in Afghanistan — that really sent him spinning.

Here’s former Army combat medic Eric telling his story:

“Our first mission I was in a helicopter that got shot down. Luckily the pilot that was flying us was really good and he managed to get us up — or have us hit the ground nose up, and that's probably what saved our life.

There was a period of time where I lost consciousness. Immediately after the crash and for the following six or seven hours we had to defend the helicopter. If no one was actively bleeding or if you weren't incapacitated, then you were on the line defending the perimeter. So there wasn’t really much time to kind of think about any aches or pains, or feeling weird, or did I get injured — what happened? It was a very volatile situation.

They kept us there for another four months, so …

I was sweating every time I got on a helicopter, or started to shake anytime it moved or we felt any turbulence that wasn’t expected. It made me jump or I could feel my heart rate going up. So it really kind of shook my foundation.

And about nine months later I decided to get out, instead of re-enlisting.

So I went back to Tucson. I tried to reconnect with my family and stay there and I ended up finding myself really bored or lacking stimulation, so I thought Phoenix would be the answer. I moved to Phoenix and it was kind of the same deal. Every few months I would get a different job and get bored with it really quickly.

I was having issues at work, issues at school. My relationship fell apart. I had a girlfriend I was living with at the time and I ended up being homeless for a period of time. One by one things started to kind of fall apart. You know, a lot of social phobia — issues with adjusting. I started to get kind of volatile or irritable very easily.

I missed the adrenaline rush that you get from doing what I was doing. I missed the camaraderie and I really wasn’t feeling that outside of the Army. So for about a year or year and a half I contemplated going back in and decided to stick with school and finish out my degree. And try to move on.

For the longest time I kind of accepted the — a lot of people thought it was just me being irresponsible. That I had a maturity problem, that I was a delinquent.

I had issues with losing cellphones, getting into car accidents from zoning out or daydreaming while I’m driving. Leaving the stove on. Putting things in the freezer or walking around with toothpaste in my hand for no reason.

It really made me realize that I had a medical concern — a couple medical concerns that I really needed to address.

So I went into the VA and they screened me for brain injury, for PTSD, for and several other things they were seeing a lot of at the time. And I tested positive for these evaluations.”

That’s former Army medic Eric describing his struggle to find stability back at home in Arizona.

Eric's diagnosis for PTSD entitles him to a monthly disability check from the Department of Veterans Affairs. When it comes, the money will help him pay his rent and his auto insurance.

But it takes a while — on average more than a year in Arizona — for the government to process medical claims like his. In the meantime, Eric received financial assistance from a state organization called the Arizona Military Family Relief Fund, which gives out emergency grants to service members and veterans who have been deployed in the War on Terror.

Here’s how Eric describes how this bit of financial assistance will get him back on his feet:

“It's gonna allow me to be able to kind of focus on moving forward from the military and getting a career in the field of microbiology or continuing on with school. Hopefully to graduate school.  Because the main focus right now with my treatment is to move on and to kind of develop the other side of myself.”

For more on the Arizona Military Family Relief Fund, read "For veterans, temporary relief from disability waits."

This story was produced by Jeff Severns Guntzel and American Public Media’s Public Insight Network.

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