PTSD and incarcerated veteran

Lee, Franklin



PTSD and the Incarcerated Veteran BY Franklin Lee Lee, F. PTSD and the Incarcerated Veteran PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is an anxiety disorder which can surface after a traumatic experience, either immediately or years later, such as physical/ sexual abuse, violent crime, an accident, battlefield or wartime trauma, or natural disaster. The symptoms of someone with PTSD include,”but are not limited to; avoidance, flashbacks, victimization, shame and humiliation. .When we think of PTSD and military Veterans, we often think about the typical soldier shown in such films as American Sniper, in which the main character, and author, is gunned down by a fellow vet suffering from flashbacks. In recent headlines a veteran suffering from PTSD shotathree nurses at a veterans’ home in Yountville, California. PTSD is a major epidemic that plagues a majority of veterans, especially during and after military occupations and battlefield incidents. In 1941, Psychiatrist Abram Kadiner, wrote The Traumatic Neuroses of War. Kadiner observed WWI veterans developed chronic vigilance for and sensitivity towards threats. These “Traumatic Neurosis” were then called “shellshock.” In the 1980s, the terminology “PTSD” was officially used and diagnosed by Mental Health Professionals. As veterans returned home from tours of active duty, repressed memories, flashbacks and uncontrolled violent rages have led some into drug use and increased crime and incarceration, without the adequate mental health support they need. This article’s focus is about the men who survived the Vietnam war and are now incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison; having served their country but unfortunately cannot let go of the memories that haunt them. These ‘are their stories. All names have been changed to protect their identity. 1 Lee, F. PTSD and the Incarcerated Veteran Lincoln Daniels, an elderly gentleman at age 71, remembers his glory days prior to the Vietnam War. A former athlete from a local Northern California town, he and his two buddies joined the Army right out of school. Though Daniels was open in sharing his story, he often struggled with many of the stronger memories, after saying he could see the faces of all the enemies he had killed in the war. “How do you talk about something when they don’t know what it was like? How do you explain yourself? It’s etched in your brain,” stated Daniels. Two of the major battles Daniels was involved in were in A Shau Valley and at Khe Sanh, which the latter took place during spring Tet Offensive. The Tét Offensive was when the combined forces of the Northern Vietnam Army (NVA), and the south based Viet Cong launchedseveral continuous attacks against South Vietnam targets. About 4,000 American soldiers died in those battles. He remembered one time missing deployment with his unit due to faulty equipment with his pack, sending him on a quick visit to the supply unit. His unit left without him, landing on top of a Viet Cong underground bunker and being quickly enveloped in a massive battle. Not one of his comrades survived, and their bodies were doused and set on fire. Daniels described the sights that he saw days later. A lieutenant’s charred body on which his wedding ring was the only way to identify him, and another soldier whose skin was peeled away from his body. Daniels’ View on the Vietnam War had changed from a simple cake-walk to a bloody nightmare. Since that day when he missed leaving with his unit, he has had feelings of guilt, thinking he should have been there with the rest of his fallen companions. A Since the war, Daniels has not been the same man. The PTSD he suffered had not been diagnosed yet and he had no safe place to debrief his experiences. Like many 2 Lee, F. PTSD and the Incarcerated Veteran veterans, Daniels turned to drinking, often resulting in explosive aggression and blacking out. Dealing with wild mood swings, he sought help, finally realizing after 50 years, the “stuff” was still there and would not go away. He could not seem to escape the nightmares that plagued him, even with medication. Being incarcerated, Daniels recalls that for ten years he never talked about the war. Months would go by and he’d feel nothing, but then, suddenly, the smallest thing would set him off; like the smell of diesel fuel or a helicopter fly over. Isolation was another defense Daniels used to escape reality. » According to the DSM V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), PTSD victims are , forced into reliving past memories through flashbacks or triggers, or have overstimulated senses. Biologically, PTSD affects the brain’s chemistry. In neurobiology, the tiny part of the brain called the amygdala,’ which registers memories. and fear, becomes overstimulated in PTSD victims. When a person experiences a trauma or series of traumas, the incident is “photographed” into the brain with the association of fear stimulating the amygdala. The amygdala becomes hyper- aroused, altering the chemistry of the brain. The hypothalamus, a structure deep within the brain, is essential for regulating the body’s chemistry and functions such as pulse rate, blood pressure, breathing and arousal level. When the body and brain are under attack, the hypothalamus releases stress hormones known as cortisol. Cortisol is important to keep us awake and causes the pituitary glands to release glucocorticoids in the adrenal glands. This process stimulates the body to increase heart rate and respiration, usually in’ a fight—or—flight response. The problem is that too much or prolonged use of the chemical is toxic to the hippocampus and amygdala, causing them to shrink and making it difficult for the sufferer to recover from the shock. The fibers in 3 Lee, F. PTSD and the Incarcerated Veteran the brain that carry the electrochemical messages begin to shrink and the glucose needed for the immune system‘ is directed elsewhere in the body, disrupting important - functions. Cortisol is important to the body because it enforces memory association to keep the body safe (i.e., fight or flight), but overstimulation will deteriorate the inner functions of the brain. Mental well—being is important to the overall health of a person’s life, processing a range of emotions both positive and negative. The overwhelming and over~stimulating emotions from a traumatic event can cause deterioration of the untreated mental health, which affects daily life mentally, emotionally, even physically. This is particularly crucial to incarcerated veterans who continue to undergo stressful situations almost daily. Thomas Newton grew up in the deep south of Louisiana in the 1950s, living the simple‘ life of hunting and fishing. Never finishing high school, he joined the army at age 17 with hopes to travel the world. Too young to go to Vietnam, he enrolled in Medical Corp training until his 18th birthday, when he joined the 7th Cavalry Combat Medics. His job included going with the infantry and keeping the injured alive long enough for a medical evacuation team to arrive. During his two tours of duty, Newton was exposed to horrific scenes of war, not just witnessing death. He watched many of his comrades die in battle while trying to save those mutilated, picking up body parts and trying to identify whom they belonged to. During the Tét Offensive in 1969, Newton’s unit joined up with the Marines. Upon arriving at the Landing Zone (LZ), he saw that dead bodies covered the runway under tarps. As the tarps flew in the wind, rats scurried away from underneath. 4 Lee, F. PTSD and the Incarcerated Veteran Newton learned duickly there was no time to grieve during combat. He had to block everything out just to survive. “It was a living nightmare,” he states. “After a while, seeing people [you know] die from being blown up, you get taken in by a lot of anger” that can result in violent episodes. While at A Shau Valley, Newton was hit in the face with a rifle butt, breaking his jaw. Newton explained one of the issues he had with the government, in the mismanaging of PTSD, was the quick transition back into society. At one moment he was in the jungle, and three days later he was back in the states. With the lack of debriefing and decompression time, Newton had difficulty managing hisanger and fear. Every night he did a perimeter check of his house. “I was still on an intensely high-alert kill-mode.” One issue was .“stuffing” his emotions. It was okay during combat, but the continuous buildup eventually led to an eruption. It took a toll on the people around him, especially when he threatened his neighbors. Another issue was the lack of professionals who understood his experiences of the war. Eventually Newton found his way to a VA hospital and began receiving the care he needed. The nightmare still haunts him. Compacted with the loss of his wife, Newton escaped into alcohol and drugs, landing him in prison. But Newton continues to work with his PTSD, seeking support with other vets and joining mental health programs. “I want to live a life better than this.” Perhaps recognizing and admitting that is the first step to becoming successful. Many veterans experienced Various kinds of traumatic events in the war. Some were trained in specific brutal interrogation tactics, while others were placed in experimental testing situations while in a highly tense and paranoid state. This is in addition to being in an already questionable war. This final part of the series will spotlight the more 5 Lee, F. PTSD and the Incarcerated Veteran heinous aspects of war: chemical warfare, experimental drugs, and the dark and inhumane practices of interrogations. Between 1961 and 1975, the U.S. government authorized the use of a chemical herbicide called “Agent Orange,” and over 20 million gallons were sprayed over jungles, rice fields, and rivers to destroy vegetation. The plan was named “Operation Ranch Hand,” and deployed Agent Orange over the countries of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia——a total estimate of 4.5 million acres. This provided open space for allied troops to cross terrain and also poisoned the enemies’ food and water supplies. Agent Orange was sprayed by airplanes, helicopters, trucks, boats, and individuals with backpacks. Later, the empty barrels were transformed into barbeque pits, food and water storage, and rigged showers for the troops. Years after the war, veterans began to suffer long—term effects from exposure to this horrible chemical. Research began to show the chemical contained a byproduct called 2, 3, 7, 8—tetrachlorodibenzo—p—dioxin (TCDD), a deadly carcinogen. Many of the ailments the affected suffered included soft-tissue sarcoma, Hodgkin’s disease, multiple 1'I1 eloma, res irato cancer, rostate cancer e 2 diabetes Parkinson’s disease, and ' 7 7 many more cancer—related illnesses. In 1979, a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Vietnam veterans affected by Agent Orange. After several challenges, it was settled in 1988, but the impact lasted for many decades. ' Owen Anderson. joined the Marines in 1968 and deployed to Vietnam a year later. He participated in many tactical operations, one of which was the dispensing of Agent Orange. The Marines questioned their superiors about the product. The response was that “it was safe.” 6 Lee, F. PTSD and the Incarcerated Veteran “They said we could walk through it, drink from the wells, and bathe in the rivers drenched) in it,” Anderson stated. The chemical was sprayed along the riverside by airplanes similar to -crop—dusters, while the Marines and soldiers below later trampled through it. The foliage that was coated in orange soon died off. Performing his duties, Anderson was active in combat zones where chemical weapons were used. After several months, he was wounded in the leg and medically evacuated. For this wound he received the Purple Heart. I But Anderson’s real battle had only just begun. In 1992, he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and pancreatitis. He developed neuropathy in both feet, and arches that resulted in a club foot. Though he was 87% disabled, he was denied a PTSD diagnosis.. Like so many other veterans, Anderson ended up self—medicating in an attempt to numb the pain and erase the memories of the war. He sought out psychological support, but received more medication, which continued his downward spiral. Eventually, he did find the support he needed; unfortunately, he had to go to prison to receive it. Anderson said he is ready to talk about his haunted memories and failed relationships that have cost him the last 40 years of his life. I As a soldier, Timothy Williams was taught to obey every command and not question authority. A platoon must be a strong cohesive unit, and each soldier had to trust the other as well as their commanding officer. Williams ended up in Vietnam where he marched across land that had been covered by Agent Orange. When Williams returned from the war, he began to have health concerns. His anxiety had pushed him into paranoia. He could not handle being around people, and pushed society away. He began to have physical health problems, such as partial paralysis, bone disease, and was unable 7 Lee, F. PTSD and the Incarcerated Veteran to gain weight. He didn’t realize until later these were the symptoms for Agent Orange exposure. Now dealing with incarceration, Williams still has issues with authorities. Medicated for his anxiety, he remains paranoid about the many drugs he takes, and of everyone around him. In 1968, David Smith joined the Navy and attended the Monterey Defense Language Institute. There he was taught Mandarin Chinese, and also picked up Vietnamese. Upon graduation from the Institute, he continued with interrogation training. In 1969, Smith was deployed to Vietnam as an interrogator. He was assigned to a team that did extractions. His main job was to target an individual of importance and remove the target from his or her home. This often meant killing the spouse or family. Smith had to shut away any compassion in order to do his duty. On Smith’s second tour of duty, he was sent to a prison near Saigon to monitor interrogations. These interrogations were conducted by a South Vietnamese lieutenant, a brutal little man who always had a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. Smith’s first interrogation was of a Chinese prisoner being held in an empty airplane hangar. Before any questions were asked of the Chinese man, a Vietnamese prisoner was chained to a post, doused with gasoline, and set on fire. This was presumably done to frighten the Chinese prisoner into cooperation. However, Smith was horrified and immediately left the scene. Upon his return from Vietnam, Smith did not receive the welcome he had hoped for after serving his country. He was even pelted with feces by war protesters. His own mother stated that the son who went to war was not the one who came back. Smith had no idea what PTSD was and, like many Vets, drowned the pain with alcohol. 8 h Lee, F. PTSD and the Incarcerated Veteran Incarcerated and receiving help for his PTSD nearly 40 years after the events that caused it, Smith can still hear the screams of fallen soldiers, many as they cried out for their mothers. For his own actions in war, Smith received two medals for bravery. These are memorabilia he can display on a wall for others to see, which might give him a sense‘ of pride for doing his duty. But it is the unseen memorabilia he ‘cannot display that affects him the most. These are the nightmares of the war. For many veterans, being incarcerated and suffering with PTSD still impacts them dramatically. There is a sense of powerlessness and depression that clings to every waking moment. Sometimes gunfire from the officers’ firing range, the smell of diesel, aircraft fly overs, riots, or fights can trigger violent memories of days past. Sleep is often impossible. And like most remedies in prison, the medications that are prescribed merely numb the emotions. There is a great need for understanding PTSD and the mental health of incarcerated veterans. Recently Assembly Bill 865 passed to re-sentence veterans in prison taking account of their PTSD diagnosis. With further support, many incarcerated vets will be on their way to changing their lives with the hopes of getting out of prison sooner. Word Count: 2,611 9

Author: Lee, Franklin

Author Location: California

Date: June 12, 2019

Genre: Essay

Extent: 10 pages

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