Vickroy: Helping vets get back into civilian life
DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org | (708) 633-5982 May 25, 2012 9:52PM
Lt. Col. Nick Johnson, 41, of Country Club Hills, is an Army National Guard reservist with the 1st Battalion, 178th Infantry Regiment headquartered in Chicago. He is pictured at VFW Post 311 in Richton Park Friday, May 25, 2012. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
The 2012 Veterans Outreach will be from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Aug. 18 at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 311, 22341 Governors Highway, Richton Park; (708) 679-0995.
Updated: July 2, 2012 9:39AM
Even a doctorate in psychology can’t completely protect a soldier from the emotional ravages of war.
“It helped me greatly,” said Army Lt. Col. Nick Johnson, of Country Club Hills. “But I still have my issues.”
At the weekly graduation ceremonies held at Naval Station Great Lakes, near where Johnson works, officials shoot off cannons in celebration of the new recruits’ advancement. Every now and then, while walking to his car in the parking lot, Johnson is caught off guard by the thunderous booms and immediately thinks, “What are those Afghans doing now?”
Johnson is an active reservist who deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 with the 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team. He also works for the Department of Veterans Affairs in the Capt. James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center just west of the Navy base. And he is a member of the executive board of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 311 in Richton Park, which he calls one of the most active VFWs around.
He wears a lot of hats, but I sat down with him recently to talk specifically about his work helping new vets readjust to civilian life.
While many vets are in need of jobs and housing and assistance wading through health care bureaucracy, Johnson said, “Increasingly, we’re seeing soldiers suffering from mental health issues as a result of brain injury or post-traumatic stress.”
According to The Associated Press, nearly half of the 1.6 million veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking compensation for service-related injuries, more than double the estimated
21 percent who filed such claims after other relatively recent wars.
In the Vietnam War, Johnson said, medical officials treated a lot of gunshot wounds among soldiers. In the Gulf War, it was primarily immune disorders and respiratory issues. The war in Afghanistan is unique in that many soldiers endure wounds caused by improvised explosive devices, with a great number of those injuries being brain-based.
“Medical care is very advanced today and many soldiers are able to survive injuries, but we’re seeing a lot more dealing with brain trauma,” he said.
When an IED is detonated, the results can be devastating and the injuries far-ranging, from severed limbs to instant death. Those who suffer a brain injury also find there is a broad spectrum of wounds, from concussions to permanent damage.
IEDs are the weapon of choice among Afghans because they require only a few people to pull them off, Johnson said.
A Boston University research team recently probed the brain of a soldier who was injured when an IED detonated. His symptoms began with dizziness and, over a two-year period, spiraled into daily headaches, forgetfulness, violence and verbal abuse, the report stated. Within months of doctors diagnosing post-traumatic stress disorder, the soldier died of a brain hemorrhage.
The researchers studied the soldier’s brain and found it full of a protein associated with a degenerative disease seen in concussed professional athletes. The study is published in the journal Science Translational Medicine (stm.sciencemag.org).
Johnson said more soldiers today need both physical and psychological help to deal with the fallout from such injuries.
In addition, Johnson said, the VA is doing a lot of work to help female soldiers who have suffered sexual trauma while on a tour of duty and to help all veterans who are dealing with PTSD.
Though neither issue is new, Johnson said, there is greater awareness and acceptance today that both need to be addressed. Many soldiers who have been in situations in which they believed their lives were in danger deal with varying degrees of PTSD as a result. Symptoms include a heightened sense of alert, jumpiness and an inability to sleep soundly.
“Both issues need to have resources put toward them,” he said.
Navigating the system can be difficult, especially for vets who are injured, physically or psychologically.
For that reason, VFW Post 311 will gather representatives from several government agencies for the 2012 Veterans Outreach in August. Topics to be addressed include legal counseling regarding VA benefits, housing, homelessness, substance abuse, employment information and clothing and meals assistance.
Johnson said he’s known since he was a child that he wanted to serve in the Army. Doing so helped him get through college, and he earned his doctorate in 2004. The father of a daughter, Ashley, Johnson is the recipient of a Bronze Star, Army Commendation Medal and Combat Infantry Badge.
He said there is much that average Americans can do to help returning soldiers transition back to civilian life.
Be accepting, he said.
“Society needs to have a general understanding of mental health issues these people face,” he said. “Remember, returning vets are uncles, moms, dads, brothers. They all need assistance and understanding.”