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By JEFF WILKINSON
Columbia’s 1st Sgt. Will Roberts, a U.S. Army paratrooper, has been deployed into combat seven times with the elite 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.
Kosovo. Bosnia. Two deployments to Iraq. Three to Afghanistan.
Each of those deployments involved intense, front-line fighting with Roberts leading some of the nation’s most hardened soldiers: Army Rangers.
“I lived for that war stuff,” said Roberts, 45.
Today, Roberts is one of the estimated 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And with the Iraq war winding down – the last U.S. troops are leaving that country this month – more and more service members are returning home. Many are returning with injuries, including psychological trauma, and many are in the Midlands.
Roberts’ PTSD was triggered by a particularly nasty roadside bomb attack in a remote valley in Afghanistan.
“I lost a lot of paratroopers” is all that he will say.
When he got back home, Roberts’ life devolved into a nightmare of headaches and flashbacks, fear and anger. Everyone became a potential enemy. An ambush lurked around every corner. There was no escaping the fear.
One day, in the back of a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Columbia, he became so disoriented that he couldn’t find an exit. He panicked, curling up in the fetal position in the dairy aisle. The police were called. It wasn’t the first time it had happened.
“I was so ashamed,” he said. “I was an Airborne Ranger, for Pete’s sake. But it just consumed me.”
Roberts is still in the Army, being treated at Fort Jackson’s Warrior Transition Unit. And one of the important facets of this tall, battle-scarred paratrooper’s treatment is an adorable, 55-pound black Labrador retriever named R.C.
“She’s my battle buddy now,” said Roberts, as he lay on the floor of the Spring Valley home that houses Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services, or PAALS. “The only thing that keeps me going is working with the dog.”
Those needing help
Twenty percent of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are diagnosed with PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Other estimates are as high as 40 percent.
But less than half of returning service members actually seek help for it.
Symptoms are numerous, including flashbacks, insomnia, disinterest in sex, violence and feelings of isolation, guilt, and depression. Those suffering from PTSD can have trouble holding a job, more frequently contemplate suicide and are more likely to become homeless.
And with troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in ever-increasing numbers, the “silent epidemic,” as it is called, could become more pronounced, especially in Columbia and South Carolina. In a recent McClatchy Newspapers study of the concentration of disabled veterans from the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan by ZIP code, Columbia was ranked 28th out of 890 areas nationwide, because of the presence of Fort Jackson, McEntire and Shaw air bases and a large contingent of National Guardsmen and Reservists.
One of the more innovative programs to help treat service members diagnosed with PTSD is service dogs.
Much like seeing-eye dogs, service dogs help their owners through the trials of daily life.
In this case, the dogs serve as a calming influence for a service member who sees danger in every person he meets and every room he enters.
When Roberts becomes concerned, R.C. places a gentle paw on his foot, or curls around his legs, as if to say, “Everything is OK. There is no danger here.”
Calm in all situations
Alison Thirkield, a psychologist at Fort Jackson’s Moncrief Army Community Hospital, said PTSD causes sufferers to shun other people and barricade themselves physically and emotionally from the outside world and the danger they perceive to be there.
The dogs help veterans build a relationship with another living being, which brings back a feeling of competence and confidence that they can take care of the animal.
The dog is trained to be calm in all situations, and even to apply pressure on the different parts of the person’s body that alleviate anxiety: the feet, the legs, the lap.
“The dog is like (an anxiety) meter,” Thirkield said.
They are even taught to obey military orders, as other soldiers would in combat.
Directed to “block me,” the dog takes the point to warn of any danger ahead.
“Watch my back,” means the dog does an about-face and keeps an eye on everything behind the service member.
“Pop a corner” means the dog looks around an upcoming corner to make sure the way is clear.
“They adopt the military lingo with the dogs because the soldiers are comfortable with it,” Thirkield said.
But service dogs are just one way to battle PTSD. At Fort Jackson they also employ other nontraditional methods, such as acupuncture, yoga and “mindfulness” – the over-arching term for mediation and relaxation therapies – in addition to counseling and more traditional methods.
Gary Phillips, 67, of Columbia, has been dealing with the effects of PTSD since 1968. He witnessed three horrific incidents as a platoon leader during the Tet Offensive that triggered the disorder. He won’t talk about the incidents, but since then has dealt with constant nightmares and still struggles to go outside.
His dog, Spirit, “gives me freedom to want to go places,” Phillips said. “She calms me down enough to use the other practices I’ve learned through my therapy.”
Sean P Eagan
Former Chairman American Cold War Veterans