Help with PTSD Issues are Just One Call (or Click) Away for Troops and Families

The wars in the Middle East have mostly wound down. But many troops don’t leave the battle on the battlefield.

It’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month, and thousands of military families live and care for a loved one still dealing with emotional trauma or traumatic brain injuries stemming from action in Iraq or Afghanistan. If you’re one of those families – or know someone who needs help – here is a list of resources that can help.

And as always, if you or someone you know needs to talk to someone immediately, call the Military Crisis Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact them online at militarycrisisline.net.

    • USO Caregivers Conferences: Held on or near different military installations around the United States, these USO conferences discuss caregivers’ issues like resiliency, communication, compassion fatigue and how to talk to children after a parent has been injured.

  • PTSD Coach:The Department of Veterans Affairs has a website and app called PTSD Coach that aims to help troops and veterans manage issues like anger, sleep and trauma triggers.
  • USO/Stronger Families Oxygen Seminars: This Bothell, Wash.-based nonprofit helps couples – especially military couples affected by injuries or long separations – open the lines of communication. Their Oxygen Seminars have become a key partner program of USO Warrior and Family Care.
  • Family readiness officers, family support groups and family support centers: While some may be more robust than others, every branch of the military has family support services. These officers and groups are huge information resources. Contact your command to find out what groups are available for your family.
  • Aggregate lists: The Washington Post has an easy-to-navigate rundown of warning signs, benefits and services and how to find help.
  • And if in doubt: Call the Military Crisis Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact them online at militarycrisisline.net.

PTSD Resources: Where to Turn When You Need Help

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month may be winding down, but that doesn’t mean troops and families trying to cope with the anguish of war memories or even mental and emotional trauma from traumatic brain injuries will be forgotten.

Here is a list of resources for both troops and families dealing with PTSD.

And as always, if you or someone you know needs to talk to someone immediately, call the Military Crisis Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact them online at militarycrisisline.net.

  • OEF Crisis Hotline: Hosted by the Army in Afghanistan for troops deployed downrange, personnel are fielding phone calls and answering email around the clock. Click here for contact information.
  • USO Caregivers Conferences: Held on or near different military installations around the United States, these USO conferences discuss caregivers’ issues like resiliency, communication, compassion fatigue and how to talk to children after a parent has been injured.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs: Not only do they host the Military Crisis Line, but they can also direct you to counseling options and a host of other resources. Visit them at mentalhealth.va.gov.
  • USO/Stronger Families Oxygen Seminars: This Bothell, Wash.-based nonprofit helps couples – especially military couples affected by injuries or long separations – open the lines of communication. Their Oxygen Seminars have become a key partner program of USO Warrior and Family Care.
  • USO/Ride 2 Recovery: Ride 2 Recovery – in partnership with the USO – holds challenge events for wounded, ill and injured troops to both boost camaraderie and build physical stamina and confidence.
  • Family readiness officers, family support groups and family support centers: While some may be more robust than others, every branch of the military has family support services. These officers and groups are huge information resources. Contact your command to find out what groups are available for your family.
  • Aggregate lists: Along the same lines as the VA site, the Washington Post has an easy-to-navigate rundown of warning signs, benefits and services and how to find help.
  • If in doubt: Call the Military Crisis Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact them online at militarycrisisline.net.

–Story by USO Story Development

OEF Crisis Hotline Gives Stressed Troops an Outlet Downrange

More than 1,000 runners came out for the OEF Crisis Hotline 5K, hosted May 24 at six USO Centers in Afghanistan. USO photos by Eric Raum

More than 1,000 runners came out for the OEF Crisis Hotline 5K, hosted May 24 at six USO Centers across Afghanistan. USO photos by Eric Raum

It was a run for those who feel trapped.

Six USO centers in Afghanistan hosted more than 1,000 total runners for a 5K on May 24 to promote the OEF Crisis Hotline, a downrange-based call center troops can contact if they are dealing with stress or other mental health issues. The hotline has two mental health professionals on duty 24 hours a day.

The USO – which has been advertising the hotline to troops via posters at downrange centers – provided prizes for the top three male and female finishers.

Sgt. Kristian Patino of the Army’s 254th Medical Detachment said the hotline fills a void downrange and is modeled off a similar system the Department of Veterans Affairs operates stateside.

“It is peer support in its purest form,” Patino said. “You have service members here in Afghanistan going through the same struggles and dealing with the same issues as whoever would be calling in, so they are able to connect with the caller and relate to them.”

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The hotline – which was originally run by the 254th Medical Detachment in Kandahar – is now operated by the Army’s 85th Combat Operational Stress Control Detachment out of Bagram.

Patino believes the hotline makes a difference.

“One instance, a woman called in and was very frantic, in a complete panic and crying,” Patino said. “When we were done, it was a day and night shift. We worked through relaxation techniques and talked through what was troubling her.”

Troops downrange can reach the OEF Crisis Hotline the following ways:

Stateside troops and veterans can reach the VA’s Military Crisis Line by dialing 1-800-273-8255 and then pressing 1. Europe-based troops can reach the Military Crisis Line by dialing 00800 1273 8255 on regular phones or 118 on DSN lines.

–Story by Eric Raum and Eric Brandner, USO

When Riding a Bike is Not ‘Like Riding a Bike’

Recovery from catastrophic injury takes time – and patience.

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Oscar “Oz” Sanchez, shows off his Paralympics Gold Medals on March 3 at the Marine Corps Trials at Camp Pendleton Calif. USO photos by Joseph Andrew Lee

For Recon Marine and two-time Paralympic handcycling gold medalist Oscar “Oz” Sanchez — known by some as the “fastest cyclist on two hands” — recovering from a spinal injury meant accepting his paralysis and refocusing his energy on a new passion. It was about recognizing a new reality and learning how to apply a positive mental attitude to a new sport, which took time.

For others – like retired Marine Capt. Derek Liu and Australian Defence Force Signaler Gary Wilson – who are each working to overcome severe brain injuries, recovery means reminding the brain how to walk, talk, read and write. It’s relearning the old and then learning something new, which takes patience.

I met these three athletes at the Marine Corps Trials, an international Paralympic competition held by the Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and sponsored by USO San Diego. The trials are held annually to select the Corps’ best wounded, ill and injured athletes to compete against its sister services at the annual Warrior Games in Colorado.

All Paths are Not Paved

With victory in his eyes and pride on his chest, “Oz Sanchez” had a certain confidence about him at the trials. Maybe it was the London Paralympics gold swinging from his neck like he was keeping time. No one could avoid catching his contagious smile.

As I listened to his story, though, I learned he wasn’t always so optimistic. After two deployments with 1st Recon Battalion, Sanchez saw his dreams of serving in one of America’s most elite warfighting units — SEAL Team 6 — wash away.

He was in the middle of making the transition from the Marine Corps to the Navy SEALs when a hit-and-run motorcycle accident left him with a severe spinal injury. A wave of depression came over him. He initially drowned his sorrows in alcohol and painkillers. It wasn’t until two years after his injury that he pulled himself out of depression and onto a handcycle.

The transition to a handcycle was challenging, but he knew recovery meant meeting challenges head on, pushing through and setting bigger goals for himself.

After winning all the local races in Southern California, he competed at the nationals in Colorado, where he was introduced to the Paralympics team.

Only five years after learning to ride a hand cycle, Sanchez won his first Paralympics gold medal in Beijing in 2008.

“Things are only as bad as you allow them to get,” he said. “Sure, you’re dealing with the inherent truth of whatever your physical state is, but that’s just your body that’s broken — not your mind.”

TBI, ABI and PMA

For Liu and Wilson — who’ve both made great strides in the year after I first met them at the 2012 Marine Corps Trials — the same concept holds true.

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Swimming coach Dawn Romero helps Marine veteran Capt. Derek Liu with adaptive swimming techniques. Liu recently participated in his second Marine Corps Trials. Photo by Pat Cubel

In 2007, Liu suffered cardiac arrest while jogging at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Wilson was involved in a Blackhawk helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2011. Both incurred brain injuries and were in comas for nearly two months after their respective accidents.

Most head injuries today are categorized as traumatic brain injuries (TBI), which is a broad category that always involves trauma to the brain, but can also indicate damage to structures other than the brain, such as the scalp and skull. Liu and Wilson were affected by anoxic brain injury (ABI), which is when the brain is damaged by lack of oxygen. A 2005 study demonstrated the cognitive and emotional injuries that result from both ABI and TBI are — in fact — one and the same, and the severity depends on the volume of grey matter physically compromised.

For Wilson and Liu, the damage was as severe as it gets.

“I’m no longer the person I once was and cannot do the things I did before,” Liu said. “My memory is still not trustworthy, I get confused easily, and my vision is poor.

“I’ve had to find out who the new Derek is.”

Physical Fitness is Key

For Sanchez, Liu and Wilson physical fitness plays a key role in their ability to maintain a healthy mindset.

“One of the things I missed the most, and what had me in such a doom-and-gloom state, was not being able to work out,” Sanchez said. “Once I started to get active again, I started to get some healthy thoughts back, and that effect snowballed into success. What was once me feeling like I was a product of the situation turned into me being in control of the situation.”

According to Dr. Mark Bates, Associate Director of Population Health at the Deployment Health Clinical Center, physical health and mental resiliency are closely related.

“Some of the things one can do to build psychological resilience aren’t necessarily psychological, and research suggests a strong relationship between being physically fit and mentally fit,” Bates wrote in an email. “Regular exercise increases energy, improves cognitive abilities and can help prevent or treat depression.”

Mental Health and Adaptive Sports

“Running and swimming were passions of mine,” Liu said. “So gaining back the physical strength enough to do them has boosted my confidence, and that lets me know that there is so much more I can do and achieve.”

Wilson plans to become a psychologist so he can look after people who have been through similar situations.

“I’ve been seeing a psychologist for almost two years now,” he said, “and it’s helped me heal a great deal better.

“There’s no judgment. Having someone who is genuinely interested in your progression and helping you deal with the issues that come along has been invaluable to me.”

Sanchez is exemplifying his own motto: “Know no limits.”

“It’s a long road to recovery, and it’s not always paved,” he told a group of handcyclists at the trials. “How will you get there? That’s the most difficult part, and it’s up to you. But believe me, you will get there.”

Liu builds his confidence with each new skill he masters. So far, nothing has been “like riding a bike.”

“When one is initially injured like I was, the gravity of the situation doesn’t hit you right away, but it will in five or 10 years,” Liu said. “Down the line you begin to see the outcome of your hard work and start to realize why you pushed on. The prognosis may not get better, but your adaptation to your injury and outlook on life will get a lot better.”

–Story by Joseph A. Lee, USO Staff Writer

Striking Back at PTSD

by Kelly Crigger

Soldiers are warriors who don’t always need to be coddled, yet many Post Traumatic Stress Disorder treatment facilities only offer a soft approach to rehabilitation based on group therapy and talking about their experiences. What many of them need is the complete opposite – a tough physical challenge that demands they rekindle their warrior spirit and rise up to meet a challenge.

Sergeant Todd Vance after a Muay Thai workout. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Crigger)

Sergeant Todd Vance has been there. A former Stryker Infantryman, Vance returned from Iraq and had a hard time forgetting about the distasteful moments of his more than 200 combat missions. After rehabilitating himself, he took up the burden of helping others and started a program for veterans based on something he knew a lot about – kickboxing. In particular, Vance is experienced in Muay Thai kickboxing, a physically exhaustive form of fighting that requires mental acuity to remember the combinations and wears the participants out through a grueling training regimen.

“I started the program for a few different reasons,” Vance says. I work at the Veterans Administration, but love to teach martial arts so I wanted to combine the two. I thought to myself, ‘no one has done this yet and martial arts is precisely what saved me, so why couldn’t it help all the other guys getting back?’”

Vance first needed a facility to hold his weekly classes and approached the owners of the Undisputed Boxing Gym in San Diego where he trains, who were more than happy to help. “The class is at an off peak hour so we have the full facilities to ourselves,” Vance says. “The veterans in my class don’t have to pay any fees for my class and get an extreme discount if they want to become full members.”

Vance then got the word out around town by making flyers that he distributed on local college campuses and convinced the Veterans Administration of San Diego to send it out to their email lists. Instantly he had five students and tangible results.

“It gives the guys a reason to get in shape, an education in physical fitness and martial arts, and gives them a safe place to go to blow off steam with people like them,” Vance says. “Too many vets turn to alcohol to cope with the things they did and saw, so this gives them something else.”

Vance’s program, called POW (Pugilistic Offensive Warrior), is similar to the multi-faceted approach of Andrea Lucie’s Marine Corps program at Camp Lejeune. Lucie combines yoga, fitness, and Mixed Martial Arts to help Marines cope with PTSD and has been a leading advocate for taking a harder approach to PTSD.

“Marines don’t want to sit around talking about their feelings,” says Captain Lee Stuckey, one of Lucie’s former students. “They joined to be warriors, so they need something to hit and someone to treat them like men. Also MMA workouts are really tough, so they help us sleep. Without the workouts I have to take medication, which I hate.”

Back in San Diego, Vance’s group is small, but that just affords them focused attention with the same benefits as Lucie’s group on the east coast. It’s Vance’s way of giving back to the troops and helping them find a way through their problems using the same solutions that worked on him.

“One of the students came up to me and thanked me for putting all the effort into the program and doing this,” Vance says. “He said it’s what gets him through the week and he looks forward to it every time. That was very rewarding and inspired me to keep pushing forward.”

Kelly Crigger is a Lieutenant Colonel stationed in Washington, D.C., the author of Title Shot: Into the Shark Tank of Mixed Martial Arts, and a contributor to The Rhino Den. The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Kelly Crigger and do not necessarily reflect those of the USO.

A Positive Step Forward Helping our Veterans with PTSD

by Shad Meshad, National Veterans Foundation Founder & President

As someone who has been diagnosing and treating Post-Traumatic Stress (PTSD) for more than 30 years, I applaud VA for their recent decision to make it easier for veterans to receive PTSD disability benefits.

For years, Vets have been in the difficult position of having to prove the traumatic incident that was the genesis of their PTSD.  You’d think this would be easy, but it was a rule that discouraged and prevented many Veterans from seeking or receiving the benefits that they needed and deserved.

One of the issues was record keeping.  Many battlefield incidents are not properly documented, especially when they involve troops whose military jobs are not technically combat related.  But in Iraq and Afghanistan, a road-side bomb, a sniper or an RPG can come at any time, from almost anywhere and there are service members who aren’t infantry who are finding them themselves in combat.    This includes troops who witness the horrors of war in military hospitals, at checkpoints, and those that go in and clean up the bodies after a bomb blast or firefight.

Compounding this problem has been the antiquated record keeping systems at Department of Defense and VA.  Most records are still not computerized, and those that are stored electronically are not shared between the two agencies.  So veterans, already suffering from debilitating PTSD, were forced to chase down their military documents, often one a time, to submit to VA.   And too often those paper documents were lost in the system.

This new guideline, which makes a PTSD disability rating available to a veteran who served in a combat zone, without making him or her document the incident that caused their PTSD, is a great step forward by VA in getting men and women who have served the benefits and the treatment they have earned.    The National Veterans Foundation has received hundreds of calls from veterans who were declined for PTSD disability benefits or gave up in frustration, and we are now calling these men and women with the good news, encouraging them to reapply for their benefits.

There is still more progress to be made.  VA continues to require that PTSD diagnoses be made by a VA mental health professional, which can be one more obstacle to a veteran receiving the proper diagnosis.  Many veteran advocates argue that VA doctors are pressured to limit the number of PTSD diagnoses.  Some veterans are also more hesitant to see a government doctor, especially former soldiers who have had negative experiences with the military system, and don’t trust these institutions.   There are many qualified civilian physicians who specialize in treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder who are perfectly capable of diagnosing the condition, and those diagnoses should be honored by VA.

For information veterans can call the National Veterans Foundation Lifeline for Vets™ at 888-777-4443 or visit our website at www.nvf.org.

Floyd G. “Shad” Meshad is the Founder and President of the National Veterans Foundation and an Army veteran.  The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mr. Meshad and do not necessarily reflect those of the USO.