By | Bryan Donoghue
Walking down a street of their hometown, a veteran smells the essence of diesel emitted from a nearby gas station. Their brain remembers it as the same smell from when they were riding into combat. Immediately, their body goes into a fight-or-flight response and reacts as if their life is on the line. Although this is a hypothetical situation, it is all too real for numerous veterans afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
The US National Library of Medicine’s National Institutes of Health stated that 500,000 American troops who served in wars over the past 13 years have been diagnosed with PTSD, and even more, it affects about eight million American adults annually. About 7 to 8 percent of the population will have PTSD at some point in their lives.
For the Director of the Eureka Veteran’s Center, Deborah Reeves, it’s a condition that’s occurred throughout her family.
“I personally choose to work with veterans because I have a family system that’s been impacted by military trauma for many generations.” Reeves said. “My grandfather had post traumatic stress disorder, my father has post traumatic stress disorder, my siblings have post traumatic stress disorder, my husband has post traumatic stress disorder— all from various different experiences at different times.”
Reeves devotion to helping veterans is an influence for her to educate herself on PTSD, and other topics pertaining to veteran care.
“The first thing that people need to understand if they’re looking at it from an uneducated perspective is to get educated.” Reeves said.
The sentiment is shared by Rob Hepburn, a 70-year-old Vietnam War veteran and local gardener for the Veteran Memorial Park between G street and F street in Arcata. He was in the war part of 1966, all of 1967, and part of 1968. Within his 13 months of service, he participated in the Tet Offensive, which was one of the most crucial battles of the Vietnam War.
“Most people, the only thing they get to hear about vets is what they read in the papers or on social media, so most people don’t even know a vet personally.” Hepburn said. “You get pigeon-holed by a lot of people right away, they have this stereotype of what you are.”
Education is necessary to understanding the topic of PTSD, and according to the United States Department of Veteran Affairs, there are four types of symptoms when reviewing whether someone is afflicted by the disorder.
First, an individual re-experiences the event almost like they’re re-living it. Each person with PTSD has triggers, which is when they sense something that causes them to have flashbacks and nightmares.
“Post traumatic is pretty hard to define in and of itself, it’s an experiencing type of disorder.” Reeves said. “It’s an external event that has happened that has caused lingering internal experiences.”
Flashbacks or nightmares can be triggered by anything. It all depends on the individual as PTSD varies between people.
“I’ve had flashbacks, luckily i haven’t had a flashback in a couple years, but you’re always thinking something really bad is going to happen.” Hepburn said.
Sight, smell, and sound are all components of what can trigger a person’s flashbacks. Triggers are about how external variables effect someone internally.
“I can’t stand to hear anything crying, I mean a lot of people get upset when they hear crying, but for me, I totally freak. If a cat’s meowing, I have to get away, or a dog when it barks.” Hepburn said. “Anything like that just triggers something in me. So you imagine those things happen everyday to people, but to me with PTSD, everyday is kind of a challenge to keep my cool.”
The trigger is like the body’s natural way of protecting itself, flashbacks happen as a response to a need for safety.
“It is a diagnosis that any and everyone can get by experiencing an external situation that causes them to fear for their safety or someone else’s.” Reeves said.
Secondly, people with PTSD may avoid situations that remind them of the trauma. For veterans, that could mean anything. To help himself avoid those kind of situations, Hepburn tends to his garden.
“Gardening is my meditation. I mellow out.” Hepburn said. “I have a service dog that I usually have with me, I don’t have him right now. He helps me stay mellow and grounded, just holding him and carrying him around.”
Along with gardening and his dog, Hepburn goes out into to nature as a way to help himself. He takes walks in the community forest and goes to the beach. When it comes to taking medication to help him with his condition, he decides to take as little as a possible.
“They just make me feel like a zombie.” Hepburn said.