Annmarie Fertoli, Associate Producer, WNYC News
Annmarie Fertoli is an Associate Producer at WNYC, working with the afternoon news team to produce All Things Considered.
Recent vets are confronting life back home, as combat missions in Iraq have wrapped up. Some of them are choosing to use their war-time experiences to help other vets who're having a harder time making the transition back to civilian life.
When U.S. Army veteran Andrew Roberts returned home following a year-long deployment to Iraq in 2004, he had a high startle response. It meant his body sometimes reacted in automatic and frightening ways to relatively normal sounds, like a thunderclap, or the “pop” of bubble wrap.
“It scares you to your core,” the West Point graduate explained. “It’s not just a startle. It’s like a bone-rattling, sickening experience.”
Despite other symptoms, like quickness to anger and lingering depression, Roberts said he couldn’t quite connect those experiences to his time in Iraq.
He deployed to the country in 2003, after the fall of Baghdad, when the mission quickly changed from artillery, to infantry. Roberts was a battery commander, leading about 90 U.S. soldiers. He vividly remembers plotting the locations of U.S. troop casualties on a map at his base, and growing more afraid as they seemed to draw closer.
“The fact that Americans were still getting killed every single night really sort of elevated my own personal anxiety,” he said. “Looking back it’s sort of easy to see it, but at the time it’s sort of like slowly wading into a very shallow sea.”
When he returned home to New York, Roberts, who completed his service, said he struggled, but didn’t believe his difficulties were related to his time in Iraq.
“A couple of people, including my girlfriend at the time, had said, ‘You know, do you think this is connected to your service?’ And I was like, ‘Get out of town,’” he said. “Because I didn’t fight in a war I had seen on TV. I didn’t see thousands of enemy soldiers coming over a hill, at me.”
Roberts, 36, said it took him three years after returning from Iraq, with the prodding of family and friends, to realize he might benefit from help. He said it has made a huge difference in his life. He’s now able to understand how his startle responses and other symptoms were connected to his military service. More importantly, he can manage any memories or responses that come up, without becoming overwhelmed.
(Photo: Roberts (right) and a fellow soldier stand in front of their Humvee in Iraq./Courtesy of Andrew Roberts)
The ‘New Normal’
As many as one in five recent veterans suffer from some kind of mental health problem, according to a 2011 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America analysis of a RAND Corporation study.
Dr. Melissa Earle, with Touro College’s Graduate School of Social Work, said the reactions to war can vary widely, from major depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on the severe end, to some symptoms that might seem less obvious.
“Some folks just are a little hyper-vigilant, and very, very careful, and scan their environment, and that will last until the self tells the self, ‘You’re safe now, and you don’t have to be hyper-vigilant or hyper-aware.’ Some folks may feel a little disconnected, or spacey, or disassociated,” she explained.
She said these responses can be part of adjusting to “the new normal,” and that vets experiencing them can benefit from seeking help, or just finding someone to talk to who can relate.
Roberts said his desire to be an advocate for vets is what helped push him to seek help for himself.
“I know enough about working with people in the military that if I try to tell somebody to go get help, the first thing they would say is, ‘Well, did you go get help?’ And if my answer was no, then I would have no credibility with anybody,” he said.
He’s now dedicating his work life to helping other veterans find the help they need to adjust and thrive in the civilian world, as the director of the office of Military and Veterans’ Liaison Services for the North Shore-LIJ Health System, which provides support to veterans and their families. Roberts hopes the fact that he’s been through it will help convince others who are suffering to get the help they need.
For Roberts and other veterans, helping fellow service members can also be a part of the healing process.
Reintegration Can Compound Problems
Marco Bongioanni, 32, spent nine years in active duty with the U.S. Army, including two tours of duty in Iraq, as well as deployments to Kuwait, Egypt and the Republic of Korea. While on active duty, Bongioanni was a logistics branch officer, coordinating and delivering support and supplies. During his first deployment to Iraq in 2003, he served as a platoon leader of about 35 soldiers. During his second deployment in 2007, he became a company commander, leading nearly 150 soldiers.
Now that he's home, he's pursuing a career in mental health counseling and will graduate with a master’s degree this spring. He said it’s a way for him to stay connected to service, and fellow vets. And, like Roberts, he hopes his personal experiences make him more credible in the eyes of his clients.
“I’ll never say that that allows me to understand exactly what they have been through, because everyone’s experience is different,” he said. “But what it allows me to do is to have a little bit more perspective into what they have lived through.”
Bongioanni sought treatment for himself on the advice of a commander. He said he felt an emotional numbness upon returning home in 2010, and believes other factors played a role. He said it’s often the stress of everyday life that can compound experiences at war, making the transition more difficult.
“My father passed away, and I also had a relationship that kind of ended, and those events kind of snowballed a little bit, and some of the other experiences that I had already had that I had kind of suppressed, so to speak, and avoided, now came to the forefront,” he explained.
Bongioanni understands there’s still a big stigma associated with seeking help for mental illness in the military world, because soldiers are taught to be strong. It’s something he’d like to work at changing, because the need is pervasive.
(Photo: Marco Bongioanni in his Dress Blue uniform./Courtesy of Marco Bongioanni)
Seeking Help as a Strength
In addition to showing the prevalence of mental health issues among veterans, the 2011 IAVA analysis also identified significant barriers veterans face in seeking treatment for mental health issues. Out of more than 900 New York veterans surveyed for the study, 42 percent said they didn’t fully understand the benefits available to them — despite the fact that more than half of them said they needed or wanted services for mental health issues.
Resources for Veterans Seeking Help
Major concerns veterans cited include worries over the side-effects of medications used to treat mental illnesses, and how seeking help might affect their career prospects.
The report also makes several recommendations for policy makers and service providers to address those concerns, including consolidation and clarification of services, launching statewide recruiting efforts for mental health experts specializing in veterans’ issues, and spearheading an education and awareness campaign to fight some of the myths and address the stigma associated with seeking help.
Dr. Earle adds an important part of treating trauma is recognizing and respecting those who’ve been through it. The concept’s called bearing witness, and it’s a way civilians and service providers can begin to offer their support.
“It’s having the person who’s been through this trauma be seen by other people. To be recognized, acknowledged, not held to blame, not held as if you’re mentally ill be cause this happened to you, but instead having sort of recognition of your survival, of your strength, and having someone just sort of give you that quiet respect either through listening or supporting you.”
That’s something Bongianni and Roberts hope their experiences can help with: bearing witness not only to help those who’ve returned home, but also to remember and honor those who didn’t make it back.
“There are so many people that didn’t make it home,” Roberts said. “There are so many people that are so seriously injured now. Families have been devastated. You owe it to those people that didn’t make it back to live the best life that you can.”