Healing war’s scars: New VA rules help local veterans with PTSD find relief

By Kate Nash | The New Mexican

It took one New Mexico military veteran three decades before he sought help for his nighttime “dragons.” After that, it took about a year to get benefits from the government.

Another veteran, who battled depression after serving in the Marines during the Vietnam War and later in the Army, only sought help after retiring in 2001. It took about four years for him to receive benefits, including aid for a major depressive disorder.

Both men note they ultimately were able to get help from government agencies and veterans groups, and describe the system to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and related problems as one that is improving. Others, however, say the system could do much more to help those who have served our country.

“The (Department of Veterans Affairs) has gotten good at treating battle wounds and injured soldiers,” said John Garcia, a Vietnam veteran and former head of the New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services. “But these injuries reach farther. They are injuries of the soul.”

To help treat those wounds, the VA more than a year ago adopted new rules aimed at quicker diagnoses and treatment for soldiers returning from war.

Those rules allow a veteran’s testimony about traumatic events to be accepted instead of tedious paperwork and record searching. However, it’s still unclear whether the rules are working, and whether more vets are seeking help because of the changes.

The regional VA office doesn’t keep track of the number of PTSD claims in the state. National figures provided by the office show 437,310 veterans were granted compensation based on PTSD claims in 2010, up from 133,745 in 2000.

At the Albuquerque VA hospital, there are no exact local numbers, either. Officials there say there are 174,324 veterans in the state, and the estimated number of veterans with PTSD ranges from 15 percent to 25 percent.

As for the time it takes for PTSD to be diagnosed at the hospital, that has decreased to 14 days or fewer, one official said, down from the approximate 30 days it took five years ago.

No matter the statistics, recent interviews with local veterans show there is help widely available — and it is coming in new and innovative forms.

Increasingly prevalent problem

Diane P. Castillo, a staff psychologist at the Albuquerque VA hospital and coordinator of the Women’s Trauma Clinic there, started a PTSD program for men in 1987.

Since then, she has seen an increase in the number of veterans seeking help for PTSD — and she expects it to continue increasing.

“The lethality of wars has gotten less and less, so we’ve having more soldiers survive combat,” she said. “That’s a good thing. But the flip side is, we are going to see more PTSD.”

Some figures say about 30 percent of those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer haunting memories of trauma — a number that could rise in coming years as more troops come back to the United States from places such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Under past VA rules, veterans had to go through a lengthy process to show evidence they experienced on-the-job “stressors,” or events that later caused them stress or anxiety. That process used to involve adjudicators who typically were required to collect extensive records to corroborate whether a veteran really experienced what he or she claimed.

With the new rules, soldiers’ testimonies can be used to establish that they were exposed to incidents on duty that caused stress. At the same time, a Department of Veterans Affairs doctor has to diagnose those symptoms as PTSD.

U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., said in statement, “These new rules are an important first step to help veterans get the benefits they have earned and deserve, but more must be done. We have seen cases in which the rules appear to have made the process easier for some veterans; however, many continue to face unacceptable delays and other challenges. We must keep working hard to ensure the brave men and women who served our nation get the care they need.”

About half the veterans that the Northern New Mexico congressman’s office hears from each month have a PTSD-related issue, a spokesman said.

Therapies old and new

Vietnam-era veteran and 1972 Santa Fe High School graduate Jerry L. Martinez didn’t know he was battling depression after his time in the Marine Corps, which included being stationed off Vietnam in 1974.

But little by little, the things he saw and heard about — including the 1981 state penitentiary riot in Santa Fe that occurred while he was working in law enforcement — began to accumulate.

“I did have the experience of being friends with some of the ones that had been in Vietnam and the war, and they talked to us and told us about some of the things they went through, and some of the things they went through were really hard to accept,” he said in a recent interview.

Later, as a deputy, he went through a harrowing shootout with prison escapees, then the riot. A deputy close to him was shot and killed while responding to a domestic-violence call.

“A lot of these things triggered (memories of) some of the things my friends had gone through,” he said. “It just started creating problems with me.”

Martinez, who spent 26 years in the military, went to work as a transport officer after retiring from the Army in 2001.

“That’s when I started feeling these problems with depression and carrying a weapon. Something was wrong, something was going wrong. … I finally said, ‘I better just stay out of that line of work because something may happen.’ ”

Soon after, he retired and pursued disability benefits. He already had been diagnosed with diabetes, herniated disks and hearing loss from his time in the service. He then got the diagnosis of major depressive disorder.

To deal with the disorder, Martinez attends counseling once a week at the Santa Fe Veterans Center. The group of men talk about anything and everything.

“What really comes out of those meetings is, one looks at the other and says, ‘I thought I was the only one having those problems, but I’m not,’ ” Martinez said.

Martinez and his wife, Teresa, also recently attended a retreat in Angel Fire for couples with at least one person suffering from PTSD. Such events are part of a new view of PTSD as something that affects more than just the veteran.

“It allowed us to open up to each other,” Teresa Martinez said. “There were things that I didn’t know that were hurting him. Now I know what he was missing, and I can understand what he is going through.”

The Martinezes will be among as many as 150 couples who this year attend the retreats, which are paid for by federal stimulus money. Roughly 25 spots remain for the weeklong programs, which continue through September and feature yoga, acupuncture and other alternative therapies.

Aside from attending counseling, Martinez, 57, keeps busy with something that helps him cope just as much: Color Guard and Honor Guard activities, as well as flag ceremonies.

When he visits local schools, he likes to read a poem about the importance of respecting the flag, and he talks to children about the military. He also gets geared up for events such as Memorial Day ceremonies and spent last Friday placing flags on graves at the Santa Fe National Cemetery.

Honoring those who died, he said, helps fill an emptiness he feels.

During a recent interview, Martinez showed off an album of photos taken during a ceremony for fallen soldiers he helped with at Arlington National Cemetery. It is one of the few times in the interview when he really smiled.

Another veteran, Garcia, the former state Veterans’ Services secretary who spent time in Vietnam in the Army, uses massage therapy to help him unwind.

After Garcia got home from a year in Vietnam in 1970, he had a hard time adjusting, he said.

“It was definitely a transition for me,” he said. “I went over there 18 and came back feeling 40. My world had changed, and it took me a while to catch up with it,” he said. “My family expected me to be the same kid I was. I felt like they had changed, and they felt like I had changed.”

Garcia went through a rough adjustment time, and although he initially tried to connect with the VA system right when he returned, he got frustrated with long waits and shied away. It would be 30 years before he got linked with the VA through a veteran-service officer.

“My wife got tired of me waking up at 2 a.m. and chasing those dragons with me, so I finally went,” he said. “She said, ‘If you’re not going to do it for yourself, do it for us.’ ”

It wasn’t until a year later, when Garcia received word that his benefits had been approved, that he felt like someone recognized what he had done. “I had to pull over and break down that they finally recognized my service,” he recalled. “I didn’t care about the benefits and services. What really mattered was the VA … validated me, said that my service meant something.”

Some local veterans are getting therapy from four-legged creatures.

At an arena at the Santa Fe Rodeo Grounds on a recent weekday, volunteers with Listening Horse Therapeutic Riding and the NARHA Horses for Heroes program worked with two veterans.

The vets spent an hour and a half riding around the Northern New Mexico Horseman’s Association arena, learning how to trot, steer and communicate with their 1,200-pound partners. They also learned how to groom and equip the horses.

But the ride is more than that. At the same time, the men are learning skills that will help them sort through their feelings, communicate their emotions, and connect with others.

“There’s a self-esteem that comes with learning a new skill and building your confidence, which naturally fits into dealing with other people,” said Flannery Davis, who runs the program with her partner, Gus Jolley.

Horses live in the present, Davis said, and are able to instantly tune themselves in to human emotion.

“You can always see what you are feeling in the horses,” she said. “If they are telling you that you are angry, you are angry.”

For many of the program’s participants, the time with horses, which the group provides for free, also is a time to relax.

“With PTSD, you are used to your emotions being numb,” Davis said. “You don’t recognize your emotions when they come up. In working with horses, you realize it’s OK to let yourself feel again.”

For Navy veteran Gary Self, the eight-week program he was completing recently helped him connect with the horses, including Sugar, whom he rode for most of his time in the program.

“It’s a bonding thing,” he said. For him, that connection started immediately, and Self, like others who have completed the program, said he would come back and volunteer to help others.

Castillo said those kinds of therapies are complementary to more traditional forms of therapy she uses at the clinic.

At her office, Castillo incorporates help known as exposure therapy, which has vets go through their trauma repeatedly as a way to get over it. She also uses cognitive therapy, which helps veterans change the way they think about what happened.

Something else that is helping veterans is the fact that society is more supportive of them, Castillo said.

“I think the one thing we have learned as a society is to not blame the vet, the soldier,” she said. “They know more than anybody how bad the war is.”

And Garcia, who is headed off to start a new job with the VA in Washington, D.C., said he’s glad to see so many treatment options available for today’s veterans — something veterans of his era didn’t see when they returned from the war.

“They are not like draftees, they are volunteers,” he said of current soldiers. “We have an obligation to them to make sure when they leave, they come out as strong as they went in.

“Have we done enough in the past? No, we haven’t, but we are starting to.”

Published June 01, 2011.