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Illinois Country Living

Understanding PTSD
A soldier fights his way back to mental freedom

By Jonie Larson Gates

Mitch Chapman gets lots of hugs from wife Lindsey and daughters, Jillian (left) and Kayla.

When Mitch Chapman was injured he was driving a Mine Resistant Ambush Protective vehicle similar to this one.

Lindsey Chapman's sweatshirt is a declaration of how much she loves her husband Mitch. Their daughter, Jillian plays with toys in the couple's home.

There’s a scar above Mitch Chapman’s eye where his helmet cut in. It’s hardly visible, but represents a catastrophic accident that left deep, lasting emotional wounds.

It happened in a split second. There was a blast and then a 22-ton MRAP Cougar – a military Mine Resistant Ambush Protective vehicle – flipped over. Chapman, the driver, was unconscious briefly from the sheer force of the explosion. When he came to, he was hanging upside down, still strapped in by his seat belt. The weight of the vehicle was pushing down on him. Gunshots were being fired as other soldiers in the three-truck convoy tried to build a wall of safety for the wounded.

Just minutes before, Chapman had been heading across the country in the Helmand Province, which is southern Afghanistan, better known as the “Wild West.” He and others in his unit were serving as a police mentoring team, having been there little more than a month and a half. As part of their frontline duties, they would routinely pull security, checking out roadways for explosive devices.

In Chapman’s vehicle on that day in Oct. 2008 were a commander in the passenger seat, a British reporter in the back and a gunner, Corporal Scott Dimond. While the missions were always dangerous, nothing alerted Chapman on that night that his duty would be any different than other nights. But it was.

Chapman, driving the lead vehicle, rounded the corner on a roadway outside of Kandahar when he hit a bomb in a culvert. Almost instantaneously life changed. For Chapman it would leave an imprint in his mind that he continually struggles to live with.

As Chapman hung upside down under the MRAP awaiting assistance, he could hear other men looking for Dimond. Chapman was positioned where he could see Dimond’s legs, limp underneath the hood of the vehicle – the casualty of someone he had grown to call “friend.” It’s the only clear memory Chapman has of that night.

A love story unfolds …

Nearly three years later, Spc. Chapman, 26, is living in DeWitt, Iowa, working at the Rock Island Arsenal and training in logistics. He has his supportive wife, Lindsey and two adorable daughters who love to give daddy “smoochies.” Jillian had her first birthday on March 17; Kayla is 4.

“When daddy is going to be gone, he gives Kayla a kiss to put in her pocket at night in case she ever misses him,” Lindsey says with a smile.

Everything appears normal, but it’s not. Time and experiences have changed Mitch since the couple met. He was raised not far from Effingham, Ill. in Hidalgo and wanted to be in the military since he was 8 years old. It was his intent to be an Airborne Ranger, but a bad knee knocked him out of contention. So he signed up with the Illinois Army National Guard Bravo Company 2/130 Infantry in 2006. He deployed to Afghanistan in June of 2008.

While the commitment to serve remains intact for Mitch, the memories of the accident have culminated into what is now a fairly common illness for returning enlisted men and women – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Its name pretty much defines the illness, although it’s highly misunderstood. In fact, the acceptance of it and the stigma attached, has caused many returning service men and women to suffer in silence or destroy their families as they try to cope.

There are extreme cases of PTSD. Time Magazine featured one such soldier’s tragic ending in its March 7 issue. Not only did a Wisconsin National Guardsman kill himself, but also his wife, daughters and all the family pets. PTSD was blamed.

Mitch’s case isn’t considered as severe as this guardsman’s, but he explains in fairly great detail what goes on in his mind and body.

Mood swings, depression, nightmares and flashbacks are all a part of Mitch’s weeks. He says he doesn’t like crowds and Middle Easterners make him nervous. He explains how that mindset develops.

“They train you one way and then they want you to shut it off. You can tone it down, but you can’t shut it off,” he says. In other words, he is trained to defend himself and those around him.

“It’s you or them. Your mind is focused on one thing: coming home.”

Even without the accident occurring, the transition from being in combat to returning stateside requires great mental adjustment.

“I went from adrenalin rush – roll, roll, roll – then nothing,” Mitch says, referring to himself as an “adrenalin junky.” He said it was common to sleep two hours and then just keep going. Now, nothing gives him that same kind of rush and he struggles to find contentment every day.

Justin Anweiler, a lieutenant and program director for five years for the Illinois National Guard Yellow Ribbon Program says Mitch and many other returning soldiers suffer similar symptoms.

“We cannot expect to send men and women into a combat zone and expect them not to be changed.”

The extent of Mitch’s injuries was unknown immediately following the accident. He was flown to a hospital just 30 minutes away and was diagnosed with a compression fracture of the spine. He was then transported to Germany and on to Walter Reed in Washington for 16 days, wearing a back brace and suffering from hearing and memory loss. Lindsey was with him at Walter Reed, but recounts a number of soldiers whose wives served them divorce papers when learning their husbands had lost limbs. The spouses just couldn’t handle it.

While Mitch’s wounds weren’t as visible, when he returned home symptoms began to show up. He would get really angry easily, had sleep deprivation and couldn’t handle some everyday occurrences. He still can’t at times.

“It will never leave you. Your body can never forget what happened. I hate the Fourth of July, the fireworks. And I still can’t watch war movies,” he says.

At first, Mitch sought help through ordinary means with doctors.

“At one time I had eight or nine different pills and I had no idea what it was for, he says. That treatment was failing.

Then Mitch reached out and found Tim Kohlbecker, coordinator of the PTSD Clinic at VA Illiana Healthcare Systems in Danville. It was at this point Mitch began recovery.

Kohlbecker counseled Mitch from February 2009 through July of 2010. He says Mitch was in a typical phase when he came to see him. He classifies him as being open, honest and divulging everything that happened. That allowed Kohlbecker to start what is known as “prolonged exposure therapy,” an evidence-based therapy that helps in “facing what you’ve avoided.”

In this therapy a counselor establishes a 10-week homework program to help the soldier go to physical places that trouble them.

In counseling sessions, the soldier ranks the traumas he or she has been through in the present tense, Kohlbecker says.

“The idea is not to relive it, but to reconnect with it, record it and send it home with them. They listen and over time it desensitizes them.”

The program in total has propelled Mitch forward. He praises the Danville facility and Kohlbecker as being “awesome.”

“I would show up without an appointment and they would help,” he recalls.

“He did really tremendous work when we were doing therapy,” Kohlbecker says. Mitch developed coping skills and anger-management strategies.

His assessment of Mitch stands firm.

“He may have some bad days now and then, but he knows how to cope with them,” Kohlbecker says.

Mitch’s wife agrees, calling herself a “certified wife.” She went with her husband to appointments with Kohlbecker and has seen vast improvements.

“To me, he’s changed for the better. He’s not that wild, crazy guy. It’s OK. I love him as he is now.”

And she will support him in his future endeavors she says, even when it means redeployment.

“I’m not like ‘woo hoo’ but I will support him whatever he decides to do,” she says.

“I meet retention standards,” Mitch says. “I could deploy again, as soon as I get trained.”

Because he loves Lindsey and his children, he is willing and wants to serve a second tour.

“I’m still doing it for their future. I would lay my life on the line for it.”

Helping our soldiers find relief
Know the signs, know the steps

“It really is an incredible story of our country’s finest. I’m in awe of them on a regular basis,” says Lt. Justin Anweiler, former director of the Yellow Ribbon Program for the Illinois National Guard.

For five years, Anweiler has worked to help soldiers returning home after deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has helped meet their holistic needs, both readjustment and reintegration. The span of needs included the gamut – everything from education, financial assistance and mental health wellness.

In that time, Anweiler has become well acquainted with the wounds of this war: Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, commonly called PTSD. In contrast, the injury of the Vietnam Conflict was lower body injuries. The wounded soldiers of each require specific care.

Tim Kohlbecker, coordinator of the PTSD Clinic at VA Illiana Healthcare Systems in Danville, shares the number of incidents happening in the field of the current war and why they are high.

  • 20 to 60 percent of soldiers are being exposed to some kind of IED blast.
  • 14 to 20 percent in general are going to have PTSD – “the signature wound of this war.”
  • The numbers go up with multiple deployments, coupled with the stress of trying to hold a family together.
  • The percentages are higher because of improved medical care on the battlefield. In previous wars, many of the wounded soldiers wouldn’t have survived. More are coming home with serious injuries.

While a fear still exists that admitting mental illness will result in loss of military promotion or be seen as a weakness, Anweiler says the military has come a long way in changing that perception.

“It doesn’t have a lot of truth to it,” he says, noting that asking for help is now seen as a strength. He said the change can be attributed to a proactive leadership and that the proof is in the new programs initiated by the military.

Training now begins with incoming soldiers in what is called the Five Pillars to Soldier Fitness. The Army’s “fitness” program addresses emotional, spiritual, family, physical and social needs.

Mike Chrisman with the Public Affairs Office of the Illinois Army National Guard, also well informed on the numbers of IED blasts, says aid to soldiers near blasts “starts in country, right from where they are at.” When the soldier returns stateside, the assistance continues with consistent checks. According to Anweiler, active duty personnel are consulted almost daily, while National Guard and Reserve troops are seen once a month for several months.

Also, when the soldier returns, they are given a long list of places to consult if injuries or mental stresses plague them. But not all use the resources.

“Many want to just get on with life, but that’s not always the case,” says Kohlbecker. “We are not getting as many veterans in as we need to get here.”

Know what to look for

Does a veteran have PTSD? Most don’t, says Anweiler. Instead there are common readjustments the soldier and family must undergo. For instance, the soldier is used to a very structured day and may find there is too much freedom at home. Also, people move much more slowly, too slow for the soldier. For some soldiers, a sense of purpose is lost.

Commonly, these feelings will pass in three to six months, says Anweiler, who has a master’s degree in counseling and is seeking a master’s degree in divinity. For some it may take as long as a year. After that perhaps some intervention or counseling will help.

Signs of PTSD may include avoidance behavior, being quick to anger and sleep problems such as nightmares. The veteran may also exhibit what is known as hypervigilance, a learned response to consistent threats. Examples would include scanning crowds and watching roadways, looking for escape routes. The threats may be real or not.

Know how to approach a veteran

Kohlbecker, an expert in the field, reminds people that unusual behavior or moods must not be ignored.

“If it’s somebody you love, it has to be done,” he says, but he suggests positive approaches.

“Do your homework. Get a number or a name he or she can call. It has to be done in a loving, kind way,” Kohlbecker reminds.

Another means would be to get a fellow veteran or fellow soldier to approach your friend or loved one. He says a “brotherhood” so-to-speak, creates a trust and might just be the answer.

Immediate help

  • A crisis line exists for veterans or families in need of medical or mental consultation: 1-800-273-TALK.
  • The Springfield Vet Center is a counseling center for combat veterans for all eras, including Vietnam and WWII veterans. There are many of the centers across the U.S. Anweiler has moved from his role with the Yellow Ribbon Program to the Springfield Center.
    Also, as part of its services, the Department of Veterans Affairs has added a new mobile unit that will travel throughout the state to assist. It is the department’s latest effort to reach the underserved veteran populations of rural America. The primary mission is to help veterans readjust to civilian life by helping the veteran identify problems and then offering individual, family, and group counseling for a host of issues including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), military sexual trauma and bereavement.
    To reach the Springfield Vet Center call: 217-492-4955.
  • Use the online resource or call 1-800-342-9647 for 24-hour service. Master level consultants are available by telephone, online or face-to-face assistance. Eligibility includes active duty, guard and reserve families with translation assistance for documents and simultaneous interpretation for callers. Anweiler suggests this as a primary contact and a nationwide resource.

Note: This is not a complete list of organized assistance. Other military programs, state assistance and community programs exist to help veterans, soldiers and their families. Reach out to those programs or call one of the above numbers to learn what exists in your area.

© 2016 Illinois Country Living Magazine.
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