Returning from War with Invisible Scars Post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, is becoming a more common diagnosis for veterans, but much is unknown about how to best treat the invisible scars. Tyrone Dancy, a Vietnam combat veteran, and Gulf War veteran Steve Robinson share their insight.
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Returning from War with Invisible Scars

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Returning from War with Invisible Scars

Returning from War with Invisible Scars

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This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

All month long, we've been tracking African-Americans in the military. Today, we'll hear from people who've made sacrifices that most other folks cannot see.

When people come back from war missing arms and legs, we immediately see the trauma, but what about injuries that affect the mind and spirit? In the past, doctors said soldiers had shell shock. Today, it's called post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Later, I'll talk with a Gulf War veteran who helps other vets find some emotional peace after war.

But first, we've got Tyrone Dancy. Dancy earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for valor in Vietnam, but those honors have done little to ease many of his wounds inside.

Tyrone, welcome.

Mr. TYRONE DANCY (Vietnam War Veteran): Thank you. I'm very proud to be here.

CHIDEYA: Well, we're very proud to have you on. Tell us a little bit about your time in Vietnam. Why did you go fight and what happened in terms of injuries?

Mr. DANCY: Oh, why I went to fight because I was compelled to go. I was drafted. During that period of January 1969, I drafted into the U.S. Army. And on June - I believe it was June 10th, I landed in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. And my stay in Vietnam was very short. I landed in June and was wounded in July - in fact, the first week of July, July 3rd. So I did not have much acquaintance with Vietnam at all. But just enough to fight, a short fight, and then the medical evacuated from there to the outskirts of Saigon.

CHIDEYA: When you were wounded, how much did you know - where was your mind when you first got hit?

Mr. DANCY: I'm walking through the jungle. In fact, it's interesting to note the beautiful terrain, but yet it was horrible conditions. There were the booby traps, the bees(ph), the snakes, the insects. It was not the environment I wanted to be in. But yet when I looked around and I see the other young men there, I said, why it was that much any different; I was not. And it was a very intense environment because death was imminent at any moment.

I was obsessed with the booby traps, naturally, putting my foot on a landmine because there were stories bodies being blown in half, losing limbs and I didn't want that to happen. So my mind was preoccupied with the environment and the desire to get out of there. It was almost like catch-22. It's like I didn't wanted to desert the group I was with and since I have some promise to be with this combat unit. But then, again, I didn't want to be there. So it was an internal - it was constant turmoil, being there and not wanting to be there.

CHIDEYA: When you were finally wounded, and so badly that you ended up coming home, where was your mind then? When you got back to the United States, did you feel safe? Did you feel whole? Did you feel that you were the same person who left the United States?

Mr. DANCY: No. Not al all. In fact, I really thought I was losing my mind because I had the idea that the - for some reason, the Vietnamese wanted to finish me off and that I always felt like a riffle was pointed at my head. When I was hit, I was hit with the 15 pieces of scrap metal, which left 15 wounds to the body. I was traumatized. I had a concussion. I had hearing loss, both ears. And there was this constant dread and the recurring pictures, visual images of the events, the wounded, my buddies killed, of the guy walking (unintelligible) who was shot in the left eye and a golf ball the size of a hole in his head in the rear. It was these images - the rainfall and the helicopter blades and the sound of gunfire was consistent, always, constantly in my mind, at least 11 months after returning home.

CHIDEYA: What happened to your marriage?

Mr. DANCY: Because of - I would say the emotional unsteadiness or instability, the flares of rage, the constant uneasiness at night getting up, it unwind, because my wife didn't know how to deal with it. And I didn't - I don't know, I don't blame her to this day. We're friends. But at that time, the - it didn't last under those circumstances that I was going through. And I didn't know about seeking assistance. It would not readily in - it wasn't in constant invitation as it is so rarely available now in various vets and it's - throughout the United States.

CHIDEYA: You wrote a book called "Adverse Conditions," who did you write it for? What were you trying to say? Who were you trying to reach?

Mr. DANCY: The book "Serving Under Adverse Conditions: Wars and the Aftermath." It was a story that was deeply embedded in my heart ever since I got wounded. And on July 3rd, 1969, as I lay recovering, immediately after being medevacked, operated on. lying in Saigon Hospital, I said the American people should know about this.

At this time, I really didn't think the American people knew the horrors, the term(ph), the torment and wasting(ph) young men was going through at that time. But it took 30 years for this book to develop. And ironically, it developed at the time that I put in a claim to the Veterans Administration for post-traumatic stress. And they've said they did not have any record of me to justify my post-traumatic stress, which was absolutely outrageous.

After collecting disability for the 15 wounds I received in Vietnam, they tell me that I didn't have a record to justify post-traumatic stress. Therefore, they wanted to hear a narrative from me. And I resubmitted my DD Form 214 - by the way, DD Form 214 is the proof of your service in the military - and it pretty clearly indicates the units you were in, the time you served, what happened, that sort of thing. And I resubmitted that.

But when the narrative that they wanted again - oh, the - all kind of information, all kind of statements, all kind of memory came about, and that's where the book came about, through that. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. It was quite an experience.

CHIDEYA: Do you feel in any way that you're a better person now? I don't mean that war is great and you've become a better person, but a better person for sharing what you've learned.

Mr. DANCY: Yes, I do. And, in fact, I do feel proud because it really took guts to write the book and to disclose what I did in the book about the inconsistency of the way that African-Americans who contributed. And, by the way, "Serving Under Adverse Conditions" is written from my African-American perspective.

When I went about looking on the shelves in the bookstores, they did not have enough books - very few - and it wasn't written in the manner that I write about our service, about our - recognition that's due, about the tremendous hurdles and difficulties that we went through to serve in America's wars and return in pretty much a subject to the pretty much the same as when we went into the war. And that's been the same since the Civil War right up to Iraq.

CHIDEYA: Well, Tyrone, I want to thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

Mr. DANCY: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Tyrone Dancy received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his service in the Vietnam War. He also wrote the book "Serving Under Adverse Conditions: War and the Aftermath."

And now, we've got Steve Robinson, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War. He is a program developer for the nonprofit ONE Freedom. ONE Freedom reaches out to veterans and families with PTSD and gives them education and training.

Thanks for coming on.

Mr. STEVE ROBINSON (Gulf War Veteran; Program Developer, ONE Freedom): It's my pleasure.

CHIDEYA: So you heard about Tyrone and how he felt there was not a support network for what he needed. Tell us about your time in the Persian Gulf. Did you feel like you got what you needed for going through what you went through?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, my story begins with my Vietnam veteran father. He served three tours himself. And growing up in the military family, I always wondered why dad was the way he was. All of my brothers joined the military. So when my time to go to the Gulf War came, I was very aware that my father's war time experiences had affected him, and I wanted to make sure that I didn't become that.

You know, the first Gulf War was a - basically, 100-hour war with long-range tank battles, nothing resembling the war that's being fought today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although, I did see very ugly things, war often brings out the worst in humanity. It's - it can be the worst, you know, that you could imagine seeing and also, the most astounding and amazing things can be seen there. But it's a mix of both.

I came back from the first Gulf War, I was a career soldier. I did 20 years in the military. There were certain aspects of my service in the Gulf War that - I won't say they haunted me, but they were daily visual images of, you know, things that we had seen in some of the missions that we had done.

After having served my 20 years, I just came to the conclusion that we needed to train people to come back from war the same way that we train them to go to war. And I was fortunate enough to get involved in several nonprofits that revealed the problems the veterans were having.

And now, I work for a nonprofit, ONE Freedom, which is actually delivering solutions to soldiers, service members, veterans and their families either before they go to war, or we try to catch them when they come back home to reframe this, you know, defective soldier model that most people seem to think of when they think of a soldier coming back from war.

CHIDEYA: Defective soldier model, that's a term I haven't heard before. Explain to me what you mean by that. And also, just on a very basic level, what do you - if someone walks in and they seem psychologically damaged because of some of the things that they've seen or done, what do you do to reach out to them?

Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah, well, the defective solider model, the idea behind that is that it's not just a military issue with people that go to war; it's also a national issue. Mental health is very misunderstood in our culture. And for people that serve in the war, the injury to the brain or the injury to the -the physical injury to the body, there's no difference.

The injury to the mind is no different than a bullet, but yet, it's viewed as a disorder not as an injury. It's viewed as a defective - maybe you didn't have enough moral courage or maybe you didn't have enough intestinal fortitude. So we're trying to shift away from pathologizing, you know, post-deployment activities that soldiers have when they come back, and really start talking about them as a natural adaptation to the intent stress they've been under.

And when we start doing that for soldiers and sailors and airmens and Marines, it will open the door for them to seek further services and not have so much stigma put in their face about trying to get help. Nobody criticizes them when their weapon malfunctions. They've been taught how to correct that malfunction. We've invested a lot of time in teaching them how to do it. Why don't we start investing and teaching them how to readjust and reset and refocus when they come back for more and specifically look at the areas of the brain and the body that are affected in war and mitigate those impacts?

So what we do when people come back, if we have the opportunity to meet them between 30, 60 or 90 days, is we hold seminars, two-hour, one day, three-day or week-intensive programs where we discuss the impacts of war on the brain and the body to help them understand why they feel the way they feel.

If Tyrone, for example, had been told when he came back from Vietnam, that the feelings that he was having were natural and normal, and here are some things that you can empower yourself with to get yourself on the road to recovery, it may not have taken him 30 years or longer to get the kinds of services that he needed.

That's what we're trying to do now is to educate both the active duty force and the reserve force and then the soldiers and sailor, airmens and Marines that become veterans. We want to get to them before they go, and we want to talk to them when they come back. And we want to work with the family because they also experience a very real stress that is related to their loved ones' service in the military.

CHIDEYA: We've spoken to people who are both in the military, who are retired, who are worried about today's Army and whether or not it can survive some of the traumatic brain injuries, some of the PTSD injuries. How important is it for the Armed Services to take these injuries seriously, the ones that are emotional and psychological as well as physical?

Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, I think it's a matter of national security. And it's also a matter of being able to meet the up-tempo on the battlefield. I've had the fortune to meet with leaders in the Army, and they do take it seriously. The Army's a big institution and it - unfortunately, the up-tempo of the war and the numbers of people that are needing help are overwhelming the system, and they're doing what they can do to beef up the system. There's been Congressional appropriations for money, but it's critical.

You know, if you think about the time we invest in, let's say, repairing an aircraft that comes back and lands on the carrier, how much effort we put into maintaining our equipment, the people that operate all of those pieces of machinery are humans, and their brains and their bodies need to be considered in the maintenance schedule for resetting and refitting and getting them ready to either go back to the war or come home to their grateful society.

CHIDEYA: Very briefly, what advice would you have for someone who's just returning who needs help? Where should they go?

Mr. ROBINSON: The first advice that I give people is to turn to the National Center for PTSD. They have two guides there, a family guide for the family member and a service member's guide for the service member and a clinician's guide. Those guides have the most up-to-date science on the red flags, understanding the needs of returning veterans, and what types of options are available to them. That would be the first place I would send them to.

The second place is phone numbers that are available to service members - Army OneSource or Military OneSource. And there are VA phone numbers for suicide prevention and DOD numbers for suicide prevention. But the first thing is educating yourself. And an empowered service member who understands what happened to him in the war is more informed and better resourced to make choices about where they will go next.

CHIDEYA: Steve, thank you so much for your time.

Mr. ROBINSON: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Steve Robinson helps veterans with PTSD. He is a program developer and consultant for the nonprofit ONE Freedom, and joined us from our NPR NEW Studies in Washington, D.C.

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