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Some War Veterans Face Mental Health Hurdles
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Thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans coming back with long-lasting injuries are facing hurdles here at home. More vets are diagnosed with traumatic brain injury or TBI and that is forcing Central Ohio health care professionals to learn how to help.
“I sat down in the pen and she picked me. She climbed up on my lap and crawled up and tucked her head into my shoulder.”
During her two years in Iraq and Afghanistan, Retired Sergeant Lynda Harvey relied on her fellow army soldiers. Now back in Pataskala she relies on a 3 year old small dog. Traumatic Brain injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder sometimes cause Harvey to fall into a brief trance. So Harvey carries Tipper, a beige Pomeranian Chihuahua mix in a pack on her chest.
“She’ll stand up in the bag and she’ll pat my face with her paws or lick me maybe bite me gently, then she’ll start barking at me.” Harvey said.
Harvey can’t forget the deaths and destruction she saw in the wars.
“The Humvees were coming back with people with their arms in slings with body parts missing,” remembered Harvey.
Harvey received a medical discharge and has been on disability since 2007. She suffers migranes because of her PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury ,or TBI. She also has a torn spinal cord. She doesn’t sleep well at night and has trouble keeping up with daily life. She often forgets to pay her bills on time. Her home is in foreclosure for the second time.
“Needless to say having all of this mess hanging loose out there is not helped by the stress isn’t helping the TBI and the TBI isn’t helping me get everything tied up,” said Harvey.
Harvey called the Brain Injury Association of Ohio for help. Executive Director, Suzanne Minnich spoke with her.
“She said at one point, you understand. And that’s so common because I think people that live with brain injury so often feel like people don’t understand what they’re dealing with and they’re often accused of being lazy,” said Minnich.
The Brain Injury Association advocates for various groups working with veterans. Currently the BIA has 8 regional offices, but plans are to expand that to 15 around Ohio.
“Even if you know the person had a brain injury in the service, most I mean, what I’m told from the service member community is that everyone has adjustment problems, not problems, issues,” said Minnich. BIA is one of the state agencies linked into Ohio Cares set up by the Ohio National Guard in 2005. Jeremy Kaufman, director of psychological health for the Guard says the idea is to make it easy for veterans to access care whether it’s within the military system or not. Kaufman says many vets experiencing trouble have a mild form of TBI, although some have long-lasting injuries.
“Most of these folks go through way more traumatic events in just one deployment versus what we have in our entire lifetime,”Kaufman said.
Kaufman took part in a recent conference at Ohio State on Responding to the Needs of Ohio Veterans. One of the workshops focused on TBI. Kaufman explained abusing caffeine can slow down recovery.
“For folks that have traumatic brain injury well the brain needs to heal and the fuel of the brain is glucose. It actually inhibits glucose utilization, caffeine does, so it’s kind of even more problems,” said Kaufman.
Professor in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at OSU John Corrigan says more and more health care professionals and social workers are learning how to help TBI veterans.
“We don’t have VA facilities all over the state, we only have the one military facility so if you’re in Zanesville, Ohio where are you going to get help for problems of drinking too much, well you’re going to get help in Zanesville.” Corrigan says blast from IED’s or improvised explosive devices used in Iraq and Afghanistan have been especially harmful.
“That’s not to say that blast hasn’t been with us in every war. Every war has seen blast in different forms. But the IED seems to be a particular unique form because of its proximity to the individual,” explained Corrigan.
After the start of the Iraq war, the number of soldiers diagnosed within the military with TBI jumped from about 11 thousand per year to 28 thousand per year.
Army Infantryman Scott Zivoder who served 5 tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan saw many IEDs explode. He displays a tough soldier image, but after talking with him he admitted he had reached out for counseling while overseas.
“It started down while I was still in the service. I started talking to a counselor and I was really nervous about that, to be honest with you because I was just terrified that command was going to find out and they were going to say you’re not fit to be in a leadership position anymore,” Zivoder said. Zivoder still sees a counselor about once a month at the Columbus V.A. clinic. He is out of the service and studying to be a teacher. Those who work with war veterans stress that the majority of soldiers do not experience TBI or PTSD. But of those who do the risk is greater of also suffering with substance abuse, memory problems and depression.