Road to Recovery: An Iraq War Veteran’s Life With PTSD
With the prevalence of PTSD among returning veterans on the rise, traditional treatments and sluggish bureaucracy have been unable to keep up with the pace. Fortunately, alternatives like The Pathway Home are rising up to help fill the tremendous gap in care, although there is still a long way to go.
The Pathway Home organization is a non-profit, residential treatment center located in Yountville, California. Pathway Home serves active duty and retired service members suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and TBI (traumatic brain injury), the symptoms of which are often both present in these veterans. It is helping them learn to make the difficult transition from war to civilian life again. It was founded by a Vietnam veteran by the name of Fred Gusman. He has been involved with helping veterans since the 1970s when he pioneered treatments for returning combat veterans who were suffering from stress-related illnesses. Gusman said that back then it was called Post Vietnam Syndrome.
According to Gusman, who has studied this phenomenon for some time now, there are some very recognizable and commonly experienced symptoms that have been identified in warriors after every war. In fact, the link between combat and these symptoms dates back to the Civil War. What we have identified as PTSD today, Civil War veterans called, “Soldier’s Heart.” In WWI, this set of symptoms was named, “Shell Shock.” In WWII and Korea, the illness was called “Battle Fatigue.”
In every case there is a striking similarity to the effects on the minds and psyches of combat veterans. They are things like:
- a 10,000 mile stare;
- emotional shut-down, except for rage and anger;
- hyper-vigilance, because “you don’t know where the enemy is”;
- watchfulness, even in busy places that the rest of us go into without a thought, like Costco or Wal-Mart, because that is what kept them alive in the war zones;
- heavy drinking or drug use to escape all the above.
These things are real. They control the life of one who is suffering from this post-combat illness. But they can be both recognized and overcome with proper help, so that those who suffer these things can recover and live long and productive lives.
More Like a Campus Than a Hospital
This program was opened in 2008 and has 18 staff members, including counselors, yoga instructors, and acupuncturists. It also utilizes service dogs. One of the simple, yet very important and effective things that they do is to contact graduates of the program twice weekly, by text message, to check in on how they are doing. Since its opening, Pathway Home has treated almost 200 veterans and active duty service members. Many of these veterans came to Pathway Home after having been frustrated by attempts to be treated at military hospitals and VA centers.
The program handles as many as 34 patients at a time, keeping the numbers small and manageable. One of the strengths of this program is that they have a high tolerance for emotional outbursts and the kinds of eccentric behaviors that often accompany PTSD and TBI. They are also willing to try anything and remain flexible in how they treat individuals. They monitor medications closely and guide patients through alcohol and drug treatment. They encourage patients to take regular morning walks and watch for signs associated with traumatic brain injuries. The place feels more like a campus than a hospital as well. Most of the patients at Pathway Home leave within a few months, but they have taken care of some for up to a year. The best news about the program is that they have, as of now, a 92% success rate for treating these returning veterans.
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A National Model
Gusman wanted to create a program that might work as a model that the VA and others could adapt for their own patients. One such program is the National Intrepid Center for Excellence for treating TBI and psychological ailments in Bethesda, Maryland. It takes a holistic approach to the treatment of these ailments that they say was inspired, in part, by Gusman’s program at Pathway Home.
I would encourage readers to look this program up on their own. That we have a huge number of our veterans coming home after multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan is a fact. We have a duty and a responsibility as a nation to care for them and to help them recover themselves and to re-enter civilian life. They have shown the qualities of their character while serving on our behalf in our wars, but more importantly, they have much to offer society in the form of skills, courage and amazing adaptability in the face of difficult situations. They are highly trained, well-disciplined individuals who can make a real difference for the good in all that they do. The symptoms that they are suffering, as a result of their wartime experiences, are surmountable, if given the proper treatment, care and understanding. When they learn how to deal with these symptoms, and take control of their lives again, they have added another strength to their personal resumes.
It was exciting to hear about this program. There ought to be more like it. We will need the expertise, the care, and the commitment that Fred Gusman and his Pathway Home program shows us here, for some time into the future. Thank you Fred Gusman and all who work with you on behalf of our veterans suffering from PTSD and TBI. Your model of care and respect for them can teach us all something about ourselves. Thank you and your co-workers for your service to the nation, both in uniform and for what you are doing now.
Image “Major Butch,” a therapy dog with the 219th Medical Detachment (Combat Operational Stress Control) concludes her tour in Afghanistan at Bagram Air Field, Feb. 1. The 85th Med. Det. (COSC) from Fort Bliss, Texas, assumes the various 219th missions at the transfer of authority ceremony held here today. (DoD photo by Maj. Charles Patterson, Task Force MED-A Public Affairs, CC BY 2.0).