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Vets' incidence of PTSD rises, but help's on way

<i>Bill Kirk photo</i> Pierce County American Legion Commander Devin Feuerhelm, left, and Pierce County Veterans Service Officer David Till discussed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Feb. 4. PTSD is experienced by many military veterans, but can affect civilians, too.

While most people have experienced stress, it's more acute for some than others.

Take those who've served in the military, for example. Many are being affected by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) like never before.

But Pierce County American Legion Commander Devin Feuerhelm and Pierce County Veterans Service Officer (CVSO) David Till want them to know they can get help.

"There's a definite correlation between the rising number of deployments and the likelihood of PTSD," Till said Feb. 4, offering his office's services in providing assistance.

With the National Guard, he's been deployed to Iraq twice, he said. And Feuerhelm remembered after coming home from a particularly dangerous part of that country in 2006, he was highly driven in his activities. A member of the Legion Riders, a motorcycle group, it translated for him into intense actions.

"I'd ride my motorcycle full out," he said, adding, "I wouldn't do that now."

Till emphasized PTSD isn't just a vets' issue. Anyone undergoing a traumatic situation might encounter it. If they're susceptible to depression or anxiety, they have the potential to get the disorder.

"A traumatic event is something horrible and scary that you see or that happens to you," he explained. "During this type of event, you think that your life or others' lives are in danger. You may feel afraid or feel that you have no control over what is happening."

Besides combat or military exposure, he said traumatic events can include: Child sexual or physical abuse, terrorist attacks, sexual or physical assault, serious accidents such as a car wreck or natural disasters such as fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods or earthquakes.

Fright, confusion or anger may follow the event, the CVSO said.

"If these feelings don't go away or they get worse, you may have PTSD," he said. "These symptoms may disrupt your life, making it hard to continue with your daily activities."

The symptoms, as identified by Till, are: Avoiding situations, reliving events, feeling numb and feeling keyed up.

He said an unfair stigma exists about PTSD.

"When they hear of it, some people get a picture of a person in a corner, shaking," he said.

It's important to understand there are problems associated with people with PTSD, especially if it's untreated professionally and self-medication such as drugs and alcohol are used.

Yet, a positive outcome can be realized, he said. More resources are available to returning vets, so lower levels of PTSD are detected and diagnosed among them. This helps these younger soldiers to be able to look into themselves and find their strengths and weaknesses.

"If a veteran can then know their strengths and work on improving their weaknesses, then they are much better off than someone who has not addressed these issues," he said.

PTSD isn't new to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, Feuerhelm and Till agreed. In World Wars I and II and Korea, it was described as "shell shock"; though not specifically defined, it was also prevalent during the Vietnam War, but the stigma of that war for the U.S. meant many from the Vietnam era didn't seek help.

The CVSO, who's held his Pierce County position since 2008, said he assists veterans of Vietnam almost as regularly as those of Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The difference is, the Vietnam vets are just addressing this for the first time 40 years later," he said.

Till finds the World War II vets came home and never talked about how the war impacted them. Some soldiers from any of the wars have tried to handle the condition themselves and, if unsuccessful, it can lead to death.

"It is shown that, due to not addressing the PTSD directly and only treating some of the symptoms such as depression and anxiety, it takes much longer to improve the life of someone suffering from PTSD," he said.

On the other hand, a lot of veterans are dealing with it just fine because they're seeking help right away, he said.

Feuerhelm shared information from a "USA Today" article referring to the most tragic outcome. It states: "An increase in suicides among National Guard soldiers largely in states across the Midwest--such as Missouri and Wisconsin--is responsible for a 24% increase in Army suicides last year, the service reported...Soldiers, both active duty and on inactive status, died by suicide at the rate of 25 per month in 2010, Army figures show...There were 301 confirmed or suspected soldier suicides in 2010, including those on active duty and reservists or National Guard troops on an inactive status, the Army reported...This compares with 242 in 2009."

The county Legion commander encouraged vets to get involved with organizations such as the Legion. He promoted the Legion Riders as being supportive of communities, in ways including raising money for the Legion Legacy Scholarship Fund, which backs families who've lost soldiers by arranging for the children to attend school for free.

"It's a way of getting the young ones involved," he said, noting a chapter of the Riders already exists in Red Wing and attempts are being made to form one here in Wisconsin.

In addition to the eight Legion posts, other groups to consider in Pierce County are the VFW and the Vietnam Veterans of America, Till said.

He also touted his office's advocacy for veterans. It has access to more resources than the Veterans Administration, for instance the State of Wisconsin, Pierce County and local community organization benefits. He urged vets to come in and see what benefits are available to them.

"It's a deck of cards full," he said to illustrate its wide-ranging assistance, mentioning 24/7 resources such as Military 1 through the Department of Defense, 1-800-273-TALK ("Press 1 for Veterans") through the Department of Veterans Affairs and the latter's Wisconsin Vet Centers, the closest for readjustment counseling being a new center in La Crosse.

The CVSO estimated there are approximately 4,000 veterans in the county, knowing the number exceeds 3,000, but guessing at least 25 percent have never contacted his office and lamenting that percentage.

To make an appointment with Till, phone (715) 273-6753.

Bill Kirk

Bill Kirk was editor of the Pierce County Herald in Ellsworth, from 1988 to February, 2015 and is now on staff as a reporter. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He previously worked in the media distribution department at the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus and is past editor of The Tri-County News in Osseo, Wisconsin.

(715) 273-4334