ILLINOIS — As we get ready to honor service members across the country on Veterans Day, it’s important to remember what our veterans at home are going through.
Thousands suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. Many times that suffering leads to suicide. But out of tragedy, comes some hope.
There’s an army of people trying to help veterans battling PTSD. It is treatable. They want the public to know PTSD is everywhere. If enough people come together, they think more veterans will get the help they need.
Trying to explain something you can’t see with the naked eye seems almost impossible. Dr. Stephanie Erickson sees it everyday at the Danville VA’s PTSD Clinic.
“People with PTSD aren’t broken and damaged. If, God forbid, something traumatic happened to you or I, we would have symptoms of PTSD right afterwards, but for most people, those symptoms go away within a few months, kind of all by themselves. But for some people, they get stuck in that natural recovery process and so what we aim to do is kind of unstick you,” she says.
“Unsticking” can happen a couple different ways.
“Medications can be used, but that doesn’t really get at the underlying issue, which is the trauma, so that’s why psychotherapy is the first course of action,” says Erickson.
The VA uses several therapies to help people work through trauma. Beyond the VA, counselors in private practice are also addressing the problem.
“PTSD is just as relevant, just as important and, quite frankly unfortunately, sometimes just as fatal as a physical disease,” says Daniel Giers.
Giers works at Compass Counseling and Consulting. He and fellow counselor, Daniel Applegate, are opening a PTSD treatment center in Champaign. They see how treatment works and know it can work.
“Some of the big words out there right now, EMDR, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. Ways of almost restructuring, you know reprocessing the event that happened to give yourself this ability to accept what went on,” says Giers.
Giers and Applegate also know not everyone is getting the help they need.
“By the time it’s taking us to do this interview, one or two veterans will kill themselves. It’s unacceptable and it can be avoided at so many levels,” says Applegate.
Sometimes a veteran is avoiding what happened; sometimes a veteran is taught to hold his or her emotions in because opening up is a sign of weakness.
“There are so many cracks that veterans fall through. The statistics on homeless veterans, on veteran suicide, it is enough to make you sick and it is enough to paralyze you. However, we’ve been paralyzed as a nation when it comes to our veterans far too long,” says Applegate.
These professionals aren’t alone. Veterans are also trying to help veterans. Jason Wills served two tours overseas. He came back with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury. He’s trying to break down the walls he knows veterans can put up in the face of trauma.
“I go to groups and tell my story to help other veterans. It’s therapy to me. Honestly, it helps me personally with what I’ve been through. Hopefully it helps one or two. I’d be happy if it helps just one as long as it helps somebody,” says Wills.
Helping somebody, even just one person, is what all these people are trying to do. They say they can’t do it alone, though.
“We need to give it its proper due. We need to let people know that it is okay to be hurt and it is okay to be better,” says Giers.
“At the very least, we just want people talking about it because talking about it and education, that’s the silver bullet when it comes to addressing this stuff. We have to get informed,” says Applegate.
The people who are informed are sharing their stories in an effort to save at least one life.
Watching her son leave for basic training right after high school, Jenny Lou Merrell was a proud mom.
“He joined the Marines without telling me but that’s just what he felt like he needed to do. We’re a family of veterans,” she says.
Her son, Aaron, served two tours in Afghanistan. He was later diagnosed with PTSD.
“He was my mama’s boy, very sensitive. Always very thoughtful. Handmade me things all the time. When my son came back, he was a completely different man,” says Merrell.
Merrell watched her son battle his demons. She took him to counselor after counselor; anything she could do to help.
“He was very jumpy, nervous, distraught in a lot of ways. He talked about it. He shared everything with me, not while he was gone, but when he got back he told me his stories. They bothered him a lot and they were pretty horrific,” she says.
Merrell took his own life in July of last year.
“For Aaron, when he came back, his biggest problem was everybody’s walking around worried about all these little things and they have no idea what’s going on over there. They have no idea what these young men and women are going through,” she says.
Merrell’s story mirrors Tyler Wilson’s. Wilson grew up not too far away. He joined the Marine Corps a few years after high school.
“It was right up his alley. He was raised, you know, hunting and shooting so he loved all that stuff. He lived life large,” says his mom, Julia.
Wilson went to Afghanistan three times. Living large changed him.
“Tyler was actually diagnosed while he was still in Afghanistan and was being treated while he was on the battlefield,” says Wilson.
Counselors treated Wilson for PTSD when he got home, too but that eventually stopped.
“If you look at any picture of Tyler, he was always smiling and Tyler was always the one reaching out to someone else. Going back over his Facebook, you can see over and over again, ‘I gave a Vietnam veteran a ride today and all the money I had in my pocket.’ Or at the grocery store, a World War Two veteran, he paid for all of his groceries, so he was always the one trying to help someone else. He was not the one to ask for help, I wish he would have,” she says.
Wilson took his own life in June of this year.
“We know that we’ll see him again. It’s hard that he’s not here, but that’s just the faith that we have that we’ll see him again,” says his mother.
The pain these mother share is unimaginable but there is someone who understands the pain their sons shared: the man who wrote their stories on his arm.
Zach Hagley knew Merrell and Wilson well. He recently tattooed their names on his arm. He can remember where he was when he heard about their deaths.
“Your heart stops and your gut drops,” he says.
Hagley’s battle with PTSD started while he was still serving in the Marine Corps.
“It finally got bad enough to, one day I actually took a razor blade to my wrists and slit my wrists right there in my apartment and luckily that woke me up before I did too much damage. I just wanted to give up. I was tired of having nightmares,” he says.
Hagley is now numb to his night terrors, but that doesn’t make it easier.
“The thought of suicide hits me every other day at least,” he says. “A loud bang will happen and my mind will kind of slip and I think I’m back there patching up a buddy’s leg that just got blown off and I’m in the middle of Walmart or something,” he says.
Seeking help hasn’t been easy. He was taught to be tough. It’s taken him awhile to learn how to open up.
“The thoughts, they’re just always there. I don’t care what anyone says; there’s no cure for PTSD and you’re always going to have it. It’s just whether or not you can learn to adapt to it and figure out what, okay you get a trigger what can you do to handle it and that’s something that I’m still working at, you know, years later,” says Hagley.
Hagley knows Merrell and Wilson tried to adapt, but he knows, better than most, why that can seem impossible.
“You know, sometimes you get a little bit of guilt like you don’t ask enough, like randomly, ‘Hey, ya doing okay?’ You don’t think about it until it’s unfortunately too late and it kills us,” he says.
The “what-ifs” have killed a piece of Hagley and others left behind. That’s why the Merrell and Wilson families are sharing their stories. That’s why Hagley carries these names as a permanent reminder: that those who served should never feel like their stories are over.
“For any veterans that are out there listening right now, it’s not the end. You’re going to have your ups-and-downs. Look at me. I ain’t the perfect story, but I’m still going and there’s ways out there to get around it,” says Hagley.
If you or someone you know is dealing with PTSD, there are places you can go for help:
Veterans Crisis Line: For more information click here or call (800) 273 – 8255.
Danville VA’s PTSD Clinic: For more information, click here.
Jenny Lou Merrell is raising money to help veterans receive gym memberships. She says her son was feeling his best when he worked out. Workout for Veterans accepts donations.
Workout for Veterans: For more information, click here.
Heroes on the Water helps veterans get through PTSD by fishing and kayaking. There is a chapter in Central Illinois. For more information on the national chapter, click here.
Applegate and Giers currently work for Compass Counseling and Consulting. They plan to open up True North PTSD Center in January. The center will treat anyone with PTSD, not just veterans. For more information, click here.
Darkhorse Lodge is a free retreat for combat veterans located in Tennessee. The couple who started the lodge lost their son in Afghanistan. For more information, click here.