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Saving our soldiers: The fight against PTSD

CREATED Feb. 18, 2013

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MILWAUKEE - Just because a soldier comes home doesn't mean the war is over. Post traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD is on the rise. Veterans who are suffering from post-war effects can sometimes fall into a path of violent behavior if not given the proper treatment.

We've heard the stories. Vietnam was an ugly war, and it often didn't get much better for the soldiers when they got home.

Bob Curry is a Vietnam vet. He explains, "We came back to... you know... a country that really rather wanted it to go away."

Thousands of soldiers coming home and committing suicide and other acts of violence--not knowing why.

"PTSD was not a condition, was not a recognized medical condition during Vietnam," Curry points out.

Today there are treatments, but tragedies linked to PTSD are still happening, and mental illness is still very misunderstood.

Kristina Finnel is CEO of Mental Health America's Wisconsin office. She says, "We can't talk about overall health unless we talk about mental health."

Dryhootch Coffee on Brady Street in Milwaukee is a place where vets can go for some social therapy.

"You can get comradery of other people who understand, you know. You don't have to finish a sentence, they kinda know what you're saying," Bob explains.

Bob founded Dryhootch in 2008, after battling with his own post-war demons for many years.

"My wife had mentioned that I would slam my hands into the backboard of the bed during the night. Because I flew, I would have dreams of ejecting from the plane all the time," Bob recalls.

Bob ignored the signs, and tried to 'soldier' through it. "There's the added problem that you've been trained just to get over it," Bob points out.

Alcoholism also overtook his life.

"If you have severe PTSD you're likely to self medicate. I don't mean to use drinking as an excuse because it's not an excuse," Bob says.

But he continued to get worse, especially after 9/11. Then one night--the unimaginable happened. Bob recalls, "The next thing I remember is I come to in a hospital, and I'm talking to some police officers, and I'd been involved in an automobile accident where another gentleman died."

Bob was arrested and charged with homicide by intoxicated use. In the process he finally got the treatment he needed for years, and was diagnosed as being totally disabled by PTSD. "I shouldn't be alive. You know this other family doesn't have their loved one, so then why go from there?"

Bob was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and was institutionalized.

"Unfortunately in mental institutions they're medicated, but they're not treated. So it's unfortunate that here, where they could get--people could get the most help, you know they're not getting any help at all." Bob laments.

Finnel says more needs to be done across the board for mental health patients. "Recovery for everyone is so different, and needs to be individualized."

She says in Milwaukee County many mental institutions are downsizing, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but Finnel adds, "We want to see those savings from that decrease be put back into the community. So that if folks don't have a place to go in the institution they do have a place in the community to receive those services."

The hope: To eventually prevent tragedies like Bob's, or the Sebena murder case in Wauwatosa. Iraq war veteran Ben Sebena is accused of killing his wife Jennifer on Christmas Eve. Sebena made a testimonial video in 2010 saying, "My experiences in Iraq were that of having to watch over 50 of my friends, that are good friends, die. Having to kill people. Having to kill a child who tried to kill me..."

Bob wishes people would have seen the warning signs of Sebena's mental state.

"People are gonna say they can't... you can't make excuses for something like that, I mean you can look at me and do the same thing. The fact is this has happened, and some doctors need to understand what's going on," Bob warns.

Bob admits he lives with guilt everyday, but he's doing his best to help other veterans, young and old, combat their demons before they overtake their lives.

"This can't happen again, to another generation," Bob urges.

Sebena is in Milwaukee county jail, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder could come up as a defense in his trial.

If you know a veteran who suffers from PTSD, there's help out there. Check out this website.

Also, there's a big event coming up for veterans. 'The Warrior Summit' is on Thursday March 21 at the War Memorial in Milwaukee. Click here to find out more.

Mental Health America is also holding its annual fundraiser. This year the focus will be on PTSD. It's on May 1, 2013 from 5:30-8:30pm at the Italian Community Center. Dr. Steven Southwick will be speaking. He is a recognized expert on the psychological and neurobiological effects of extreme psychological trauma. More info on the event, including registration, is available here.