Vickroy: Soldiers struggle for peace after duty ends
By Donna Vickroy firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy November 3, 2012 12:12AM
U.S. Army veteran John Akridge, front, struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. He committed suicide in 2007. | Supplied photo
What is PTSD?
According to the National Institute for Mental Health, post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which there was the potential for or actual occurrence of grave physical harm. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents and military combat. People with PTSD have persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal, may experience sleep problems, feel detached or numb or be easily startled.
In 2010, 7,739 deployed soldiers, as well as 1,423 soldiers who were not deployed, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Army Office of the Surgeon General.
Updated: December 5, 2012 6:04AM
They found his body inside the new car he’d paid cash for in a field in Fort Worth, Texas. A bullet through his brain.
“It came from a gun we did not even know he owned,” said his mother, Sharon Orsborn, of Arlington, Texas.
Orsborn came to the Southland last week to share the story of her son’s suicide and to shed light on some of the darker issues affecting America’s soldiers and their families.
In addition to Orsborn’s candid speech about the death of her youngest child, John Akridge, panelists for Governors State University’s “Before and After Deployment: Trauma and the Impact on the Military Family” forum addressed sexual assault in the military, post-traumatic stress disorder and the effect of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gay soldiers.
The forum was put together by five students in GSU’s social work program. They wrote a grant for it and did their own fundraising, Associate Professor Lorri Glass said.
“Social work is a pretty broad field,” Glass said. “It needs to stay relevant and current. Veterans are a big concern, for social workers and for all of us.”
Michael Griffin, a U.S. Army vet and undergrad in the social work program, helped plan the event.
“Everyone knows that trauma exists but most people don’t know how bad it can be or how it affects families,” he said.
In coming years, he added, social workers — as well as teachers, counselors and therapists — will be seeing an influx of military personnel returning home having gone through trauma.
People such as Michael Johnson, who still struggles with post-traumatic stress. The U.S. Marine ignored symptoms brought on by his service in Operation Desert Shield/Storm in 1994 and later in Afghanistan.
He came home angry, restless and sleepless. He tried to forget that he’d seen children blown apart by mines and burned by warlords.
He and his wife, Shari, who also served in Afghanistan, had marital problems. When it got to the point where he couldn’t go out in public, he got help. Today, he’d like to see the military provide some kind of post-deployment deprogramming camp for returning soldiers, much like there is a boot camp for soldiers shipping out.
Orsborn was overjoyed when Akridge announced he was joining the Army. Then 22, he’d struggled to find a direction. His decision to serve his country was an honorable one, she said.
Then on the day Akridge left for training at Fort Sill, Okla., President George W. Bush announced the war on Iraq.
Akridge came home in 2006 a changed man. By the following spring, he was gone.
With the clarity of hindsight, Orsborn now can see the signs that her son needed help. There were changes in his behavior. He became more isolated, angrier, even mean at times. But the family kept thinking he’d figure it out.
“No one told us what to expect when he came home. I believe most families don’t know what to expect when their loved one comes home,” she said.
Akridge wouldn’t talk much about the 15 months he’d spent in Iraq. Since his death, Orsborn has been able to piece together some of the horrors her son experienced, from seeing children killed to retrieving fellow soldiers injured or killed by explosives.
“It was 18 months after his death that someone said to me for the first time that my son was a hero,” she said. “I really needed to hear that.”
He’d received special commendation for helping his comrades after a bridge collapsed under their vehicle. But like so many things that happened over there, no one talked about it.
Orsborn vowed to change that. She is determined to comfort and support those struggling in the aftermath of combat.
“I send messages to his comrades in arms because every single one of them deals with post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said.
She also reaches out to the families of those who serve.
“I want others to understand immediately that what happens to your loved one is not your fault,” she said. “In order for my family to heal, the first thing we had to do was to lay down our guilt.”
Unexpectedly, amid the sadness and the chaos, she found her son’s legacy. Orsborn composed her first poem on the way home from the coroner’s office that fateful day. She has been writing ever since.
Attacked by comrades
Nicole McCoy was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 with the Marines. She was medically discharged in 2012. In between, she was raped twice and sexually assaulted twice by fellow Marines.
Each time she reported the rape, life got worse. She was harassed, her car was vandalized, her position eliminated. She was transferred, demoted and found herself descending into a world of depression and substance abuse. To this day, she has eating issues and suffers from panic attacks.
“I find it hard to work with men,” she said.
McCoy brought her dog to the GSU conference.
“I am very attached to animals because I want something I know isn’t going to hurt me,” she said.
Despite her struggles, McCoy said she is determined to have something good come out of her military experience. She has begun an online petition urging the inclusion of active duty military and Reserve components in the start-up of a national registry for sex offenders (www.change.org\militaryrape).
“Starting the petition is my therapy,” she said.
Equal rights for all
In 2006, after Chicagoan Marquell Smith learned that someone he was dating had tested positive for HIV, he confided his sexual orientation to his commanding officer. Several months later he was discharged under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
“I fought my dismissal,” he said. He also fought back.
From 2007 to 2010, when the policy was repealed, Smith worked with several organizations advocating equal rights and fair treatment.
After four years of fighting, his discharge finally has been upgraded to honorable and he is at last able to take advantage of his GI Bill rights, which initially were denied to him.
Despite the progress gay soldiers are making, the work isn’t over, he said.
“I am committed to fight for people whose voice can’t be heard,” Smith said.