War disconnected Tyler Skluzacek and his veteran father until technology united them again.
A year of combat in Iraq rumbled on long after Patrick Skluzacek returned home in 2007. Night terrors robbed him of sleep, a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that affects more than 3.6 million veterans.
His battle with night terrors hit a dead end until Tyler created an app to help veterans like his father sleep.
At a 36-hour hackathon — a contest in which computer programmers race to come up with the best new software — held in Washington, D.C., on the last weekend of September, the Macalester College senior’s team won with an app called MyBivy, short for “bivouac,” or a soldier’s temporary sleeping camp.
The app relies on a smartwatch to monitor the sleeper’s movement and heartbeat and then produce reports to send to Veterans Affairs medical personnel for analysis. Then, patterns of vibrations and sound would arouse veterans from deep sleep, eliminating night terrors, which affect more than just veterans (estimates put the figure at about 7.8 percent of the U.S. population).
The initial $1,500 prize attracted international media coverage over the past month and then multiplied to more than $25,000 through Kickstarter. The promise of a snooze-inducing app, which has yet to be clinically tested, has piqued interest among professionals in tech (including Google), science and the military — as well as plenty of ordinary people who lie awake at night.
From farm field to battlefield
College wasn’t foreseeable for Patrick, 43, who was the same age as his 21-year-old son when he first became a father. He grew up on a farm in Lonsdale, Minn., milking cows and baling hay. His father, John, had served in the military, and Patrick was poised to enlist in the Army in a town that lauded its war heroes.
“I never had the opportunity to go to college,” Patrick said. “All of a sudden, my senior year came up, and I didn’t have a real plan in life.”
Tyler was born at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and spent his earliest years in Germany before the family resettled in Minnesota.
Then came 9/11. Patrick, who was in the Army Reserve, was deployed overseas. He left in 2006, the year the iPhone debuted.
He returned in glory to their patriotic community, but the celebrations tapered off once the PTSD surfaced. Medicine and booze didn’t help him cope.
Meanwhile, Tyler and his brother, Zachary, raked the leaves, plowed the snow and wondered what was wrong with their father.
When Tyler reached 10th grade, he read Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” a novel that captures a veteran’s episodic adjustment to civilian life. He also asked his mother, Allison, who shouldered much of the parental duties, to explain his father’s disorder. (His parents are no longer together.)
“He just hit absolute rock bottom,” Tyler said of his dad. “He was just depressed and angry and every emotion you can think of that has nothing to do with happy.”
For Patrick, the war wasn’t over.
“Every now and then, people would ask me about how it was over there,” he said of his time as a convoy commander in Iraq. “It gets boring. It’s much more exciting over there.”
The band of brothers
Lonsdale, about an hour south of the Twin Cities, has a population of fewer than 4,000 and an American Legion hall that’s the only venue for everyone’s weddings. July 4th means a parade and fireworks. Flags hang from homes, and Main Street houses a newly built veterans memorial. Plaques on the memorial cost $300 each and have sold out since its dedication this summer. To engrave more names, the city will soon add a wall reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Patrick works at an auto shop and retired from the military in 2012. He recently moved into an apartment with one parking spot, and a business owner next door — also a veteran — offered his as a backup.
“I was just offered that. I didn’t have to ask,” he said. “The veterans have a bond that no other group in the world has.”
Patrick couldn’t relate to his son’s plans to attend college and major in economics, studies that have since expanded to include computer science, applied math and statistics.
“What is economics? I’m a mechanic,” he remembers thinking. “Is this someone who would figure out how much a Ford Focus costs?”
“I’m car-smart,” he added. “I can tell you all about your car. But other things in life — I never had that motivation.”
They still struggle to find common ground.
“You can have a football game on, and the Vikings just scored a touchdown, and he’s in the middle of some code and won’t even look up,” Patrick said.
The aftermath of war is one subject that’s familiar, but in different ways. Tyler watched the TV coverage of his father’s to-be nightmares, shutting it off eventually.
“They show the shooting and the constant this-and-that — and you think it’s just chaos there all the time,” Patrick said. “It was a little nerve-racking to tell my sons that I may not come back from this.”
Wearable tech and online fundraising are giving Patrick and a test group of other veterans a new weapon in their fight against PTSD. And it’s bringing Patrick and Tyler closer together.
“When I was going through this, and he didn’t have an answer, we weren’t very tight,” Patrick said of Tyler. “He didn’t want to come down and see me because they didn’t know what Dad would be like that day. Would Dad be grumpy? Or would he be OK that day? That’s how life is with me.”
It’s all in the wrists, for now, Tyler might say.
“I’m not a vet. I don’t know what he’s been through,” Tyler said. “Talking to a bajillion — and that’s close to an accurate number — veterans, I understand him better.”