PTSD: Veterans gather to battle it
Vet Centers are community-based counseling centers that provide a wide range of social and psychological services, including professional readjustment counseling to eligible Veterans, active duty service members, including National Guard and Reserve components, and their families.
Readjustment counseling is offered to make a successful transition from military to civilian life, or after a traumatic event experienced in the military.
Vet Center counselors and outreach staff, many of whom are veterans themselves, are experienced and prepared to discuss the tragedies of war, loss, grief and transition after trauma.
It is the only part of the VA that does grief bereavement counseling.
"We don't do any medication. We just do individual and group, and family therapy," indicated Bend Vet Center Director Amanda Juza-Hamrick, LCSW.
There are five Vet Centers in the state of Oregon. The Bend Center is the newest, established in 2010.
Prineville is a community access point. Juza-Hamrick and one other counselor, Melinda Johnson, come to Prineville. What also makes them unique, is that most of the staff involved are either veterans or married to a veteran.
Juza-Hamrick did two tours in Iraq. She has a counselor who was an Air Force veteran and another counselor who was an Army pilot in Kosovo in Afghanistan. Another has a husband who has 20-plus years in active duty. Their office manager is a Desert Storm veteran. The Prineville support group has only been meeting since January.
"This is a very new group," she added.
The term post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) didn't become a diagnosis until 1983.
"There was other terminology—'shell shock' and some others, but it wasn't until 1983," she pointed out. "So with a lot of the Vietnam veterans when they came back home, there wasn't even the right terminology for what they were experiencing."
She added that there was a lot of stigma and the way society previously handled PTSD, and most veterans just caved in and kept to themselves.
"That is where we partner with people in the community," said Juza-Hamrick. "In Prineville, it is with the Veteran's Service office. We see people individually here every week, and we also have group here every week. We also do the same thing in Madras and LaPine. We offer all those services in all those locations.
"We never really have an agenda. We just kind of check in, and whatever happened that week, we just talk about it," said Juza-Hamrick.
In doing this story, we interviewed several people undergoing the counseling, and they've allowed us to use their first names.
Mark, a regular participant in the group, said that this small circle of veterans is helping him as the members of his support group begin to work through and remember some of their history.
"We lost our innocence back between the ages of 18 and 22," said Mark. "We have spent a whole bunch of time pretending. We are getting to an age now that we have kept all these secrets for so long, each time one of us dies, a little bit of history — a lot of it never gets recorded.
"We're starting to remember some of our history, and figure out why we've had such a heavy go in life, and what it's all about," added Mark. "For me, it's a Godsend, because I felt I did the best I could with what I had—and then I saw there's a lot bigger world out here than I really realized, and a lot more people out here. That's what the group has done for me."
He added that it has helped him learn that they all have a sense of purpose.
"Ignorance of our history repeats itself, not our history," emphasized Mark. "If we realize where we came from, we don't have to do that over again. The more people that know about that, the better off we are."
Roger, also a participant, said that this group gives them a safe spot to share their innermost thoughts and be vulnerable.
"It's like my extended family, in a way," indicated Roger. "I feel comfortable here. I feel comfortable telling some of the stories here."
He said that having other veterans to talk to makes a difference, and he doesn't share many of the traumas and terrible things that have happened in combat outside of the group.
"Just realizing that I wasn't the lone ranger, and it happened to a lot of people," reflected Roger. "Everyone has got a story—your story is your story—and it's how we deal with our story. I never learned how to deal with it properly, and I have been trying to learn through individual and group counseling to understand myself and how to relate to other people."
He wants to live the rest of his life going forward instead of living in 1966-1967 in Vietnam.
"That's history, and I know you can't go back and do a day back, so I just try to get through today and do the best I can, and be good to people," said Roger. "I like it here."
Gary just signed up for the group counseling. The last time he had some counseling was in 1977.
"I knew what my problems were in 1970 when I got out of the war," said Gary. "I knew what they were, and I had to deal with them and go on with life and try to solve all my problems and issues myself."
He thinks that it helps to talk through traumatic things that have happened.
"Those things happened," he pointed out. "Traumatic things happened to us. Most people have no idea what happened."
Until recently, he didn't think much had been done for PTSD. Many veterans ran into trouble immediately after returning from service.
Juza-Hamrick added to this thought, as it had been brought up a lot in group.
"I think that a big part of PTSD that we talk about a lot in group that comes up often, is we think we are coping fine," she emphasized. "Sometimes when we are raising our family and busy at work and doing things—we are just kind of this bottle, and the cork is still in and there is turmoil in there but it's contained."
Juza-Hamrick added that frequently, after their kids are gone and they are retired, suddenly the things keeping it all in causes the cork to pop. This happens with Vietnam veterans.
"Symptoms that maybe were well-contained before, now they are having more intrusive memories, and having more hyper-vigilance," she added. "Their anxiety and depression is going up."
She indicated that having a place to go that is safe among like minds is very important.
"We all came back sad and mad," said Mark. "Each one had their own definition of what being fine was about. You can only squeeze a pressure cooker so long and something is going to blow up."
This year alone, 55 local Vietnam veterans were buried. They are mostly 70 years old and older, and many are retired. Mark pointed out the various blood disorders.
Roger kept a diary every day he was in Vietnam. He was able to show where they were as a group—what they were doing, when, and they were able to get the records from the VA.
He indicated that he was an isolationist, in that he doesn't have a lot in common with someone who isn't a veteran. The rest of the group agreed that after losing so many people from their time in a foreign country at such a young age, it hurts to form relationships.
"All of a sudden, now you push us out of there, you take us back and put us in the streets," added Mark. "You wonder, 'uh-oh—am I going to get close to anybody?' Like any Vietnam vet—how many relationships we've been in and how many towns we've been at. Some of us get stuck and stay there forever."
Mark said most feel that if they go to a football stadium with 60,000 people, they will still feel all by themselves.
"That's lonely," he concluded.
John, a quiet member of the group, shared that he came searching for help initially. He doesn't trust VA or government of any kind, or trust anybody.
"She (Juza-Hamrick) is the one who actually brought me around," said John with sincerity.
He wasn't going to participate, and was just going to see what would happen.
"It turns out that I wasn't by myself," added John. "I found out that's not true (that I wasn't by myself) and that helped me a lot."
Adam Williams, Accredited Representative for the Crook County Veterans Services Office, helps with the group. He indicated that a veteran sees a counselor first, and then they are invited into the group.
"There is a group dynamic that is already in place. You don't want to upset that."
Bend Vet Center
1645 NE Forbes Rd., Suite 105
Bend, OR 97701
Callers can call the office in Bend to schedule an appointment at any of the Community Access Points, Prineville, La Pine or Madras, or they can just walk into the office M-F 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Services are free and available to eligible veterans.
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