A War Within The Mind
Man's Best Friend To The Rescue When Lifelong Dream Became Real-World Nightmar
Posted: November 10, 2012
An Army man. That’s what four-year-old Bruce Webb wanted to be when he grew up.
“An Army man,” he repeated, punching out the syllables with a boyish gung-ho.
He grew up to lead a 33-year military career, which took him to Iraq and back. Now two years retired, he describes the return to civilian life as akin to stepping off a high-speed merry-go-round.
“You get off, and you’re still spinning. That’s how we come out from there ... it’s so fast-paced, then boom ... you’re supposed to be normal?”
Webb suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder – and he’s not alone. According to a 2008 RAND Corporation study, one in five servicemen and women return from Iraq and Afghanistan carrying burdens of PTSD or major depression.
For every soldier, the ride is different — some respond with trauma-disorder symptoms, while others do not. According to licensed psychotherapist and psychoanalyst Nate Koser, who practices at Aporia Counseling & Psychotherapy PLLC in Harrisonburg, PTSD is only one of many possible responses to trauma.
“In my perspective, it is more important that psychotherapy be directed toward the unique experience of each single person that has come to speak of his or her suffering,” Koser says.
Signs And Symptoms
Like many afternoons at the Harrisonburg American Legion, Webb’s bullmastiff Harley leaned hard against a barstool. Harley is a full-time member at the Legion, alongside his Sergeant, who serves as chaplain for Post 188.
“He’s got my six,” said Webb. “All I’ve got to do is say, ‘Harley, watch ’em!’ ” The hulking dog leaps to his feet, furrows his brow and scans the room. Webb relies on Harley to stay on alert, allowing his mind to rest, even slightly.
“It’s like a constant knot. I’m always looking around,” he said. Never with his back to a door, PTSD keeps Webb constantly planning the most likely avenues of attack and how to deliver civilians to safety. Harley, trained as a therapeutic service dog, is his “backup,” even while his master is asleep.
Perhaps Harley understands the triggering senses that civilians without PTSD cannot: certain smells, places or sights that bring back memories of making hard calls in the field.
“Trauma has a timeless quality and it does not adhere to the commonsense notion of past, present and future,” says Koser.
Symptoms of trauma-related disorders, he says, include having experienced or witnessed threat of death, serious injury and feelings of fear, helplessness or horror. Later, the experience continues to haunt its victims with memories, dreams and responses to environmental cues.
Webb warns friends and family of soldiers to be sensitive to symptoms including substance abuse, isolation and irrational outbursts.
During his last tour of duty, a rolling humvee sent Webb home with debilitating injuries. “Those pains hurt, they truly do, but not like that PTSD does to you,” he said. “I look normal to you. You can’t see what I’m going through in the inside.”
His homecoming on Christmas Day at Andrews Air Force Base included one good meal, then continual stares from strangers trying to see how badly he was wounded.
Fear, anxiety and confusion make understanding PTSD difficult for outsiders, Koser says.
“The symptoms of PTSD show us all that things are more fragile than we would like to admit. Subjectivity is not an infallible structure,” he adds.
“Trauma tears away at the foundation of subjectivity and those that observe it from the outside are rattled by what they witness. It is, therefore, much easier to alienate those suffering for PTSD by considering them as pathological, abnormal and uncontrollable.”
As chaplain, Webb hopes to give future soldiers a warmer reception than his own. “I know their language, I understand where they’ve been, I know how to get to them the right way,” he said.
So do the Veterans Affairs Suicide Prevention Hotline operators, according to Webb, who are former soldiers trained to talk to callers in a military mindset.
Unfortunately, in 2010, Webb didn’t get as far as the hotline when he was preparing to take his own life. After a long automated list of numbers to press, the suicide hotline prompt read off another telephone number, to hang up and dial again — more than a mere inconvenience for veterans who may be intoxicated, heavily medicated or otherwise mentally unstable, said Webb.
He hung up, got in his truck and drove off with a bottle and a gun.
A friend in his path saved his life, but Webb believes help should be more readily accessible. “If they have the courage to call, it should say, ‘If you’re contemplating suicide, press one now,’ and get [a] person on the other end right away.”
He’s pushing at the congressional level for changes to this system, but for now, leads fellow soldiers back into civilian life, on the front lines of their mental and physical battles.
“I love my country, and my brothers and sisters in harm’s way — past, present and future,” he said. “That’s why I’m fighting it so hard.”
Contact Samantha Cole at 574-6274 or firstname.lastname@example.org.