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Training & Education Command (TECOM)

United States Marine Corps

Emotional shrapnel: Veteran shares his experiencee with PTSD

By Pfc. Erin Tansey | | September 15, 2009


The long-term stresses caused by combat can be traced to the pages of Homer’s Iliad, long before any form of mental issues were discovered.

Thousands of years later, servicemembers are returning from combat with those same stresses. Fortunately, there is help.

“It took me 30 years to be told, or at least admit, that I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” said retired Army Capt. Gil Acheson, a volunteer for the Department of Veterans Affairs. “I functioned as a moderately successful guy. Some of the things started to make sense when I started to learn about
the disorder.”

Acheson, from Billings, Mont., started his career in the Vietnam War as a helicopter pilot. He spent his tour with the 4th Infantry Division at Camp Enari, Vietnam, which was located in the central highlands.

“Our job was to find the bad guys on the Ho Chi Minh trail, and one of the best ways to do that was by helicopter,” Acheson said.

He said he was not diagnosed with PTSD until 30 years after the war.

“I did not think there was anything wrong,” he added. “I didn’t feel terribly alone. I had sleep disorders, but I thought it was just me. Come to find out, it was one of the
classic symptoms.”

It was not until he was being screened for a program through the Veterans Affairs that Acheson realized he had
the disorder.

“One of the stops for in-processing was at the shrink (therapist) to be tested for PTSD,” he said. “The more I looked into it, the more accurate I found it. It became an issue of curiosity- Why do I think this way? Why does this bother me? It all started to make sense.”

Being on edge every day for a year can change the chemistry in your brain, Acheson said. It is easier for others to see the changes, but it is hard to see a difference from the inside,
he added.

Recognizing if someone suffers from PTSD is an extremely important part of the recovery process.

“Inform yourself and accept the givens,” he said. “Try to develop behaviors that decrease the impact of any triggers.”

Even if one does not believe they have PTSD, Acheson said getting checked is the best thing one could do
for themselves.

Getting assistance through group meetings or seeing someone one-on-one helps.

“I value it (assistance) as a huge, meaningful part of my life,” he said. “It’s wonderfully therapeutic. It helps you find out you are not all that odd.”

Acheson said he enjoys talking with servicemembers, and he hopes it helps them get more comfortable with PTSD.

“I hope I can influence one or two guys or gals to take the self-test at home,” Acheson said. “That way, they can say ‘Oh, I get it,’ a lot sooner than I did,”

Whether the stress is minimal or not, long periods of time can have a negative, lasting impact.

“PTSD is like a stress fracture,” said Capt. Chanelle Johnson, commanding officer for Headquarters Company, Headquarters & Service Battalion, and also Acheson’s daughter. “You may be able to gut it out for today and tomorrow, but sooner or later, it will snap.”

When Johnson took command of Headquarters Co., she said she realized that PTSD was a common issue among the Marines and sailors of the company.

The stigma against getting checked is something many servicemembers have, said Johnson, of Denver. For those who have been diagnosed, people may look at them as if they are acting strange.

“The symptoms are easier to see, so we send them to places like anger management or the substance abuse control officer,” Johnson said. “Marines that have been in theater feel like Marines who have not deployed are looking at them sideways. I think it’s something we, as non-deployed Marines, have to work on.”

Reactions that servicemembers have are considered normal while in combat. Yet, while not on deployment, those reactions are not, Johnson said. PTSD has been affecting those who fought in wars since the first battles ever fought.

The sudden change of environment gives the human brain little time to readapt to living in a relaxed lifestyle.

“PTSD really is an injury of the mind,” said retired Navy Cmdr. Gary Noble, a doctor at the Mental Health Unit on the Depot. “It’s the reaction to the stresses of daily combat.”

Servicemembers who have PTSD can suffer from grief, anger, panic or irritability, said Noble, of Quakertown, Penn.Some people become extremely anxious when exposed
to triggers.

“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder,” Noble said. “We think it results from a particularly traumatic event. The trauma can be from anything, but it is usually a situation where a life is at risk.”

Noble said that the body is on alert at all times, which can lead to irritation and possible anxiety attacks when exposed to certain sounds or images that trigger memories.

Often times, those suffering from PTSD can have flashbacks or nightmares, Noble explained. For some, avoiding sleep is the only way to escape the images, which leads to
sleep disorders.

The MHU is available to servicemembers who could be suffering from PTSD, Noble said, whether from combat or any other past experience.

“If people knew about the resources available … then I think more people would come,” Noble said. “Just because a person may have symptoms, does not mean they will be disabled for life, or that the symptoms are for life.”