Nadiyah Suleiman, Page Editor
As of 2015, 11 to 20 percent of Veterans who have served in modern wars – such as Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom – have reported symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. For Junior Legal Studies major Sean Sala, this struggle is all too real. Sala served in the U.S. Navy as an Operations Specialist Second Class for three combat tours in Iraq, Jordan and Somalia. After almost two years of military service, working with secret material, navigation and air defense, and despite returning home in 2011, Sala did not experience symptoms of PTSD until 2014.
“Everybody thinks it’s this immediate thing that happens after deployment.” Sala said, “It hits you all of a sudden. For me, the way I knew something was really wrong was there was nothing wrong — I just started to have extreme anxiety [that was] uncontrollable, became very irritable, and incredibly depressed, and I was having suicidal thoughts probably 15-20 times a day.”
Not only has Sala had to cope with the symptoms of PTSD, but he has also had to deal with the heavy stigma that surrounds PTSD. One of the biggest misconceptions about PTSD, according to Sala, is this idea that every veteran with PTSD is violent or will be violent. Sala said: “We’ve had students say incredibly insensitive, ignorant things to veterans. I had a student assume that I was violent – I’ve never been in a fight in my life, by the way, at least a fist fight.”
According to the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs, a study in the late 1980s shows that about 15 out of every 100 veterans (15 percent) in the Vietnam War were diagnosed with PTSD. It is estimated that more than 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have suffered after military service. The same study estimates that about 12 percent of the veterans of Desert Storm experience PTSD. These statistics show an ongoing struggle by veterans in processing the mental trauma of combat.
There is also a belief that PTSD is simply mind over matter as opposed to a real mental illness that needs to be treated. Sala shared: “I used to be an avid believer that mental health was mind over matter and now I know that it’s not. Your brain gets sick, period.”
In a recent interview, TWU Licensed Psychologist Dr. Kari Leavell said: “I think mental health is continuing to go through a process of working to destigmatize mental health care in general, and so if we can continue working on that, it may make folks feel more open to the idea of seeking mental health treatment.”
There has been a social movement to change the name of PTSD to Post Traumatic Stress (PTS). Leavell stated: “When we call it a disorder, it makes it sound out of the norm, unacceptable or sort of something that is beyond what is reasonable after an intense event. If nothing else, in social conversation, calling it PTS is less stigmatizing.”
Unfortunately, fighting the stigma is only half the battle. Sala said the biggest mistake people make is assuming the United States provides quality health care to veterans that have the resources to effectively treat PTSD. According to Sala, veterans who have been injured in war are supposed to receive disability pensions right when they return home; however, veterans have struggled with severe backlogging and pension delays. Sala said: “Imagine you’re in that situation; we take huge pay cuts in transitioning back to civilian life, [and] we need that especially because your mental and physical condition can inhibit you from transferring back to civilian life, and people were waiting two years to receive their compensation.”
Sala added: “I don’t ever regret my military service. I would do it again. What I have gained is a realization of a very real and uncontrollable suffering which has given me a mission of making sure that these low standards change.”
“It’s a huge red tape process.” Sala continued, “It’s incredibly insufficient. The Army and Marine Corps severely lack in assisting their marines and soldiers in their transitions because they have been some of the worst I’ve ever seen, as far as their care goes. They are bred to be very tough. It’s good to have them on our side because that’s their job, but when you’re in that situation you’re trained to be made of oak and steel. We are trained to not ask for help.”
This training and mentality only seeks to further the stigma of PTSD not only within the military itself but also within the people who struggle with PTSD. Sala stated: “Accepting it is incredibly hard. The fear of judgment from others – and trust me that is so real it is unbelievable – and realizing you’re powerless is the worst part. When your body starts to betray you, it’s very hard to describe.”
“I couldn’t deal with it.” Sala continued, “I have to take medication to this day, but on the same note, people who had cancer have to take medication; people who had liver transplants have to take medicine everyday; so the thing is PTSD may have unique circumstances, but this is not unique in the fact that it can be treated and there is no shame in allowing your body the treatment and medication it deserves. I’ve been on treatment, and I am A-Okay now. You still have hard days, but it’s not like it was.”
Leavell stated: “Emotionally we recover the same way our bones and joints do from any kind of surgery or injury. It takes support, patience by those around us and by the person healing, and it takes understanding.”
It is also important to note that no two lives are the same, and PTSD can stem from several other factors outside of combat. Sala stated: “I’m gay; I served under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell for six years. I wasn’t allowed to talk about my life for six years. That definitely played a role, I was threatened with my career. It was ridiculous. Military sexual trauma is very high as well, especially among women, so it’s not even just combat; it’s egregious equal opportunity policies. Women within the military are within a high rate for sexual harassment. It’s not just combat.”
Sala is also the President of the Student Veterans Association on campus and seeks to create a safe space for veterans to come, stating: “Creating a space for comradery — providing free coffee is essential — we have started to get involved with the U.S Global leadership coalition the Denton county Veterans Association, and numerous other events, guest speakers, like I said, creating a space where we can interact and help each other out.” The Veterans Center in Jones Hall provides a work space and a relaxation space on campus where veterans students can gather.
SVA members are able to support one another because they share similar experiences. Sala shared: “Two weeks ago, I had a friend who was committed to a mental ward for battle stress talking about feeling suicidal. We have another person part of the SVA who lost a friend to suicide. We have another person in the SVA who lost a friend in the army to suicide.” He continued, “When these things occur, they can obviously interact with academia. For us especially, it’s people over politics. It gets to the point where I don’t care about a test, I don’t care about this, because we all have a very sacred, special bond between each other.”
Sala also said: “When all this happened, the first thing a lot of people said was you should never talk about it. And I was like, ‘No, I really do have an obligation to talk about it.’ The stigma needs to end, and I would say the ultimate goal of the SVA, as far as this issue goes, is to end the stigma.”
Leavell stated: “I think mental health is continuing to go through a process of working to destigmatize mental health care in general, and so if we can continue working on that, it may make folks feel more open to the idea of seeking mental health treatment.”
“It’s that simple phrase, freedom is not free it was not free upon our founding, and it’s not free now. And people need to remember that every day.” Sala concluded, “It’s more than just saying ‘thank you for your service’ – it’s ensuring that through your own personal actions that those who serve are truly thanked. Morality and immorality are real things still in 2015, and if willful ignorance causes hurt in any facet of humanity, it’s immoral. It just is.”