A rocket propelled grenade struck a Humvee containing 7,500 gallons of fuel in front of Craig Smith two years ago.
The explosion impacted the fuel-containing tank that Smith was riding in, ejecting him out of the vehicle and burning his left arm.
This is one of 23-year-old Smith’s many experiences as a soldier in Operation Iraqi Freedom — experiences that have led to his development of post traumatic stress disorder after his 10-month tour in Iraq.
Smith returned to the United States and was admitted to a hospital in Fort Carson, Col. to be treated for what he believed were symptoms of PTSD. Smith was, and still is, experiencing constant paranoia, nightmares, and shaking in the middle of the night.
During Smith’s initial visit to Fort Carson, he told a doctor about his symptons. The doctor informed Smith he was suffering from PTSD, but could not formally diagnose him, Smith said. Meanwhile, the symptoms persisted.
“I went back for a second opinion,” Smith said. “And they gave me a hotline (phone number).”
According to Smith, there were only two doctors to treat mental health patients at Fort Carson at the time, so he went to a veteran center in downtown Colorado Springs, where he was diagnosed with chronic PTSD. He was then discharged from the Army.
“It was an eight-month fight to see a doctor,” Smith said.
Smith currently undergoes treatment to help manage the symptoms for PTSD between two and three times a week. He said the treatments are helpful, but the symptoms continue.
Smith said he still has intrusive and unwarranted thoughts about the war at random times.
He once walked into a Starbucks and saw a Muslim woman with a headdress. He feared she would blow herself up, although he knew in his heart she was there just to buy coffee, he said. Smith’s symptoms are often visually or audibly cued, such as by the slamming of a door, he said.
“Unless you’ve been there, you wouldn’t understand,” Smith said. “Everything’s a threat.”
He said he had a different perception of the war before going to Iraq.
“I didn’t think I’d be as afraid as I was,” Smith said. “I thought it would be like in the movies. Then I almost died.”
Mark Sergi, assistant professor of psychology at CSUN, said PTSD is caused by the feeling of profound helplessness, horror or fear shortly after one witnesses or experiences a scenario in which his or her physical integrity is in danger.
Some of the symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, hallucinations, arousal and avoidance, Sergi said.
According to Sergi, one of the issues is how the families of people with PTSD react to the symptoms. He said PTSD causes interpersonal and social dysfunction, such as sudden hostility toward other people.
The symptoms of PTSD are “natural reactions to unnatural circumstances,” Sergi said.
Lt. Col. Joseph Richard, spokesperson for the Department of Defense, said it is not surprising that some military servicemembers experience difficulty coping with the aftermath of war.
“They’re in a readjustment phase that can be challenging,” Richard said. “You can’t get more stressed than in combat.”
Richard said the Department of Defense recognizes the importance of identifying the challenges soldiers face when they return. He said they have a program where soldiers are medically screened.
According to Richard, various services are provided by the Department of Defense for the medical and psychological treatment of soldiers, such as the ones provided by Veteran Affairs.
Richard said that although PTSD is an issue that is recognized, not all military personnel develop the disorder.
“Some may cope better than others,” Richard said.
He said they look for signs or indictors to see if servicemembers are having problems with adjustment, behavior, diet and mood.
“There is a residual effect if they try to get back in a peace-time environment,” Richard said.
Leslie Martin, a licensed clinical social worker, and the director of the PTSD program at Veteran Affairs in West Los Angeles, said soldiers are exposed to traumatic circumstances because they are in combat and witness explosions and deaths. Therefore, they may re-experience these events in their dreams and memories, Martin said.
Veteran Affairs is an outpatient facility, meaning patients come in for treatment but do not have an extended hospital stay, Martin said. She said they begin psychosocial reconstructing to help veterans trust themselves and others, and better relate to the world.
Some of the treatments used with people who are diagnosed with PTSD are exposure and talk therapy, Martin said. She said medications can also help, but their effectiveness differs for every individual.
People, in general, tend to suppress their bad memories and traumatic experiences, Martin said. The treatment helps them talk about their experiences and share them with others to help cope with the memories.
A person with PTSD can recover over time by bringing back all the senses that were involved in the traumatic experience, like the smell and sound of gunfire, Sergi said.
It is important to talk about the traumatic events and maximize the anxiety in a treatment session to help people with PTSD control and releive those symptoms over time, Sergi said.
Those suffering from PTSD should undergo treatment as soon as possible, Sergi said. Otherwise, the treatments will not be as successful.
Not all veterans undergo the same treatment, since a person’s experiences and symptoms are unique to the individual, Martin said. But suicide is not common among people with PTSD, she said.
“Most are just plain exhausted from carrying this burden,” Martin said.
About 5 million people in the United States are believed to have PTSD, and 25 percent of combat veterans are diagnosed with it, Martin said.
During the midst of Smith’s struggle to be diagnosed with PTSD, he contacted Operation Truth, the first Iraqi war veteran’s advocacy group which was founded by Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq War veteran.
Rieckhoff came back from Iraq over a year ago, and started the organization in June 2004. He said he was concerned with the portrayal of the war in the media, and that only those in higher ranks, like generals, were visible.
“The American public didn’t know what was going on,” Rieckhoff said.
About 400 veterans contacted the organization in the first seven months of the Iraqi war, Rieckhoff said. They now have 30,000 online supporters.
Soldiers who seek medical or psychological care are to admit themselves to Veteran Affairs because they are only eligible to be admitted to a veteran’s hospital, Rieckhoff said.
But with the limited resources, the organization is limited as well. Rieckhoff said Veteran Affairs is currently underfunded by $1 billion.
Rieckoff’s goal, he said, is to change the way people perceive war, and to give adequate support for troops.
“It should bother people,” Rieckhoff said.
Smith, meanwhile, is working hard to readjust himself. He is currently enrolled at Brockport University in New York, majoring in political science.
“I want to connect with people,” Smith said. “(It’s) hard to find common ground.”