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Coming Home, Student Vets Face Inner War

Date: 2/22/2010 10:31 am
By Shane Ersland

Veteran Jess Woods' constant paranoia and vivid flashbacks from his deployment in Iraq have made it difficult for him to get reacclimated to civilian life, including the realities of college life.

A first-year student at Scott Community College in Bettendorf, Iowa, Woods has trouble communicating with fellow students and concentrating on his studies.

“It's hard being around people I don't know,” he said. “It's hard to talk; I'm always paranoid. It seems they're in a different world than I am.”

Woods left the Middle East in 2005 and went on Inactive Duty with the Marines in 2008. Like many vets who have war-time experience, he has symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Student veterans account for a significant portion of students enrolled in college in the U.S. The Department of Veterans' Affairs reported that as of May 1, 2009, 44,500 individuals were currently receiving educational benefits from the federal government. Many of them have PTSD.

An Army study found that one in eight soldiers returning from deployment suffers from PTSD, and that less than half of them seek treatment.

“Many [vets] are having symptoms, but they think if they get home, they'll be okay,” said U.S. Department of Affairs psychologist Miriam Meyer. “But then, they get in a routine and find out they've changed.”

Veterans returning from deployment often find it challenging to adapt to student life.

The new post-9/11 GI Bill aimed to help veterans finance their education, but the bill did not contain any measures to accommodate the unique psychological and learning needs of veterans suffering from PTSD. Some schools, like Columbia University, run their own PTSD counseling programs for veterans.

There are three major categories of symptoms for PTSD, added Meyer: re-experiencing the trauma, in which the patient suffers from flashbacks or nightmares; avoidance, where the patient may refrain from talking about their experiences and ward off people who remind them of the trauma; and increased arousal, which can be especially inhibiting for students, according to Meyer.

“[Increased arousal] causes problems sleeping, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and they're on alert all the time,” she said. “All of these can interfere with school.”

Meyer, who works with thousands of patients diagnosed with PTSD, noted an example of a situation the symptom has been known to act as a trigger.

“If they hear a loud noise, they will hit the floor or take cover under their desk,” she said. “It can be very embarrassing.”

Army veteran Don Place said he felt alienated after he returned from Vietnam in 1969, which spurred him to drink alcohol before going to class every day. Place is currently enrolled at the University of Iowa.

“You know you're different, but you don't know what the hell it is,” he said.

Place was diagnosed with PTSD at the age of 50 after three years of interviews with doctors.

Scott Community College student Jess Woods went through a three-hour psychological evaluation in August with doctors from the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs to determine if he had the disorder, a necessary step in the process of claiming the disorder as a disability. The VA informed Woods he would need to participate in additional interviews to receive that confirmation but, to this point, he says, they have not scheduled any interviews with him.

Once a patient is diagnosed with PTSD, they are encouraged to participate in weekly counseling sessions, and in many cases are prescribed medications.

Meyer estimated 80 percent of her patients are on medications, usually for treatment of anxiety or depression.

Place said the medicine can cause more harm than good for veterans, however, because they can numb a patients' senses.

“You can't learn how to feel about things if you can't feel,” he said. “But it's easier to get them on meds.”

He added that during his treatment he was taking up to five pills of both valium and oxycodone at a time because he wasn't sure how large his doses were supposed to be.

“One gal told me to keep taking them until I felt better,” he said.

Place is now off meds and thinking much clearer, he said. His daughter, Meredith, noticed the changes her dad exhibited when he was on, and then off the drugs.

“He would take them after dinner, and it was like he was in a coma until he went to bed,” she said. “But when he wasn't taking them he was very paranoid and irritable.”

However, Woods said the medications had at least one benefit.

“The meds just control the flashbacks,” he said. “I'm still really leery about people, though.”

Don Place said another challenge arose when VA doctors decided to take him off his prescription. He went through withdrawal, started self-medicating himself with alcohol, and ended up in the hospital, he said.

“When they take you off, and don't tell you what to expect…Oh, I felt like my insides were being ripped out,” he said.

Don Place has now been completely sober for seven months, he added.

Watching her father overcome the issues with which he has struggled through the years has inspired Meredith Place, now a junior at the University of Iowa, to pursue working with veterans as a career. In January, she traveled to Washington, D.C. to accept an internship with Potomac Advocates, where she will be educating and counseling vets.

“I want to be an advocate for them,” she said. “I know what they're going through.”

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