PTSD's war toll: Buddy system helps veterans battle demons

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on October 9, 2011.

It was a blow getting the letter from his ex-wife, the letter telling George Pappas his kids didn't want to see him.

Not what he needed on top of money issues and roommate strife, on top of back pain and mental issues that came from 22 years as a Marine.

But Pappas has someone he can call, a soldier fighting his own demons.

How you feeling? his friend asks.

"Like s---."

You take your medicine?

"I'm taking it now."

You eat yet?

Pappas tosses some waffles in the microwave, eats them, goes to bed. The next morning, 7:30, the phone rings.

You all right?

It rings most every morning after a bad day, one of his buddies checking on him. Other days, he's the one making the call.

Such support is what many wounded warriors say has helped them through their bad days, the days when nightmares and hallucinations don't seem to stop, when anger and grief and memory flood together, when thoughts of suicide or homicide or simply incoherent rage seem almost too much.

Those symptoms are no anomaly for the men and women returning from America's wars. About 300,000 of the 1.7 million service members who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, according to a Rand Corp. study in 2008.

Hundreds of such troops live in Jacksonville: In the past year, the Veterans Administration's Vet Center downtown has had servicemembers who were in Iraq and Afghanistan visit the center about 1,600 times.

"I don't think you can be in a combat environment and not be changed,” said Tracy Hejmanowski, a clinical psychologist and program manager for the Deployment Health Center at Jacksonville Naval Hospital. "It's a good sign, that you have a heart beating in your chest. This is not pathological."

To be clear, PTSD isn't necessarily debilitating, isn't something that can prevent a service member from transitioning to the civilian world.

Help for those with PTSD has expanded in recent years, with the Navy and Marine Corps spending about $90 million on psychological health and traumatic brain injury care in the past fiscal year.

That is not to paint an overly rosy picture, though. Many vets still don't get treatment they need, either for lack of asking or due to a command more focused on keeping troops in uniform than mental health.

Others, particularly those who have left the service, have horror stories of fighting with the Veterans Administration over access to care and over the disability rating decision made by the government.

Nevertheless, troops say, the push to make asking for help more accepted has gained some traction.

"The Navy has worked real hard at reducing the stigma,” said Navy Capt. Patrick Bowers, a psychiatrist. "It's definitely improving, but there's work still to be done."


For Pappas, asking for help was difficult.

The retired gunnery sergeant first deployed in the first Gulf War, then to Bosnia, Somalia, Honduras, Afghanistan.

To Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004, where he faced some of the heaviest fighting the Marines have ever seen. Pappas came out of that battle scarred in both body and mind.

"When we were going through Fallujah, my shot went through an insurgent. It ripped through a young girl's neck,” he remembers. "I think of my daughter when I see that."

The war took its toll on his body as well, the worst coming when a rocket-propelled grenade landed near his position, killing a corpsman and spraying shrapnel into Pappas' back.

"I don't remember the blast,” he said. "I remember waking up in a tent with tubes coming out of me."

When he returned from the battlefield, he was changed.

"His moodiness increased,” said his aunt, Annette Pappas-Savage, with whom Pappas is very close. "He'd be more fidgety."

Pappas was always a protector, Pappas-Savage said, and the death and destruction he's seen has marked him, literally and figuratively.

Tattoos covering his arms bear tribute to friends lost in combat - in particular, a guy he calls Pegs.

"We were together all the time,” Pappas said. "He was killed. Two sniper shots to the chest."

Those tattoos let Pappas hide his pain while honoring his friends, his aunt said.

"He writes his stories on his arms,” she said, "where he doesn't have to talk about them."

Pappas ended up in Jacksonville in 2009, sent here for his fourth back surgery. By then, the Marines had diagnosed his physical ailments, but not his mental ones.


Those came to the fore when he reported in at Jacksonville Naval Air Station.

"A chief [petty officer] poked me in the chest,” said Pappas, who was an equivalent rank to the sailor. "Next thing I know, I hit the guy. So, to mental health I went."

Still, he wasn't yet diagnosed with PTSD.

That happened a few months later, after he tried to commit suicide and ended up in a psychiatric hospital.

He started going to group therapy soon after.

Life had been hard before the suicide attempt. "I started seeing people who were dead,” he said. "I could sit back and hear machine gun fire."

Help came first in the form of weekly therapy sessions, then in a dizzying array of medication and in tight bonds formed with other service members who struggle as well.

It took him months to open up during the group therapy, he remembers.

Now, he shares freely with the other vets, leaning on each other when the days get bad.

He still drinks, but knows when to quit. He doesn't lose control.

He's proud of how he's changed: When the letter arrived from his ex-wife, "I was this close to calling and exploding,” he said. "I didn't call, I didn't DUI."

Pappas leans back in his seat at a small Mayport bar and looks around at the other veterans in the room, each with their own story to tell. Some are probably dealing with their own combat experiences, he figures; some could probably use a little help.

It's up to them to seek it, he says, but when they do, he's ready to be the guy on the other end of the phone.


A psychologist talks about resources available for soldiers with PTSD.


Veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder or other issues can call the Veterans Crisis Line at (800) 273-8255 and press 1 for immediate help.

During normal business hours, the Deployment Health Center at Jacksonville Naval Hospital can be reached at (904) 542-3500, ext. 8115 or 8724.

For those who are no longer on active duty, the Veterans Administration's Vet Center can be reached at (904) 232-3621 during normal business hours.


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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