While serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq in 2004, Dan Nevins lost both of his legs and sustained a severe brain injury after an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated under his vehicle. However, he now professes, “Getting my legs blown off 12 years ago was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Filled with frustration and fear, Nevins returned to the United States and began experiencing severe nightmares and anxiety. After being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he sought for a way to bring peace and new meaning to his life.
This past Wednesday evening, Nevins shared his story to an audience of USC faculty and students, other veterans, and Midlands community members. In an event hosted by the University of South Carolina’s Student Veterans Association, ROTC, and My Carolina Veterans Alumni Council, Nevins, along with five other veteran panelists, joined expert scholars and other military professionals to discuss managing life after combat with PTSD.
“Ten years ago, I would have had to know where every door is in this building. I would have looked at every person in this room up and down to know exactly what kind of threats they could pose to me,” Nevins admitted.
What eventually freed Nevins from his anxiety was practicing, and eventually teaching, yoga. “When I tell some Army guys that I do yoga, they look at me like I have eight heads,” he told the audience on Wednesday. “Yoga gave me the new skills I needed to cope. Mindfulness and meditation gave my brain a chance to un-learn and begin healing…eventually, I realized: this is not combat. This is Columbia, South Carolina.”
“It’s not just that you’re broken”: PTSD and veterans
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD is an anxiety disorder that forms in individuals after they have endured one or more life-threatening, shocking, or terrifying events. One of the main purposes of Wednesday night’s event at the USC Alumni Center, which was open to the public and free for all attendees, was to bust myths about combat veterans with PTSD.
“There is that perception of the traumatized veteran huddling, scared, in a corner, not able to contribute, and that’s been exacerbated in TV and movies,” said Nevins. “We might as all wear a sign that says ‘Damaged Goods.’”
Dr. Nancy Brown, a professor at the USC’s College of Social Work, spoke at the event and noted that there are “different levels” of PTSD, and that the disorder may manifest differently from person to person.
Some people tend to relive the horrors they have experienced with nightmares, flashbacks, and hysterical reactions to new situations. Others may begin to evade certain parts of their lives, becoming withdrawn, fearful, and avoidant. PTSD has both physiological and psychological symptoms, including memory loss, insomnia, and panic attacks.
Matthew Sejuit, a social worker at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs and Navy veteran, was also part of Wednesday night’s panel. He spoke about the lack of understanding about PTSD in veterans. “We really need to work on destigmatizing PTSD,” he explained. “It’s not all anger and out-lashes. And it’s not just that you’re broken. It’s a process we go through.”
For panelist and Marine Karl Golian, PTSD did manifest in extreme anger and difficulty reorganizing his life after trauma. “I came back injured [from overseas], and I was a very angry person,” said Golian. “I didn’t have a good relationship for a long time, and had a lot of problems in my family.”
In addition to outburst of anger and what he described as “hatefulness,” Golian also experienced a great deal of anxiety and paranoia day to day. “When I would drive on some of these roads in South Carolina, I was convinced they were just IUD laden,” he recounted. “All the time, I would drive so far out of my way just to avoid what I thought was a danger and find a better route.”
U.S. Navy veteran Candace Terry also joined Wednesday night’s panelists to discuss her experiences with PTSD, which she called a “continuous journey.” Terry is a survivor of military sexual trauma. “After the rape, I started having severe anxiety attacks…Eventually, I just sort of curled up in a ball, and I didn’t want to leave my room,” Terry explained.
Terry told the audience about her reactions to “triggering” events, which are incidents that may remind survivors of their past traumas and arouse the distress and anxiety those events caused. Terry even stated that she had tearful “meltdowns” in front of people, and admitted that just the thought of speaking about her PTSD and past experiences at Wednesday’s event had incited some panic in her. “I was anxious preparing for this panel…the nightmares came back,” she told the audience.
What the panel hoped to convey to the audience Wednesday night, though, was that PTSD does not have to be a crippling disease. “PTSD is the normal reaction of human beings who have experienced extraordinary events,” Dr. Brown stated. “Once people accept they have the right to feel this way, then they can accept the challenges out there to improve their lives, and change how they live successfully.”
“If you have PTSD, your brain is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do, but in very abnormal circumstances,” Nevins assured the audience. “No matter how much I think about it, the traumatic thing that happened to me is never going to go away. I had to find freedom from that, and it was a long journey. But the experiences I have now are what define my life, not the past.”
“Get ready to change”: Coping mechanisms for PTSD survivors
Steven Diaz, a Marine Corps veteran, was also part of the panel on Wednesday. Diaz currently serves as the Chief Operations Officer of Hidden Wounds, a nonprofit organization that provides psychological resources and public education concerning post-war obstacles and challenges. Diaz wanted to be part of the panel to encourage other veterans with PTSD to seek help, experiment with different forms of therapy, and to know that their lives are worth the effort.
In the time that has lapsed since his medical retirement, Diaz has met dozens of veterans who have treated their PTSD with a variety of activities, including crafts, building projects, bodybuilding, and golf. “As veterans, we forget that we were once really good at facing fear and adapting to a new environment, and that we could do our job with our eyes closed,” Diaz said in his address to the audience. “There are so many things out there that could help you, and you just have to try. Try everything. You don’t know what you’ll be good at. Whether it’s birdwatching, hunting, skydiving, art—you don’t know what’s going to help you find peace.”
Diaz stated that he tried to treat his PTSD in many ways, but talking to other veterans provided him with the most healing and understanding after enduring trauma. “They can relate, and you don’t have to explain and describe every little thing. It’s a good first step.”
Like Diaz, Sejuit was emphatic that getting involved with “helping other veterans” was what has helped him cope with living with PTSD. Other panelists acknowledged the usefulness of veterans supporting one another, citing problems with immediately seeking counseling or psychological intervention after trauma.
A few panelists emphasized the difficulty in opening up to civilian counselors, who may have a difficult time understanding the horrors and risks they faced while serving in combat situations. If sharing and finding understand from family members, friends, and coworkers was not difficult enough, talking to strangers about their PTSD was even more challenging for a few of the veterans at Wednesday’s panel. Terry told the audience that having “like-minded people to talk to and support you” was integral to coping with PTSD. Similarly, Golian acknowledged that he was unable to overcome the problems PTSD added to his life until he found ways to interact with other veterans facing the same crises. “It’s easier to talk to someone who’s been there. For me, that’s when I started to get better and was able to function,” he said.
Terry found that battling PTSD as a survivor of military sexual trauma was extremely isolating. “When you say ‘military sexual trauma,’ people who have experienced it run, and people who haven’t experienced it just don’t want to talk about it. It’s a heavy topic and difficult for everyone to talk about,” she said. After surviving sexual assault, Terry found herself grappling with feelings of guilt and shame that prevented her from engaging in activities she once enjoyed, like running. “Even today, I am afraid to run by myself, because something could happen to me. And if it does, it feels like it’s in some way my fault,” she said.
To finally defeat her fears, Terry enrolled in jujitsu classes to confront situations that put her at risk to feel threatened or frightened. “It was very triggering to start with, and it’s still challenging, because I’m going up against mostly men,” she admitted. “But eventually, I got to the point where it was like, ‘Hey, see, this is okay.’” Reflecting on her experiences, Terry told the audience, “Get ready to challenge yourself. And get ready to change.”
Terry was not the only panelist who had survived military sexual trauma. U.S. Navy veteran Samantha Fergus shared her harrowing experience of waking up covered in blood and ripped clothing after being raped by three men in one night. After realizing that several individuals she had trusted had allowed the assaults to happen, she began experiencing an extreme distrust in people that persists to this day. “For a long time, I thought, ‘I can’t tell anybody. I’m not that kind of person. This would not happen to me. I am an upstanding citizen. I’m not that woman…this just could not happen to me.’”
Fergus recounted the day she made the decision to change her life and fight the feelings PTSD had caused her. She went out to a woodsy area and held a firearm to her skull while she contemplated what direction her life should take. “I sat with a gun to my head and thought, what can I do to help people understand?” she recalled. “I could be a voice for them…I could be that voice, and not be scared.”
Eventually, Fergus found the strength to tell her family members what had happened, and now hopes to “be that voice” for other victims of military sexual trauma who battle PTSD, depression, and suicidal thoughts. “My therapy is talking through it,” she said, also acknowledging that she has taken on art therapy and tattooing to help herself heal.
Diaz encouraged audience members with PTSD to involve themselves in other activities until they were ready for counseling. “First of all, it’s so liberating to finally leave the house and leave your own comfort zone, and take those baby steps. There are so many things out there for you to try,” said Diaz. “You might find other vets who enjoy that activity, too, and then you can start that conversation about how to cope. Also in doing that, you’ll meet civilians, and they do want to know about you… Use that as a stepping stone to eventually talking to a professional.”
During the panel, Nevins asked any audience member who was a veteran to hold up their hands. “These hands are capable of building structures for safety, of protecting others—and also of healing,” he told them. He held up his own hands and added, “These hands, once capable of horrible things, now help others heal. These hands put people in proper alignment in yoga class.”
Absolute strength: The journey after PTSD diagnosis
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs states that 21.3% of the deaths of veterans who served during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars between 2001 and 2007 were actually the result of suicide. They also published on their website that deployed veterans had a 41% higher suicide risk than the general U.S. population. Thus, addressing the mental health of combat veterans has become an integral public health concern in the last twenty years.
However, the panelists on Wednesday night did not paint a picture of gloom for either the civilians or the other veterans in the audience. Instead, they provided encouragement, insight, options for coping and healing, and a great deal of hope.
In recalling her struggle with PTSD and military sexual trauma, Terry admitted that for a long time she felt guilt that “what happened to me is not worse than what has happened to other people, and maybe I have no right to feel this way.” However, she explained that she has finally reached a point in her life where here level of “growth and self-acceptance is phenomenal.” “I would not be the person I am today without having experienced a traumatic event,” she told the audience on Wednesday.
That sentiment was echoed by other panelists. The ultimate myth the panel seemed to bust was actually that PTSD prevents veterans from becoming successful, happy, or emotionally strong. Golian reminded the audience of the adagae “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and added, “You have to accept you can’t always be normal again. You’re not normal if you’re stronger.”
Fergus, too, felt that challenging herself to battle PTSD has eventually led her to a better place in her life. Addressing other trauma survivors in the audience, she emphatically said, “Trust me, you have lived through the worst part of what you’ve been through. Don’t be afraid anymore—the person on the other side is way more beautiful.”
According to Sejuit, the process the other panelists were describing is “turning a perceived weakness into absolute strength.” The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs states that about 11 to 20% of veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom or Enduring Freedom sustained PTSD after their service. However, the stories shared by veterans on Wednesday night proved that does not have to be as dismal as it sounds. The speakers shared their own struggles and encouraged audience members to challenge themselves to defy stigmas about PTSD.
“On this journey, I’ve learned so much about what it means to be a human being,” said Nevins. “A great future is available for you, a future with success and thriving. There is tomorrow, and there is the rest of your life—what are you going to do with it?”