For returning veterans, forgetting is impossible
- Article by: COLLEEN KOTTKE
- Associated Press
- October 14, 2013 - 12:05 AM
GREEN BAY, Wis. — When Simon Bertholf, Matt Rose and Tony Phillips were sent overseas, they had no idea the events they experienced in the Middle East would haunt them a decade later.
While they appear normal to the casual observer, each has been forever changed by the death, atrocities and pain witnessed firsthand during their tours of duty, Gannett Wisconsin Media reported (http://gbpg.net/1hFXKUv).
"Just because we look fine doesn't mean there isn't anything wrong," said Navy veteran Simon Bertholf of Virginia Beach, Va. "I can be talking to someone for a short time and be absolutely sure they have no idea of what I'm struggling with. But that doesn't mean that when I'm alone or asleep or actively engaged in something that takes all of my focus, that those things don't come back."
Bertholf, 40, said symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) appeared soon after he returned from his third tour of duty in the Middle East. As a Special Forces soldier, Bertholf was often tasked with handling the fallout after roadside bombings. It would be years until he was formally diagnosed with PTSD.
"The whole time you're gone everything is moving at 900 mph; you don't have any time to think about anything but what you're doing. You tend to push everything off to the side because you have to," Bertholf said. "Then, when you get home, everything comes back in a hurry. Everything gets replayed, reviewed and watched again and again."
Sleep provided little respite from haunting memories.
"There isn't anything that turns off the picture show. You can't erase the memories; it's almost impossible to block them out," Bertholf said. "I still wake up about six times a night and can't stand to be touched when I'm sleeping. Oftentimes I would wake up to find myself sleeping in a closet."
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur after experiencing or witnessing of a life-threatening event such as military combat. PTSD is estimated to occur in 11 to 20 percent of Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Bertholf's sister, Vicky Melius of Fond du Lac, said her brother isn't the man he used to be before embarking on three tours of duty overseas.
"He can go from zero to an absolute rage in a split second and you have no idea what triggered it," said Melius, who is also a Navy veteran. "It's really hard on the family because you find yourself having to be so careful around him."
Even after years of talk therapy, Bertholf said he still struggles with what he calls a "bottomless well of anger." He is hoping that a new therapy will help to reprogram how he reacts to certain stimuli that triggers his angry outbursts.
"For the first five years after returning home I was completely unemotional; the only emotion I had was anger," Bertholf said. "After awhile you just deal with the fact that's who you're going to be, that grouchy dude that nobody wants to talk to."
Melius, a director for Salute the Troops in Fond du Lac — a volunteer organization dedicated to supporting veterans — said many veterans have trouble readjusting to life when they return from war.
"That's why so many of them turn to drugs or alcohol. We know now that mental health issues like anxiety and PTSD are something that have to be treated but services aren't always so readily available," Melius said.
Marine Corps veteran Matt Rose turned to alcohol after he returned home from his second tour in Iraq to find his marriage broken.
"I had no job prospects and no home, so I ended up going from one relative's house to another," said Rose, who still struggles with anxiety. "People tip-toed around me because they didn't know how to treat me. They remembered me as this funny guy who was always cracking jokes. I came back and the laughter wasn't there anymore."
Rose said his mom's "tough love, no nonsense" approach jarred him into getting help.
"She basically told me to get my (expletive) together. At the time I didn't know who I could trust anymore and she showed me that unconditional love when I needed it most," said Rose. "I went back to school and ended up getting a degree in Criminal Justice."
Rose, 31, is the head of security at Marian University and leads a student group that helps returning veterans reintegrate into college life.
Many veterans struggling with mental health issues are reluctant to share their battle with loved ones.
"This is especially true of men. They're taught from boyhood on not to share their feelings or talk about things like that," Melius said. "Many of them played war games as a child and feel that they're supposed to be armored against this, but in reality they're not."
The nightmares started soon after Tony Phillips returned from fighting in Afghanistan. Still trying to cope with the loss of a close friend who was killed soon after Phillips left for home, the Fond du Lac man found himself waking up in a cold sweat, screaming.
"My family tried to understand, but I wasn't ready for that support. I wanted to deal with it on my own," Phillips said. "I think most soldiers do that because they don't want that stigma."
Phillips took up running — trying to put miles between him and the painful memories.
"It was like an anti-depressant for me. Running helped me think without becoming extremely emotional about it, and because I was burning so much energy I was able to sleep more peacefully at night," Phillips said. "But not everyone can find an escape like that."
Phillips, 29, says his involvement in Salute the Troops has been therapeutic.
"The friend I lost was like a brother to me," Phillips said. "That's what I'm trying to do with this organization, looking out for my brothers and sisters in arms to make sure they're taken care of when they come home."
© 2013 Star Tribune