In struggle with post-traumatic stress, vets reach for their pens

bmorem@thetribunenews.comApril 17, 2013 

Former Marine Sgt. Matt Reid served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.


“A man walks up; picture in hand, tears streaking his face. He can barely talk; small noises come out of his mouth. I hesitantly reach for the picture and can’t comprehend the scene. It was of a child mutilated by human hands. This man’s small son, maybe 5 or 6 years old, was taken from him and tortured. Not for the sake of information, but only to persuade this man to never help the Americans. He crumbled to the ground inconsolable. I walk away; there is a mission at hand.”

• • •

That’s just one of numerous heartrending images that former Marine Sgt. Matt Reid carries within his mind on a daily basis, mental scars from his multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s far from being alone.

A report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs last fall found that since Sept. 11, 2001, almost 30 percent of the 834,463 vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. Of the 247,243 veterans who have been diagnosed, only some 138,000 are getting disability benefits — 44 percent are still waiting, waiting and waiting.

The term "scandalous" doesn’t do justice for the way these men and women have been treated by the very government that asked them to risk their lives — and subsequently their mental health.

Morro Bay residents Reid and his brother-in-arms, former Marine Sgt. Dan Pitocco, had, between them, seven tours in both countries, which places them in the same boat as others who were deployed several times: three times as likely as those with no previous deployments to screen positive for PTS and depression.

Both are dealing with their respective cases of PTS through a variety of methods, not the least being formation of a group called Mind Over Matter that helps other vets (and themselves) identify triggers of PTS and methods for handling symptoms.

(Toward that end, the two are hosting a PTS and suicide awareness conference for combat vets, their families, friends and the public. It’s set for 10 a.m. to noon April 27 at New Life Community Church in Pismo Beach, 990 James Way. Speakers, a time for vets to relate their stories and a barbecue are the order of the day.)

One of the methods that both men are using is keeping a journal and writing daily for perhaps 15 minutes about things they’re thinking or worrying about; something that they’re dreaming about; something they feel is affecting their lives in a negative way; something they’ve been avoiding for days, weeks or years.

James W. Pennebaker, professor and chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas has found through clinical trials that expressive writing about painful experiences can “enhance immune response, reduce recovery times, and promote physical and mental well-being,” according to the Scattergood Foundation, an outfit that looks at innovative ways to increase behavioral health.

A couple other such groups include Warrior Writers and Veterans Writing Project.

Another resource is the Defense Centers of Excellence, which offers a free, confidential 24/7 hotline for help for psychological health and brain injury issues. Call 866-966-1020 or email

The organization’s suggestions for getting started on a journal is to use some of these approaches:

  • I feel powerful when …
  • I’m proud of myself because …
  • I am most grateful for …
  • I feel my mission in life is to …
  • I believe in myself because …

Along these lines, Paso Robles resident David Dorfmeier, a retired Army sergeant major, has been in the process of writing a book about the effects that PTS can have on a person and those who surround that person. It’s been a work in progress for 10 years. In this instance, it was Dorfmeier’s father, who was a prisoner of war in Germany after his plane was shot down.

Growing up with a veteran who silently suffered from PTS led Dorfmeier into clinical therapy with an emphasis on counseling military personnel. He and others who were contacted almost unilaterally recommended the book “War and the Soul” by Edward Tick.

The book takes a spiritual look at war-wounded soldiers suffering from PTS. It’s about “the soul’s homeward journey, purification and cleansing, the healing power of storytelling,” according to reviews.

Next week: Native American shamanism, yoga and somatic experiences as tools for dealing with PTS.

Bill Morem can be reached at or at 781-7852.

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