Photos by Steve Shay
A veterans panel hosted by South Seattle Community College shed light on post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and what is understood, and misunderstood, about the phenomena. Moderating were Dorsol Plants, a West Seattle resident (not pictured), and pictured, Dr. Peter Schmidtz, of Edmonds Community College's Veterans Training Support Center. Pictured right are two of four panelists, Sandra Spencer & David Diltz. Both are students & veterans.

Student veterans & experts grapple with "invisible wounds" of post-traumatic stress

A veterans panel hosted by South Seattle Community College Wednesday, Feb. 22 shed light on the internal crisis experienced by thousands of soldiers returning home with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and what is understood, and misunderstood, about the phenomena.

About 300,000 veterans leave the military annually. About 10 percent of Persian Gulf War vets (1991) have experienced PTSD, About 10 to 20 percent of veterans have experienced PTSD from Operation Enduring Freedom (in Afghanistan), Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation New Dawn (which marked the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom). Vietnam vets are at 30 percent.

The four panelists included South students, Renee Boettger, USAF 1986 to 1990, Sandra Spencer, US Army, 1986 to 1990, David Diltz, US Navy and US Marines Special Operations 2005 to 2001, and the director of campus security, James Lewis, US Air Force 1974-1980. Diltz, of Tukwila, also assists Campus Veterans Coordinator Delores Taylor certifying veteran students' G.I. Bills. Taylor attended the discussion.

Moderating were Dorsol Plants, South student and Veterans Corps employee, and Dr. Peter Schmidt, Project Director, Veterans Training Support Center, Edmonds Community College. Plants served in the US Army 2002 to 2007. Schmidt's position is through the King County Veteran Human Services Levy. He served in the US Air Force and Washington Air National Guard, and was a Washington Department of Veteran Affairs counselor. His psych residency was at McNeal Island Corrections Center working with veterans. 

Audience members included teachers, students, and faculty.

"Bottom line is that 18-24 year-old veterans have twice the unemployment nationally as non vets," said Schmidt. (Although in Washington State veteran unemployment is 11.8 percent.) "There is a high rate of homelessness and many invisible wounds. For those who've had to struggle with the burden of deployment, and of death and destruction, the more we can help them come back and readjust, the more lives we can save. That's really what this is all about."

"A lot of this transition is taking place on campuses just like this one," added Plants, who acknowledged he has PTSD. He told the West Seattle Herald, "My post-traumatic stress stemmed from the guilt of who I killed and who I didn't save. That's why I only did two tours. I couldn't do any more. There are people who have done eight or nine tours and think that is the environment where they belong, even when they return. For them, violence isn't just an option, it is the option.

"In my two tours I experienced the 'survivor-guilt transition' but after nine years these soldiers often continue with domestic violence and other aggressive behavior when they return," Plants said. "There is no switch to say 'stop'. In 2005 on my last tour in Iraq, on my last patrol I was out of my Humvee and getting into my car in Georgia in less than three days. It doesn't just stop."

"Post-traumatic stress goes back to Homer's Iliad and Odyssey," Schmidt said at the podium. "That is what the whole story is about. During the Civil War they called (PTSD) 'soldier's heart', and in WWI and WWII it was called 'shell shock' and 'battle fatigue syndrome.'"

He objects to the word "disorder" as it suggests the veteran is broken or crazy, he said.

"'PTSD' is a catch-all (phrase) for all behavioral problems," he said. "People generalize. Every symptom stems from things the body would ordinarily do to respond to highly stressful event. Any one of us in a war-torn, combat situation would experience those symptoms. In a way they help a person stay alive, with the hyper-arousal, the mind-set of a warrior.

"Folks on active duty learn to control their fear, numb it, or use anger," he said. "For a warrior to come forward and say they have it it may take a long time. Warrior tribes around the world would never welcome a warrior back to the village without spending time away with senior member warriors of the tribe to experience reinitiation. That's what's missing in our culture today."

Panelists weigh in:

Some panelists agreed that there is little help in place to diagnose and comfort our many returning veterans. However, all agreed that Washington State Veterans Affairs, and the community college experience have been very helpful.

"I have PTS," said panelist Boettger. "My uncle suffered from it, too. He was a Vietnam POW and suffered until the mid 1990's when he sought help from the VA. He'd wake up at night screaming, and isolated himself. He didn't communicate with anybody. I sought help early when I recognized I had similar problems."

"My uncle went through Korea and there was so much wrong with him," added Spencer. "I'd ask myself, 'What is wrong with me? People would say, 'Snap out of it and just keep going'. And you do (try). You raise your family and do your homework but you cannot just snap out of it. I'd get what I thought were 'heart attacks' and was taken to the VA hospital. I thought I was crazy but they had a check list to show I was not. When you are with veterans at the VA hospital you feel a common thread, and feel like family."

"I was hired here, and the man who hired me was a retired Navy vet," said Lewis, a popular fixture at South. "I'm Air Force, so we always loved to poke jabs at each other. That made me feel comfortable."

Diltz, 26, said he has not been diagnosed with PTSD but acknowledged he had "issues". He said he is now a "complete pacifist", and enlisted because his parents deemed him a trouble-maker, which he said was the case at the time. He finds campus life cathartic while crediting his professors and Delores Taylor for helping him adjust.

Diltz explained, "The cultural and ethnic diversity of this campus, you can't hide from it. There is a large Muslim background here. When you're fighting a population that is heavily Muslim, you build up a negative idea of who that person is based on those you are fighting, and it goes out towards the general culture.

"I am a math tutor, and I tutored a couple of Muslim kids and it really helped break down the negative barrier I had of the general population," he said. "I don't consider myself a prejudice person but I definitely had some prejudice tendencies when I got back and this campus has helped dramatically with that."

Venues for support

In his presentation, Dr. Schmidt said returning veterans can find a strong support network if they go back to school, but for those on a different path that support often seems invisible.

Dolores Taylor encouraged any veterans in the area not attending SSCC to contact the Dorsal Plants at the Student Veterans Club for support and direction in forging a positive post-combat life. Dorsal can be reached at dorsol.gmail.com.

Also always available, the Veteran Crisis Line: http://veteranscrisisline.net/ or toll free, 1-800-273-8255 (press 1).

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