The wounds of war are not always obvious. The psychological battle scars inflicted on some who once proudly served their country can be unpredictable and may fester for years before surfacing, leaving some Oregon veterans in the care of the Oregon State Hospital (OSH).
"For this generation of combat vets — especially those who've done multiple tours — these guys get home, and they're still jacked up," said Selena Hess, a clinical psychology doctoral candidate who is working as an intern at OSH. "They come back to civilian life, and I think some of them have just forgotten what civilian life is like. They're often angry, and they start using alcohol and drugs to try to calm themselves down, which leads to other problems."
Twice a week, Hess, a former military police officer with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, facilitates post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) groups, which focus on the unique challenges faced by OSH's veteran patients. The groups are designed to educate patients about PTSD, give them tools to help them overcome their issues and provide them with a safe environment where they can talk about deeply personal experiences with others who can relate.
"This is the only group that I've been able to share certain parts about my life — parts that I've not wanted to share with others," said Vietnam veteran Tyehimba Yafue. "There's a level of trust I have with this group, and it really takes a load off."
Combat has always left a psychological toll on those affected by it, although historically, this was usually not openly recognized. While the concept was hardly new, the term PTSD was introduced in the 1970s by groups working with Vietnam veterans. However, it's only during the past decade as we've witnessed the impact of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on servicemembers that PTSD has been introduced into our collective lexicon.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event during which you were, or perceived you were, in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm. Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, hyper-vigilance, severe anxiety, emotional numbing, irritability and depression.
"It's classified as an anxiety disorder, but in my opinion it's much more than that," Hess said. "PTSD is an array of emotions and thinking and behavioral patterns in response to extreme circumstances."
Not only does the group provide therapeutic value for the participants, it's also a way for veteran patients to connect with each other and reestablish that unique military bond. For group participants, that bond transcends the generational gap between the Vietnam-era veterans and those who have served during the present-day campaigns.
"The camaraderie is definitely there," said Iraq veteran Gary Philbrook. "When I was in the Army, I served with every type of person under the sun, and we're all brothers and sisters. If a veteran gets in trouble, I want to be there to help and do what I can."
By encouraging veterans to lean on each other as they work toward recovery, Hess said she hopes they learn that, just as they could while in service, they can rely on each other at the hospital and continue to do so once they reenter the community.
"As veterans, we need to be accountable to our own and hold each other up," Hess said. "It's been a number of years since I've been out of the Army, but I'm still driven to help by that sense of duty."