Soldiers’ invisible wounds

Article by Kera Wanielista

Locked in the bathroom of the house he shared with his wife, Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran Evan Knappenberger knew what was coming next.It wasn’t the first time he had wanted it, but with any luck, it would be the last. All he wanted was an end; an end to the pain and confusion, the dreams and nightmares—an end to his young life. He heard his wife, Marie, outside the door. She had called the cops, who promised her they would take him to jail for the night: for his own good.

With their guns drawn, they approached Knappenberger.

“They came at me like I was their worst enemy—like I was an insurgent,” Knappenberger says. “They threw me to the ground in my own home.”

When he regained his awareness, hours later, he was standing naked in a padded room at the jail.

It was just another episode in the long line of traumatic episodes Knappenberger has experienced since he became a soldier more than seven years ago. Knappenberger likens it to drowning.

“By the time you fall in, it’s all you can do to just breathe,” he says. “From the day I joined the Army until today, that’s how I’ve felt.”

Knappenberger suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is an anxiety disorder that some people develop after seeing or living through a dangerous event. For our troops, it can happen at anytime during or after their time in the military. Dr. Bridget Cantrell, who is an expert on treating veterans with PTSD and is based out of Fairhaven, describes it as a response to something that’s outside the realm of normal experience.

Symptoms vary by individual, but along with the mental symptoms of PTSD—sleeplessness, flashbacks, profound grief, increased startle reaction, and relationship problems, to name a few—Cantrell says there are physical signs of PTSD. Cortisol, a hormone that increases blood pressure and blood-sugar levels as a response to stress or anxiety, is more responsive to external triggers, making people who have PTSD more on edge.

Cantrell says this means if a veteran with PTSD and a civilian without it hear a car backfire, cortisol levels in both will instantly spike. For the civilian, the levels will quickly drop once the threat of danger has subsided. But for the veteran, the cortisol levels will stay elevated for a longer period of time, maybe even days.

Knappenberger’s not alone. It’s estimated that 300,000—more than 35 percent—of his fellow Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans will suffer from PTSD. That number doesn’t include troops from the war in Afghanistan.

With the amount of troops returning home, Veterans’ care is going to be an increasing issue around the country. According to the Whatcom County Veterans Coalition, there are 667,000 veterans in the state of Washington—16,000 in Whatcom County. And with more troops returning and trying to take advantage of the GI bill, those numbers may increase.

PTSD is not a recent development; troops from every war experience combat stress–related issues. But veterans of WWII weren’t willing to talk about the inner strife they were feeling, Cantrell says. It wasn’t until troops returned from Vietnam and demanded an explanation for the new emotions they were feeling that PTSD began sneaking into the spotlight.

Many WWII veterans viewed the younger warriors as “whiners” and “complainers,” Cantrell says.

“Our poor Vietnam veterans came home to a society that ostracized them, rejected them, judged them and were very disrespectful,” Cantrell says. “We cannot afford to repeat that.”

Bellingham resident James Gillies knows this firsthand. The Canadian-born, Vietnam veteran says not only were he and his comrades shunned by older veterans, they were prohibited from their groups, like the American Legion. And civilians didn’t regard them very highly either.

“Because we ‘lost’ the war we were losers,” Gillies says. “We were ‘mad-dog killers’.”

Gillies says his adjustment back into society wasn’t exactly smooth. And although he hadn’t been diagnosed with PTSD yet, he knew something was different. He was in and out of jail (where he, like Knappenberger, noticed a high population of veterans), had drug problems, tried to commit suicide, went from job to job, slept outdoors, had extreme anger issues, and was married five times.

“I only slept two hours a day for 38 years,” he says. “That should have been a clue.”

Gillies recalls one Christmas where he took his two young children (with his fifth and current wife, Barbara) to pick out a Christmas tree. He went to a payphone to call Barbara and tell her they had picked a different tree than the couple had originally decided on. Two men were at the pay phone and wouldn’t let Gillies use it. So with his two children watching from the car, he got into a 20-minute fist fight.

Once, while crossing the street with his young son Blakely, a man didn’t stop properly at a crosswalk. So Gillies leapt onto the roof of his car, pulled him out of it, and stuck his nose to the ground asking if he knew what a crosswalk was.

“I started feeling like a super hero, or the Lone Ranger, but without any qualifications,” Gillies says.

Finally in 1995, after years of jumping through hoops with the VA hospitals (he had to prove over and over again that he had actually served in Vietnam), Gillies got a diagnosis of PTSD, Attention Defecit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and depression. Since then, he’s been able to get the medical help he’s needed. But for others, like Knappenberger, medical care is hard to get. Knappenberger says he once tried to check himself into the VA hospital in Seattle because of suicidal thoughts, but was told there was only one bed available in the Pacific Northwest: in Portland. And he would have to drive himself.

Severe road-rage and PTSD often go hand in hand Cantrell says.  In war situations it is vital for troops to be completely aware of their surroundings, especially while driving, to prevent surprise attacks that could result in death. Inattentive drivers, who talk on their cell phones or do their make-up on highways here at home, cause tremendous amounts of stress. As a result, many veterans don’t want to have to drive 75 to 100 miles to the closest Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital to get their medication or to a short visit with a therapist.

Even at the VA there are a lot of difficulties that stand in the way of Veterans and their treatment. Paperwork often gets lost or delayed, meaning it takes longer for veterans to get the help they need. Veterans often deal with long waits and sometimes, inadequate care professionals.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle veterans, and active-duty troops have to overcome with PTSD is the stigma that is associated with it. Military personnel are viewed as being the best of the best, the toughest of the tough, and the bravest of the brave. Cantrell says that leaves many of them wondering, “I made it through Iraq (or Vietnam), why can’t I make it through this?”

“I’ve had so many people tell me, ‘I wish I had an arm missing, then people could see I have pain.’,” Cantrell says.

Cantrell says it is not uncommon for troops dealing with PTSD to feel as if they are letting down their unit, their comrades, and their leaders. Many are afraid of losing their security status. Having PTSD makes many feel weak, and their weakness makes the whole unit weak. Weakness is not something a unit can afford in the military when the difference between life and death can happen in a moment of weakness.

That’s why Cantrell says she tries to normalize the situation for troops when she meets them. Cantrell says she frequently asks units that she is sent to talk to how many of them are feeling angrier, more lost, or more stressed than they were before they were deployed. She frequently sees all of the troops raise their hands. This shows the warrior that he or she is not alone in what they are feeling. These feelings, symptoms of PTSD, are common, and the person is not weak or crazy for feeling them.

“They can get through this,” Cantrell says. “But they have to have a sanctuary around them to do this.”

Cantrell says this is where the community can play an active and important part. She says it’s important for family, friends, teachers, co-workers—anyone who has involvement with veterans—to keep an eye out for things that might make veterans uncomfortable. Things like crowds at a mall or marketplace, excessively screaming children, or backfiring vehicles.

“We need to take responsibility as citizens to notice these things, help veterans be as successful as possible,” Cantrell says.

Even simple things, like making them a meal, mowing a lawn, or baby sitting, can help make the life of a returning veteran and their family easier, she says.

One way to make an immeasurable impact on the life of a soldier, Cantrell says, is to participate in one of the many “adopt-a-troop” organizations that can be found on the internet. By sending care packages and even little things like cards, citizens can make a warrior feel his or her service is appreciated.

“We need to really come together as a community,” Cantrell says. “Because community is where healing takes place.”

For Gillies, the best way he can help is summed up by the motto of the Vietnam Veterans of America: “To never let this happen to another soldier again.”

“We’re trying to make sure they don’t suffer the same slings and arrows that the Vietnam veterans did,” Gillies says. “It’s a matter of veterans being proactive and not giving up.”

These days, Gillies sleeps four hours a day—in bed with his wife. He hosts trivia night at Uisce’s pub downtown, almost every week. He writes for What’s Up! Magazine, and the Cascadia Weekly. Recently, he won the Howard Harris Lifetime Peacemaker Award from the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center for the work he has done to improve the lives and care of veterans.

“Personally, I’ve made my peace with it. I’m okay,” he says. “It’s inspired me to be helpful. When all is said and done, I’m a better person for it.”

Although PTSD is classified as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Cantrell says it’s important for warriors to not lose hope; they can get through it.

Knappenberger is on his way. In December, he graduated from Whatcom Community College with a transfer degree, meaning he has all of his basic college requirements completed. He hopes to go to WWU and major in math, when funds allow. They may seem like small steps, but they’re steps in the right direction.

Like Gillies, Knappenberger plans to stay involved in veterans’ issues and hopes to be helpful to others like him.

“If I can stop somebody else from having the same, meaningless trauma, maybe that will do some good in the universe,” he says.

It took at least 30 years for Vietnam veterans to get the help they needed and deserved. Here’s hoping that our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans don’t have to wait that long.

Article was printed in Bellingham Alive! 2/10


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