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June 2010 
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Captain Michelle Smith

Ohio National Guard

Capt. Michelle Smith

Capt. Michelle Smith

Captain Michelle Smith enlisted in the Ohio National Guard when she was 18 years old.  Sixteen years later she decided to become an officer.  Four months after receiving a direct commission as a 2nd Lieutenant, she was leading a Military Police platoon in Iraq.  The year was 2003.

Describing her experience, Capt. Smith said, “My unit was mortared everyday.  We spent our time patrolling the roads, on constant alert for Improvised Explosive Devices (IED), ambushes and attacks.  During an insurgency, you can’t tell who the enemy is, and because of the Rules of Engagement, we could not defend ourselves unless we could identify who was attacking us.  One day we were ambushed and an IED went off right beside our vehicle and the vehicle behind us.  Fortunately, it wasn’t a well made bomb.  This is how we lived for ten months, never knowing what might happen next.  Added to this stress was the knowledge that I was responsible for the lives of the 32 soldiers in my Platoon.   Adrenalin flowed through my veins constantly, whether I was awake or asleep.”

When Capt. Smith returned to Ohio, she was a changed person.   She began drinking daily to avoid dealing with her “hidden demons.”  For five years, her situation continued to grow worse until one day she attended a suicide prevention class conducted by the National Guard.  “For all those months and years, I hadn’t been honest with myself.  I had been self-medicating.   Sitting in that class, I knew immediately that they were talking about me.  The following Monday I started seeing a therapist.” 

Capt. Smith was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Depression.  Her journey to accept, adjust to and live with mental illness has been difficult.  She credits her husband, her therapist, and the National Guard for helping her to move forward. 

“When I really broke down and admitted I needed help, my husband -- a retired Marine – tried to treat me like a Marine and took a tough approach that did not help.  I told him that ‘if I don’t have you to talk to, then I am completely alone’.  That really got through to him and since then he has been my rock.  He is also a strong advocate for soldiers and families,” she said. 

“I also credit my therapist for helping me learn to cope with the symptoms of PTSD.  PTSD causes me to have difficulty focusing.  It takes me longer to do everything.  I can’t sleep.  I also find that when I don’t have control over a situation, I can suffer from paralyzing anxiety.  Through therapy, I have learned coping skills that help to reduce my anxiety.  For instance, every day I journal, practice yoga or work out and eat right.  When my anxiety is triggered, I also use deep breathing and logic techniques.  The logic technique involves me thinking through the situation and identifying how it is and is not like Iraq.  For instance, if I can’t reach my husband on the phone, my mind instantly tells me that he is dead.  I have to walk through all the reasons why it is unlikely that he is dead.” 

“PTSD is an invisible war wound.  If you lose a limb, no one expects you to apologize for it.  PTSD is just as debilitating.  One day I had an epiphany.  I decided that I was going to stop apologizing for having PTSD.   Trauma effects people differently.  Something that traumatizes me may give someone else a rush, but like an estimated 30-40% of vets returning from Iraq, I have PTSD.  The day I came to the realization that I didn’t have to apologize for it was the day my real healing began.”   

PTSD is an invisible war wound.  If you lose a limb, no one expects you to apologize for it.  PTSD is just as debilitating
“As for my professional career, I’m sharing my story because I want other soldiers to see that admitting you need help, asking for it, and getting that help will not ruin your career.  I can’t say enough about how supportive the National Guard leadership has been. I’m living proof that Ohio Cares.”

Capt. Smith shared the details of a new program for soldiers with PTSD that she has been asked to lead on behalf of the National Guard.  The program, which will work hand in hand with OhioCares partners, has a working title of Support, Outreach and Resilience (SOAR).  It is a peer to peer program being developed for soldiers and veterans; a battle buddy initiative to train soldiers to help each other get the assistance they need.  “When we were in Iraq, we never talked about what it felt like to get attacked … about our anger or our fear.  If we had processed those feelings as they occurred, it likely would have minimized the PTSD,” she said. Through the SOAR program and other changes that the National Guard is making to reduce stigma, Capt. Smith believes the culture is changing, allowing soldiers to get the help they need without fear.

Capt. Smith summed up her new position with the National Guard, “In the Army you believe that you are not as important as the mission.  With the establishment of the SOAR program, I now have a new mission.  I can use my experience to help other soldiers.  I know what it’s like to want to die, but I also know what it’s like to have hope.”

As to her platoon, all 32 members in Capt. Smith’s unit made it home alive.  Unfortunately, many suffer from signs of PTSD.  “I have helped some to get help, but I’m not finished with some of the others.”

(For more information about OhioCares, go to http://www.ohiocares.ohio.gov) 

Veterans Support Program Forming in Ohio

Vet2Vet is a national recovery movement specifically for veterans.  Its founder, Moe Armstrong explains, “Vet2Vet is based on the concept of mutual help. Each One Reach One Teach One. We are a group of people with mental illness or psychiatric conditions who happen to be veterans. We are dedicated to helping other veterans and all people who have psychiatric conditions establish meaningful lives in the community.”

Like the SOAR program being developed by Capt. Miller and the Ohio National Guard, Vet2Vet believes the best way to reach veterans is through other veterans and their organizations. “Veterans have unique experiences and are, in a way, a unique breed.  They need to find others who get what it is like to experience war or service-related trauma. By collaborating with mental health providers and programs such as the Guard program, we can bring veterans into a healing environment that they are comfortable with,” stated Walter Hudson.  Walter is deeply involved in veteran issues, serving on the NAMI National’s Veteran Council as Area Coordinator for VISN 10 (the Veterans Integrated Service Network of which VISN 10 includes most of Ohio).  Like Armstrong, he is a veteran.  He is recovering from service-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Depression.  Walter has been very active in Ohio’s consumer-led recovery efforts and was one of the first people trained in WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan) that provides an individual recovery road map for individuals living with various forms of mental illness.  He has also contributed to a number of publications focused on wellness recovery and community supports, and is a nationally recognized trainer in this area.

As part of his passion and his role on the NAMI Veteran Council, Walter is leading efforts to make Vet2Vet programs available throughout Ohio, “Vet2Vet in Los Angeles has served over 30,000 veterans.  We need to do that in Ohio.”  His goal is for Ohio Vet2Vet to offer peer-facilitated support groups in all areas of Ohio, including VA hospitals and clinics as well as community-based veteran organizations. “My first step to making Ohio Vet2Vet a reality is to form a steering committee,” said Hudson.  “I am looking for veterans, family members of veterans or others who have a deep commitment to veterans to serve on the steering committee.”

NAMI Ohio is pleased to support this effort in Ohio and is asking any of our Stigma Buster readers with an interest in serving on the Ohio Vet2Vet Steering Committee to contact Walter Hudson as soon as possible.  He can be reached at (330) 749-8283 or whudson54@aol.com. 

For more information, check out http://www.vet2vetusa.org.

 

Stigma Busting Challenge: Share this issue of The Stigma Buster with a veteran and a local veteran organization such as the VFW.

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