A Social Worker Helped Him Put the War 6,800 Miles Behind Him

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January 14, 2009 at 2:45 pm  •  Posted in Veterans Affairs by  •  0 Comments

Leaving the War Half a World Away
Living on High Alert
Living in a Hostile World
A Car Stuck in Passing Gear
Fitting in My Shoes Again

Leaving the War Half a World Away
Army National Guard
Specialist Chuck Ross

Army National Guard Specialist Chuck Ross had been home from Iraq for a few months when he and his wife Jennifer came to a decision. Chuck was having trouble adjusting to life back home in America. His problem wasn’t extreme, but Chuck knew he “wasn’t himself.”

“He’d get anxious when we were in crowds,” says Jennifer. “He would look around, worrying about the people around him. At night, he had trouble sleeping. He would ‘do rounds’ in the house and check on everybody.” For Chuck, the biggest problem was his overreaction to aggressive drivers. “I’d lose it when someone would cut me off,” he remembers. “And every loud noise seemed like an attack.”

All very understandable considering the action that Chuck had seen. In Iraq, it had been his job to transport major pieces of equipment across the country — a job that demanded his senses to be constantly on high alert.

Living on High Alert

“In Iraq, anybody else on the road was a threat,” he explains. “You never knew who was out to ‘swiss-cheese’ your vehicle. A fresh patch of asphalt in the road could be an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), so you had to watch for those. In crowds, anyone could be a suicide bomber.” Lives depended on vigilance and swift reactions. And Chuck had been put to the test several times, when his convoy and his base suffered deadly attacks.

But what might have saved Chuck in Iraq was a liability at home in the United States. Driving became a problem, and Chuck wanted to pursue his commercial trucking license. He wasn’t eating, he wasn’t sleeping. Jennifer was worried.

Most importantly, both he and his wife recognized the symptoms of combat stress. Jennifer’s stepfather and Chuck’s father had served in Vietnam, and their families had suffered devastating effects from their fathers’ PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Chuck’s father ultimately committed suicide. Both of the young people had vowed they would not let war rob them of their lives together. So Chuck decided to seek counseling.

A friend recommended Dr. Rick Selig, a licensed social worker in private practice in Topeka, Kansas. Dr. Selig had a great deal of experience in trauma and anxiety, and was quickly able to help Chuck take charge of himself.

Living in a Hostile World

“Think about living in a hostile environment for a year,” Dr. Selig explains. “A world of snipers, rockets, mortars and improvised explosive devices. Every minute of the day, your life and the life of your friends is under constant threat. Your survival depends on your ability to sense and anticipate danger.”

Dr. Rick Selig
Social Worker

Dr. Selig explains that under these circumstances, the body physically ramps up. Senses become heightened, reaction time speeds up, and the body becomes ‘hyperaroused.’

“A little of that’s good. It’s classic ‘fight or flight’ response, and it can save your life,” says Dr. Selig. “The problem occurs when you’re not ‘downrange’ anymore. You’re home in America trying to enjoy a 4th of July fireworks display without subjecting your family to a panic attack. Because it’s a physical response, it’s very hard to simply talk yourself out of it. You need to learn coping mechanisms while your body readjusts.”

A Car Stuck in Passing Gear

Dr. Selig has an apt metaphor for the body’s response. “Think about the last time you were driving your car and needed to pass the vehicle in front of you.  As you pressed down on the accelerator, the car shifts into  passing gear allowing you to go faster in order to successfully pass the vehicle.  Now imagine that car being unable to downshift out of that passing gear.  The body’s response to prolonged exposure to high-stress states is quite similar.”

Chuck needed to downshift. But more importantly, he needed to understand what was happening physically, and to develop techniques for coping in his new civilian environment. Counseling, education, and support were all part of the treatment. Chuck and Dr. Selig worked together on finding ways to help Chuck slow down, develop relaxation and breathing techniques, learn how to face stress without going into fight mode, and working through the worst of the war.

“As social workers, we’re trained to look at a person in a comprehensive way,” says Dr. Selig. “We look at everything. We don’t just treat the symptoms, we look at everything: mental, physical, social, economic, and cultural influences.  Our goal is to create, restore or enhance the resources our clients need in order to realize their capacities for physical, social, and mental functioning.”

“Fitting in My Shoes Again.”

Today, Chuck has been able to put the stress of war behind him. “I knew I was better when I wasn’t so anxious, and jumping at the slightest noise. I feel like I’m fitting in my shoes again,” he says. “Counseling has helped me get back into civilian life. I can handle groups better. I can handle jobs and interviews better. If I hadn’t had Dr. Selig to help, I don’t know what I’d be doing now.”

Dr. Selig respects Chuck’s bravery in stepping forward and seeking counseling. “Chuck’s symptoms were hardly extreme, but he could see that they were getting in the way. A lot of people coming back from combat wouldn’t have had the courage to say ‘Look, I’m not feeling right. I’ve seen what this can do. I’m ending this problem now.'”

Chuck and Jennifer Ross

Chuck also wants other military personnel who experience combat stress to be honest and deal with it. “This isn’t about being crazy, or being tough.” he says. “That’s not the case at all. It’s about taking responsibility for yourself and your actions. You have to turn the mirror on yourself and deal with it. You can’t do it alone. You need someone trained and educated who can tell you what you’re going through, who can help you become a civilian again.”

“More of us have to know about these services and use them,” he says. “A year of war can ruin the rest of your life and your family’s life, if you let it. I’ve seen it happen. You’ve got to protect and care for the people around you. That’s what soldiers do.”

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