PTSD's war toll: Combat veterans can turn to therapy to help ease the trauma

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on October 10, 2011.

The conference room on the Navy base is almost banal, a site of presentations and PowerPoints.

But for the men gathered around the table in the room at the Jacksonville Naval Hospital's Deployment Health Center, the room is a sort of home.

Here is where they gather once a week - some in uniform, some in civvies, all with some form of post-traumatic stress disorder that they're slowly bringing under control.

"Most people have never seen death, and violent death at that,” said Darin, a sailor involved in special operations in Iraq. "It's not human if it doesn't affect you."

The Times-Union is not using last names to protect the subjects' privacy.

In many ways, the symptoms of combat stress are entirely logical adaptations to the realities of war: hyper-alertness, quick reactions, emotional numbness - approaches required in a kill-or-be-killed environment.

But those adaptations can betray a servicemember who has returned home and no longer needs to swerve away from a piece of debris on the edge of the highway or wake throughout the night to check the perimeter of the house.

Sitting with a PTSD therapy group at the Naval Hospital, talk soon turns to those adaptations and the triggers that set them off.

Many are common: It's almost a cliche among therapists, for example, how many vets can feel irritation rising while standing in big, crowded stores.

Others are more individual: for Tony, yellow clothing reminds him of the prison jumpsuits in Camp Bucca, where he was a guard; Darin doesn't like white pickup trucks, the type of vehicles involved in some bad situations on a mission in Iraq for which he won't provide details.

"Stupid [stuff] pisses me off,” Kelly says. "Stupidity, rudeness, arrogance - where did all the humanity go?"

Seeing Iraqis or Afghans, passing by a mosque - these are things that generate immediate negative reactions in several of the men, to which they respond by leaving a room or changing a route.

In other areas of life, though, emotions lay out of reach.

"I'm just numb,” Darin says, shrugging.

Kelly talks, stone-faced, about his sister recently dying. "I love my sister, but I haven't shed a tear,” he said. "It was just her time."

Having those reactions in common is one reason the men and their doctors said the meetings work.

"A lot of these guys have been in similar places,” said Ken Harwood, a civilian psychologist who oversees several therapy groups at the Navy Hospital. "They have trauma in common."

That allows them to open up, the veterans said. Darin, for instance, also attends a 12-step group meeting. There, he said, he doesn't bring up his combat experiences.

"I enjoy coming here every Thursday and sitting in this room,” he said. "If I want to talk, I can talk to someone about something going on who understands it. My wife knows nothing about what happened over there. She doesn't need to know."

But therapy isn't enough, Kelly added.

"Zoloft,” he said, "is a wonderful thing."

Timothy Gibbons: (904) 359-4103


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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