Heroes Come Home: Still much to be learned about PTSD

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- Post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD is a disorder affecting tens of thousands in the United States -- many of them veterans. Yet there is still much to be learned about this disorder that can be devastating if left untreated.

Joe Mitchell joined the U.S. Army five days before 9/11. He spent five-and-a-half years as a 13-Foxtrot (Fire Support Specialist) -- Forward Observer. He was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, and he says none of it was easy, and all of it impossible to forget.

"A lot of explosions, getting blowed up, trucks, explosions, IEDs and stuff like that. Lost some good friends there. Got in a bunch of fire fights. So that was the beginning really of the challenging things for me," Mitchell said.

Though he left the battlefield in 2007, the war did not end.

"I've been home for five years, and honestly, all five of those years is just as much a challenge as the five-and-a-half years I spent in the military," Mitchell said.

Soon after his return, Mitchell was diagnosed with PTSD. It was just the beginning of a difficult adaptation to civilian life.

"Went to rehab for three months, got two DUIs. I don't talk to my family. I've smashed three cars. I've gone to jail a couple times," Mitchell said.

Mitchell is not alone in his mental fight. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates about one in every seven Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans will be diagnosed with PTSD. At the core of the statistic is the trauma of war.

Dr. Karen Berte has been diagnosing and treating veterans with PTSD for the past 20 years. She says research and technology have come a long way since PTSD was first diagnosed in the 1980s.

"A trauma overwhelms the system on both an emotional and a physiological level. It can cause some fairly permanent biological changes in the brain, alterations in the levels of certain brain chemicals and of course our neurons, our brain cells communicate with each other through the exchange of brain chemicals," Dr. Berte said.

Those physical changes cause what is known as PTSD.

"It leads to what you and I might think of as symptoms, whether that is changes in moods such as depression, the occurrence of anxiety, difficulty with attention and concentration," Dr. Berte said.

However, Dr. Berte points out that despite the advances in science, it is still unclear why PTSD occurs after trauma.

"You can have two people that experience the same thing and they can end up with different reactions and different interpretations of events," Dr. Berte said.

There are a range of treatments for the disorder, from new medications to different methods of talk therapy. However, researchers have not found a way to reverse the damage.

"Recovery doesn't mean that a condition will be cured, but the goal overall is to help that person function better and to feel better, to identify different ways of coping, different strategies for living," Dr. Berte said.

Colleen Mitchell started dating Joe Mitchell a week before he went to basic training. The two got married in between his deployments. She experienced firsthand the changes that happen to a loved one as PTSD sets in.

"A lot of people have asked what it's like and my answer is my soldier came home in 2007. My husband has not come home yet," Colleen Mitchell said.

Colleen Mitchell says despite PTSD, things are looking up for the family of four. Colleen says she sees more and more of the man she fell in love with.

"Continue to love the best you can, support the best you can, know that you're not alone.  There are people and places that are willing to help spouses and other people but just to hang on as best you can," Colleen Mitchell said.

"There's hope for people. There's hope for everyone. I would encourage people to look inside themselves and maybe hold back on their pride a little bit and not be afraid to admit that yeah, I might have a problem. I may need someone to talk to," Joe Mitchell said.

PTSD can affect anyone who experiences a trauma, such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks like 9/11 or sexual assaults.

While there is still a lot of research to be done, the good news is community support and understanding of the disorder is growing.

CLICK HERE for additional information on PTSD via the Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD. 

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