Veterans feel effects of war long after returning home - WCBD-TV: News, Weather, and Sports for Charleston, SC

Veterans feel effects of war long after returning home

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For Sergeant Micheal Johnson, the day, the sights and the sounds of Iraq will forever be seered in his mind.

Johnson was part of the 101st Airborne Division, some of the first troops on the ground in Iraq. Sergeant Johnson and his team were responsible for patrolling the many checkpoints set up around the country soon after Saddam Hussein was toppled from power.

The day he still remembers started off just like any other, until a truck came barreling towards Johnson and other soldiers.

"Shortly after we fired on the vehicle, we found that a husband and wife were killed, and the three little girls that were in the back, two were dead on sight," Johnson said. "The youngest was put on an aircraft and died shortly in flight."

The military had been Johnson's life. From Bosnia to Iraq, Johnson served in the military for ten years until a knee injury brought him home. 

It was at home when the ghosts of war started haunting him and his family.

'No not me'

The first months of Johnson's return seemed normal for a soldier. He was adjusting to life back in the United States. A life void of physical battles but full of mental warfare.

"I probably noticed something about six months after I got back," Johnson said. "And just like any other soldier, I was like 'No not me,' and I just kept pushing through it."

For months, Johnson said he became distant from his family as he struggled to process the memories of killing innocent Iraqis.

"It was just a lot of anger," he said. "A lot of irritability. A lot of lashing out. Definitely no patience with my kids, and no patience with my wife."

Johnson is like the 20% of other veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). After two years of fighting the symptoms and not knowing he had PTSD, Johnson visited the Ralph Johnson VA Hospital in downtown Charleston to find out what was wrong.

'There are a number of challenges'

Doctor Brian Lozano is a Clinical Psychologist at the VA who admits that diagnosing veterans like Johnson is a hard thing to do.

"There are a number of challenges to getting a good sense on whether the person is experiencing PTSD," Lozano said.

In the past few decades, Lozano points to an increase of research into the disorder. For years, many misdiagnosed PTSD, often confusing it with depression or other mental issues. In the last few years, however, more research has shed more light on which specific symptoms make up the disorder.

"We do have a cluster of symptoms that we specifically look for and through assessment and getting to know a good history of what the person is experiencing, we can really get a better picture and decide," he said.

'I hated every minute of it'

After deciding Johnson did have PTSD, he and his team of doctors began a ten-week program known as prolonged exposure.

Basically, the treatment consists of therapy sessions during which doctors ask the veteran to talk about the memories that are causing the problems. After repeating the memory to doctors, patients are then required to take home a tape recorder and continue recording the memory until the patient is able to better handle the emotions.

"It sucked," Johnson said. "I can tell you right now that I hated every minute of it, but after week nine, I was getting more daring."

Before getting treatment, Johnson said he couldn't drive, couldn't go to movies, or stores or spend any time outside of his house. In the darkest and hardest times, Johnson said he couldn't live.

The thought of suicide began to fill his thoughts.

"It crossed [my mind] a couple of times," he said. "I mean I can say that I would have never gone through with it, but I  can say that it's readily there. It's in the back of my mind."

Last year, the number of veterans who committed suicide hit record numbers. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 22 veterans take their own lives everyday. 31% of those are veterans who are younger than 50.

'The feeling of, 'I'm not alone''

While Johnson was able to get treatment, the Veterans Hospital does not provide treatment for family members.

That's where Frank Ruse comes in .

Ruse started the Veterans, Family and Friends PTSD Support Group. It's a group based off of Alcoholics Anonymous. Participants sit around a table discussing their days. Instead of reflecting on the memories of PTSD, those who attend are asked to talk about their day or how their families are handling the disorder.

"When you do the group, everybody helps everyone," Ruse said.

Ruse said the group regularly has 10 to 15 people attending. The group features not just veterans, but mothers and other family members who are also struggling with how to handle PTSD. 

Ruse said the group is able to help each other, not with just the advice given, but with hearing that the veteran or family member is not the only one who struggles.

"I think the number one way we help people is the feeling of, 'I'm not alone,'" Ruse said.

'I think I'm overloaded'

News 2 sat down with one of the group's participants who wanted to remain anonymous. He spent 21 years in the Navy becoming a decorated member. He said he enjoyed the ability to travel all over the world. Everything was good, until his good friend's helicopter went down.

He blames himself for the death.

"A good friend call me up on the back line and said, 'I think I'm overloaded,'" the veteran said. "I went back and checked his numbers and said he was fine. Next thing I know, he was dead and eight marines were dead."

The veteran waited years to get treatment. He now attends the group almost weekly. For him, it's a matter of life or death for the veterans, especially for those whose families don't understand PTSD.

"They don't want to admit that they're having problems, so they eat a pistol," he said.

'It's one of those life-changing events'

That's why Sergeant Micheal Johnson wanted to share his story. Months removed from treatment, he is once again spending life with his family. While he said he will never be cured, he did say that he will always be progressing.

"Now, I do all kinds of things with my kids," Johnson said. "I take them out as much as I can. We go out and do stuff. I mean, it's definitely one of those life changing events when you start to see everything progress."

If you or someone you know wants to attend the Veterans Family and Friends Support Group, it meets every Monday at 7 p.m at 1400 Old Trolley Road. They meet in a meeting room at the Fellowship of Oakbrook Church in Summerville. The group is anonymous.

 

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