And You Can Help
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder…PTSD…we’ve all heard of it and probably none of us really understands the symptoms housed within those four consonants…PTSD, initials that can stand for hell, broken marriages, panic attacks, apathy, angry outbursts, depression, suicide, and the list goes on and on.
So what is PTSD, who gets it, and can one be cured from it?
The answer is that anyone who undergoes some type of severe trauma can be susceptible to PTSD although we tend to think of it as something associated with military service during war times and combat experience.
The other answer is that no, there is no cure for PTSD; however, there are very real things to do to help people live with the disorder.
This past week I sat down with Erath County’s Walt Spang. Walt is a veteran of the Vietnam War as well as the founder of Texas County Veterans, an organization designed to help veterans in Texas counties with very real needs, whether they be mental, physical, or financial. He has also been plagued with PTSD since his Vietnam years even though it was a diagnosis that didn’t come about until much later.
It feels very disrespectful to condense any veteran’s experiences, but that is exactly what I am about to do to Walt’s story because I want you to jump ahead with me and envision a young man, his best friend or surrogate brother, and his unit on a battlefield.
Once you can paint that picture in your mind, I want you to envision the heat, the roar, the bedlam of battle, and I want you to see that best friend suddenly fall, shot through the neck. And finally, I want you to see a young Walt desperately trying to breathe sustaining life into his friend who ultimately dies cradled in his arms.
At some point, Walt leaves his dead friend lying there on the ground and as bullets continue to rain, he crawls ahead, up and onto a rice paddy where two others are huddled. Now, picture one of those young men sitting up only to be shot through the head, spilling his brains where his friends lie…only he does not die, at least not at that moment. Instead, he lies within the confines of the rice paddy with his two comrades, where he moans for hours before his spirit is finally freed.
And the last picture I want to give you from that horrible day is of those two remaining men, huddled there on that rice paddy with their dead comrade beside them, trapped between their own troops and the Viet Cong as a war is fought quite literally over their heads. Of the men Walt started out with that morning, only four remained at the end of that battle.
“We put thirty-three names on the wall that day. Eddie’s death [the best friend] changed forever my relationships with other people.”
Thankfully, it is not something that most of us will ever experience, but we would all have to be pretty naïve to assume that events this horrible will leave no lasting effects on those who experience them. The same can be true for anyone who experiences something so horrible that the brain just cannot cope with it: rape, incest, the loss of a child, witnessing a murder. All of these horrifying events have the ability to trigger PTSD in those who endure them.
For Walt, it was the horrors suffered in battle, a crippling accident suffered just ten days before his four-year stint was ended, leaving him 60% disabled, and a 2007 head on collision that brought everything to a head, making both Walt and his doctors realize that he had been struggling with PTSD for years, undiagnosed, life-altering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
After the head on, Walt was declared 100% disabled due to his recurring health problems and 100% disabled due to PTSD. He could have folded right there; I might have folded, but he didn’t. He took his life’s savings and founded an organization designed to help other veterans cope with their own problems: Texas County Veterans. The organization is based out of Erath County but serves veterans all over the state of Texas.
“We provide a link between the veteran and the rest of the world. There just isn’t this kind of help in our rural communities where these services are provided, meaning that so many veterans fall between the cracks in the system. As difficult as it can be working with other vets, there is healing in it for me as well.
“There is a brotherhood and a sisterhood between all veterans. I know what I went through all of those years, and I have a compassion and a need to do what I can for my brothers and sisters and their families. I didn’t just one day wake up and decide to do this. I’m a true believer that the Lord moves us in the direction he wants us to go, and then we have to decide if we will go where He leads.”
So what exactly does Texas County Veterans do for our Texas veterans?
To be honest with you, it’s hard to describe because the services provided are so varied. Once, the call came in from the wife (of 65 years!) of a WWII veteran. The couple lived in not much more than a shanty, and their window unit had “died.” Texas County Veterans purchased a new unit, delivered it, and installed it. According to Walt, the thermometer measured 98 degrees in the house when they arrived.
“The first thing we do when we find a need is look to other organizations. Sometimes all we have to do is help the veteran fill out the proper paperwork to get coverage for a particular need. Sometimes this even means doing the research to find the proper military records so that a veteran can prove his/her service. Once we can establish whether or not there are services that a veteran is eligible for elsewhere, then we know exactly what it is that our group needs to do.”
Other times, Walt is called in by ER staff, police departments, or rescue organizations. They know who he is, and if an emergency occurs that involves a vet, he or one of the others are usually asked to help, whether it be to calm someone threatening suicide or hold someone experiencing a flashback. He is always quick to point out that with only 44 states reporting, there are 22 suicides among veterans every single day in this country.
“And that’s just the obvious suicides. Those who drive their car over a cliff, overdose on drugs, etc. etc. are not counted in that number.
“We meet the veterans where they are within the hierarchy of needs. Sometimes they have no place to live, no food to eat, and no way to pay their bills. Sometimes they are struggling with PTSD and depression.
“My ultimate personal goal is to have a place in Texas with enough acreage to set up buildings and facilities to (1) provide a place to live for our young vets and their families who come out of the service unprepared to take care of themselves at first. (2) provide a place for those homeless veterans, and (3) offer a place to veterans and their spouses when they need assisted living quarters or even nursing home care. This would keep veterans from having to give everything they own to an outside nursing home.”
And back to PTSD, I don’t want to close without telling you what I learned from Walt today. PTSD is NOT a mental condition; it is actually a physical condition, often causing certain parts of the brain to shrink. This shrinkage can be detected with a MRI.
According to Walt, PTSD is also never to blame for the killings of which we hear.
“PTSD might make it more difficult for you to kill me, but it positively will not make me more prone to kill you. Mental illness causes that, and PTSD is a physical condition. There’s a big difference.”
Obviously, the story of Texas County Veterans is simply way too large for me to cover in one article; however, we will be hearing from Walt again as we continue to record the happenings of this unbelievable group, which now consists of 75-100 volunteers.
If you would like to discover ways that you might can help, contact Bradley Oglesby at 254-592-6053 or Walt Spang at 254-592-5769. And if you can’t help, the group will certainly be glad to take your donation!
Also, if you are a Facebook user, click on the link and then “Like” the Texas County Veterans page. This will keep you in the know as to what is happening with the group and the people its members serve.