War can leave veterans with mental scars - Fox 2 News Headlines

War can leave veterans with mental scars

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By Deena Centofanti
Fox 2 News Health Reporter

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. (WJBK) -- It's the battle many combat veterans fight long after the war.  Home, they try to forget the trauma of war, but realize life will never be the same.

"The war that they just went through was one in which there was no clear line differentiating safety from harm.  You could walk through a market and could get shot at, a child could be carrying a bomb, so their whole conception of what's considered safe and what's considered... not safe is thrown off," said Dr. Bella Schanzer, chief of Mental Health Services at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit.

From the outside, 28-year-old Steven Patterson appears carefree as he rides his bike to class at Wayne State University.  The problem is, as much as he tries to move forward, the former army corporal can't forget his past.

"When we come back here, we're told to let our guard down, that we're safe.  So once we finally start to let our guard down, that's when a car will backfire," he explained.  "Something that is so simple that normally wouldn't scare you, but yet scares us so bad that it's embarrassing."

"And then all of a sudden our guard gets raised and we don't know what to do about it."

2006 -- Patterson was serving in Iraq and the victim of dozens of roadside bombings.

"Concussion after concussion after concussion -- we really didn't have time for much sleep, so it wasn't like we (were) able to heal after each one."

Memorial Day 2007, a particularly deadly mission killed seven of Steven's comrades.

"I was the one that had to go in and remove the bodies from the Bradley."

Patterson was eventually medevaced out of Iraq with a traumatic brain injury.  Remarkably, he would recover from that physical wound, but the psychological damage he can't escape.

"The reliving it happens when I dream.  My wife can tell you that I wake up screaming in the middle of the night.  And before her, I didn't have anybody, I didn't have anybody to help me."

"The VA takes this incredibly seriously," said Schanzer.

She explained the real challenge is connecting with people who may not be able to acknowledge they need help.

"They're tough, they're macho, they take care of business, they don't need help, and getting them to acknowledge that maybe they do need help is one of the hardest things we struggle with."

Like Patterson, it's estimated that one in every five military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan has post traumatic stress disorder.  Depression rates are estimated to be twice as high among vets, and The Army Times reported there are 950 suicide attempts by veterans every month.

Why?  That's what the VA is trying to figure out.

"With mental illness it's a lot more complicated.  There is the genetics, so there's the nature, what your born with, your predisposition for developing some sort of mental illness, and then there's the environmental stressors that impact that predisposition because not every person who goes to war develops a mental illness," Schanzer said.

Soon a first of its kind mental health floor will open at the VA offering comfort and counseling to returning vets like Patterson.

"Every person should be treated with the respect and honor that this clinic speaks, I think, to the veterans," Schanzer told us.

A Purple Heart is among the medals Patterson has sheepishly accepted, but what he really cherishes is the one person who is by his side during the brightest of days and darkest of nights -- his wife, Rachel.

"He's really young and he looks like he's fine and he can handle himself really, really well, but then when he comes home and it's just me and him, there's a lot of stress that we deal with that no one else has to see, which is what I'm thankful for that I get to help him handle it," she said.

"I just want to go forward and bring her with me," her husband remarked.

In addition to encouraging treatment, the VA is working on prevention, lessening the effect of environmental stressors during combat to lower the risk of mental illness later.

To learn more about symptoms and resources when it comes to recognizing and treating mental illness in veterans, visit www.mentalhealth.va.gov/gethelp.asp.

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