By Brandon Martin
For some soldiers, war is a battle of two fronts. There is the physical battle that is out in the open and everyone can see but then there is the hidden battle that haunts even after all of the fighting is done.
Just because the scars of the latter are invisible doesn’t mean that they hurt any less though, according to mental health professionals.
In their most recent report, the Department of Veteran Affairs estimated that 6,500 veterans committed suicide in 2017. While the reasons may vary for each individual, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is widely believed to play a critical role.
There are many organizations that have sought to assist those with PTSD and one of the most recent has popped up in Martinsville-Henry County.
“We are a veteran and first-responder founded organization,” said Sean Morrison, founder of Giving Back, LLC. “We started leasing up some properties around the Martinsville-Henry County area to provide an outlet or a retreat of some sort for our veterans and our first-responders.”
Morrison served as a Marine and as a Navy SEAL for 18 years before returning home to continue serving as an Emergency Medical Technician. He completed eleven overseas deployments and two contingency response deployments. He personally knows the toll of war and said he started the organization to deal with his own PTSD.
“I started this whole thing as therapy for me,” he said. “I struggled with PTSD for a long time and I still do. It’s not something where you take a pill and all of a sudden, you get over it.”
That doesn’t mean that all hope is lost though. His organization offers a variety of services to help veterans and first responders cope with their ongoing battle.
“Before they have a mental health crisis, we try to get them engaged in day-to-day activities to prevent some of the withdrawal that we see in the post-traumatic stress or before a critical event takes place,” he said. “After a crisis has occurred, if we are referred to someone who has had a crisis then we use the exact same methodology and modality except we bring in someone that has experienced the exact same thing, or similar circumstance, as that veteran or first-responder in a peer-to-peer supporting environment.”
Giving Back, LLC., provides a variety of ways to promote peer-to-peer interaction on their properties. Veterans, first responders and their families can take part in hunting, fishing, horseback and ATV riding, and other fun outdoor activities.
“While what we do looks like a bunch of fun and games on the surface, it is about the conversations that are taking place,” he said. “It’s sharing one another’s experiences and most importantly letting the guys and girls know that however they are feeling–whether it is happy, sad, angry–whatever it is, that it is normal and everyone that is with you right now has been there. We’ve felt those same things.”
A big part of forming this peer-to-peer group involves the family as well.
“We want to include the families to whatever degree possible,” he said. “If a veteran just wants time to themselves then that’s fine. If they are interested in family activities then that’s something that we absolutely want to encourage. The veteran is not the only one that is suffering and I’d probably argue that the family suffers worse because they really don’t know what is going on. We want to include the family and make the whole family feel like they are included.”
Morrison also said that approaching PTSD isn’t a single solution type of mission.
“Providing a venue and an opportunity for guys and girls to sit around and share their experiences with other people in a non-formal, non-clinical setting has done a lot for our existing clients,” he said. “We’ve had a couple so far that have told us that it is absolutely life-changing. I’ve had others, where not-so-much. They say that was fun, thanks. And if that is all that they get, then that’s fine, but if we save just one person who is thinking its time for them to check out just because they feel that there is nobody that can relate to them, then it’s worth it.”
His organization can’t provide all of the tools but in a spirit similar to the purpose of his organization, it gets by with a little help from friends.
“The third thing that we do is we leverage other NPOs (non-profit organizations) and other veteran service organizations,” Morrison said. “Because of the lack of resources in Henry County, nobody has really cracked the code on every aspect of it so we leverage our relationships with the veteran services organizations and other non-profits such as Wounded Warrior and some of the other organizations that have a similar type of mission that we have. We are getting people in touch with the resources that they need to should they need professional mental health counseling.”
There are a couple of barriers to getting those suffering from PTSD in touch with the right resources according to Morrison. The first of which lies in the nature of the disorder itself.
“One of the things that we see most often is a delay in onset of any sort of symptoms from post-traumatic stress and that doesn’t matter if that is combat-related or if they just had a really bad tour somewhere else,” he said. “The signs of PTSD don’t show up the next day, next week or next month. Usually, it is months down the road.”
The other barrier is a little more specific to some of the rural areas where many veterans may live.
“What you see around here is that we have to go a long way to see a psychiatrist,” he said. “There aren’t many psychologists and there aren’t many people in the licensed clinical social work program that are specifically trained and foster a PTSD for combat veterans’ environment.”
With the lack of accessible resources in the area, Morrison has a dedicated group of five volunteers to help out, but trying to tackle this big issue hasn’t been easy.
“I started this two years ago as a not-for-profit instead of a non-profit and basically the legal difference is that I couldn’t take tax right-offs,” he said. “It got to the point where it became too expensive for me to do it without the tax benefits. We changed to a non-profit and that’s forcing us to have to lean on some of the other resources around the area to get our information out and let people know what we are doing.”
As far as the number of veterans that his group could potentially help, Morrison said that number isn’t as easy to come by.
“It’s hard to say because it’s not a question that is on a census form,” he said. “It’s not a question that anybody could tally. There is no place that we can go to get that information besides the service organizations and their mailing lists. Even then, we can’t tell if they are combat veterans or of peacetime.”
Another issue with trying to gain a count on those that might need assistance is the fact that PTSD isn’t reserved to only those on the front lines.
“Being in a camp overseas taking rocket-fire or mortar-fire and having to get out of the shower to hide somewhere, that still puts a lot of stress on people,” Morrison said. “I’d argue that it probably puts more stress on that type of soldier than it does on the infantrymen because the infantrymen knows what he is getting into from day one. The person that shows up and says ‘I just wanted to learn to drive trucks, fix trucks, cook, or be an administration clerk,’ they didn’t sign up to be dodging bullets and they are doing it anyway, so I don’t think we can categorize one person’s stress as being more combat-related than another with those circumstances.”
Even though categorizing stress is difficult, Morrison said that there are a few indicators that help spotlight if someone might be dealing with PTSD.
“Social withdrawal is an early warning sign of PTSD,” he said. “Irrational anger or anger that is out of proportion to the circumstances. Chemical abuse is another big one. If someone is drinking too much or they have turned to street drugs, that’s a pretty standard coping mechanism. Those that are going through PTSD often don’t even know it. They just know that they don’t feel right and before long, the wheels start to really come off the bus in short order if we don’t get it under control.”
And getting it under control is key, according to Morrison who also tackled one of the biggest misconceptions about those dealing with PTSD.
“I think the biggest misconception is that they are broken. They are not,” he said. “Somebody that is suffering from PTSD is no different than somebody that is suffering from the flu or the common cold or any other curable condition.”
Morrison said that times have changed and seeking help should not cause shame.
“It’s okay to say that you need some help,” he added. “There is no stigma associated in seeking help anymore. It’s recognized widely throughout the medical and psychiatric communities that what they used to call shell shock, and is now known as PTSD, is a perfectly normal human response and there are methods to return you to how you were before any of it happened. It’s not what is wrong with you. It’s about what happened to you.”
For Morrison, this is an epidemic that has gone on far too long.
“There are more veterans who have killed themselves in the last 10 years than who were killed in the entire Vietnam War. That’s 58,000 troops in Vietnam,” he said. “They used to say the average is 22 a day but I’d argue now that it has probably gone up to 23 or 24 and it’s got to stop. The help is out there. We just need people to ask for it.”
Those looking for a little help are encouraged to contact Giving Back, LLC., at (757) 763-8285 and for emergencies dealing with suicidal ideation, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
“It’s okay to say that you need some help,” Morrison said.