Help is slow in coming as echoes of war linger

bmorem@thetribunenews.comApril 10, 2013 

"I sit on a couch in my small hometown in California … I am clean … my family is near. And all I want? All I want is to be right back in it … back where the bullets make odd noises as they zip by my head, back where the explosions force your brain against your skull, where your ears ring and you are hot and you are tired and you are dirty and you haven’t showered for weeks and you are so utterly alone and isolated and you just want peace … this will not go away; do I want it to? This desire to be back there is what gives me my edge and perspective. Now I must figure out exactly what that perspective is."

— Former Marine Sgt. Daniel Pitocco

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The 2010 census found that 22,514 veterans live in San Luis Obispo County, nearly a tenth of the total population. No doubt that number has grown with troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many of those young men and women, who voluntarily served under fire, will come home physically damaged.

Others will silently join their combat brothers and sisters who deal with unrelenting memories of horror, suffering from post-traumatic stress (PTS).

It’s a condition that’s probably been a battle casualty since armies first clashed. It was called “soldier’s heart” in the Civil War; “combat fatigue” in World War I: “gross stress reaction” in World War II; it’s also been known as “post-Vietnam syndrome,” “battle fatigue” and “shell shock,” and, since 1980, post-traumatic stress disorder.

The underlying truth seems to be that some are more susceptible to PTS than others, while some who have encountered trauma in their lives — whether through combat, tragic accident, rape, loss of a loved one — manage their panic attacks, hyper-arousal and desire to isolate themselves (to list just a few of many symptoms).

The rate of PTS is increasing.

Military analysts attribute that to multiple tours of duty and modern medicine’s ability to keep alive injured soldiers who would have died in previous combat.

The numbers associated with PTS and other service-related health issues are daunting.

In 2006, the Veterans Administration treated about 927,000 vets for mental health issues; that number rose to 1.3 million by 2012. Of greater concern is that vets waiting for service-connected benefits for more than a year rose from 11,000 in 2009 to 245,000 this year, more than 2,000 percent, according to documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee recently demanded to know why. Despite spending four years and a half-billion dollars on a new computer system designed to streamline claims, congressmen found that the VA still has 97 percent of health claims on paper.

(According to Dana Cummings, Veterans Services officer for San Luis Obispo County, some 750 to 1,000 vets are being treated here for PTS, while 500 more claims are pending.) The numbers involved aren’t merely worrisome; they can represent matters of life and death.

Consider a recent study by the VA: Every 65 minutes, 24-7, a veteran commits suicide. The study found that 69 percent of those suicides were by veterans 50 and older, and 31 percent of those suicides were vets 49 and under, dying in the prime of their lives.

Here’s another number to consider: There were 349 suicides among active duty personnel in 2012 — almost one a day — which, according to the VA study, meant that more soldiers were ending their lives by their own hand than were dying in combat.

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"Anytime I saw someone mentally ill, someone disabled in a wheelchair, an old lady that could barely see over the steering wheel, or a small child enjoying a summer picnic, I felt that I was defending them. I was going overseas to fight for my mother, for my sister, for Americans that could not do it themselves. Whether or not this is truly the case is irrelevant. When doubt over my purpose crept in during the dark nights, cold mornings and sweltering days, I would look at my weapons and tell myself I was there for a reason."

— Pitocco

• • •

Daniel Pitocco and Matt Reid, whom I wrote about last week, have been dealing with their respective cases of PTS, seeking to find tools to deal with the psychic battles that can arise and subside in the blink of an eye.

Toward that end, Pitocco is a full-time personal trainer in Morro Bay, driving himself from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Matt takes 17 units at Cuesta in pursuit of a psychology degree. They both tell their stories to civic groups and elected bodies; every moment of their waking lives is filled with looking for those tools that can be used to cope and heal — to find their perspectives.

In that pursuit, the two vets, with a combined seven tours of duty, have formed an organization called Mind Over Matter and are hosting a PTS and Suicide Awareness Conference for combat vets, their families, friends and the general public. It’s set for Saturday, April 27, from 10 a.m. to noon at the New Life Community Church in Pismo Beach, 990 James Way.

Speakers, a time for vets to relate their stories and a barbecue are planned.

One more note about our veteran community: Honor Flight, the program that flies World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to tour various service-related memorials — at no cost — will be leaving San Luis Obispo County Airport at 6:30 a.m. Friday. The 13 veterans and their personal assistants (who are paying their own way) will return to SLO County Airport on Sunday at 9:35 p.m.

Let’s honor these gentlemen by seeing them off and greeting them home from their Honor Flight.

• • •

Next week, the final column in this series will examine methods and resources that vets are using to address the impacts of post-traumatic stress.

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