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Veterans helping veterans: The buddy system

image.img.320.highI interviewed Army specialist Jayson Early by phone over the summer, shortly after he completed an in-patient program for PTSD at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Menlo Park. This was for a Stanford Medicine magazine story I was researching about a pilot project to help get much needed mental-health services to the recently returned waves of Afghanistan and Iraqi vets. What struck me most after talking with Early was just how clueless he had been, first as a teenaged-recruit, then as a young veteran, about the fact that going to war could cause mental wounds.

As the mother of a 17-year-old boy, though, I completely understood: Early just wanted to serve his country. He requested to be sent to war. In 2008, he got his wish and was deployed to Iraq just a year after exchanging his high-school baseball uniform for military fatigues. His first field assignment, an innocuous-sounding public affairs errand to photograph a burned out truck at an Iraqi police station, would be the first of many that left him with permanent scars:

"There were body parts, coagulated blood, hair all over," [Early] says, pausing. "I just wasn’t expecting it." An Iraqi family had been executed in the vehicle, presumably by insurgents. Early had gone through intense military training to prepare for moments like these. He blocked any emotions. He followed orders, clicked the camera and moved on. It wasn’t until years later that he realized just how permanently those images, and many more like them, had burned into his brain.

Stanford psychiatrist Shaili Jain, MD, interviewed in a podcast about her work with PTSD and veterans, had told me about a new pilot project that connects veterans with other veterans as a unique way to bridge what she called a "treatment gap" - the difficulty of getting mental-health services to the veterans that need them. My article - which is a timely read, given that today is Veterans Day - tells the story of Early’s connection with one of the veteran’s hired through this project, Erik Ontiveros, who went through treatment for addictions and PTSD himself, and just why it’s so hard to get treatment to veterans. As one well-known expert on PTSD explains in the story:

"It’s wicked difficult to treat anyone with moral injuries from combat in the traditional medical model," says psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, MD, an expert on PTSD known for his books on the difficulties soldiers face returning home from war. "It destroys the capacity for trust. What it leaves is despair, an expectation of harm, humiliation or exploitation, and that is a horrible state of being. The traditional medical model - in an office with the door closed - is the last thing they want. I’m convinced that’s where peers come in. Peers are indispensable."

Early told me many of his horror stories from war - stories that he rarely talks about. The time he was called to another execution area where there were enough body parts for 12 people who had all been gagged, bound, shot and burned. But, he said, they could only put together eight people. "We were trying to find a way to identify them," he said. "Whenever I grabbed a hand, it would just crumble to dust."

At the end of his 14-month deployment, Early returned home unscathed - or so he thought. He was physically whole, unlike so many others he had served with. He was one of the lucky ones. As I wrote in the story:

"You went through hell essentially and made it out visibly unscathed," he says, remembering when his deployment first ended and he was shipped to Germany, then home. "I was young. I just wanted to go home and have a normal life. I didn’t even realize PTSD was a real thing."

While I talked to Early on the phone, I could hear his two young kids playing in the background. He talked about how it was a daily struggle not to lose his temper. The mental wounds of war had left him jumpy, his fuse was short. Without the support of other veteran’s like Onitveros and the support group he ran, his PTSD, his addictions would have ended his marriage, could have destroyed his life:

Sitting in a circle with a small group of other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, a light bulb finally began to flicker in Early’s brain. Maybe those 14 months in Iraq of piecing together the body parts of Iraqi civilians blown to bits, of constant adrenaline-pumping fear, of near-death experiences, bullet dodging, bomb scares - maybe all that and more could have caused some mental wounds. Maybe death and violence upfront and personal could trigger years of anger, depression, drinking and drug use even if he hadn’t been physically wounded. Maybe he did need help.

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine traverses the immune system, Stanford/VA study finds link between PTSD and premature birth, Examining the scientific evidence behind experimental treatments for PTSD and Study shows benefits of breathing meditation among veterans with PTSD
Photo by Timothy Archibald

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