Helping Soldiers Battling PTSD

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - October 06, 2010
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This was the third Post Traumatic Stress Residential Recovery Program (PRRP) graduation ceremony to which I had been invited as the “guest speaker,” so I thought I knew exactly what to expect. We were in the usual venue: the large conference room on the fifth floor, makai wing of Tripler Army Medical Center. The usual 12 chairs were arranged in a line in the stage area facing the audience, one for each of the graduates of “Cohort 27” who had just completed the intensive eight-week live-in recovery program.

The Tripler program is designed to specifically address the unique cultural needs of Pacific Island troops of Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands. By the luck of the draw, this cohort was two-thirds Samoan, but I was still surprised when they entered wearing matching lava lavas, spiffy white T-shirts bearing their cohort logo, and each wearing a polished kukui nut lei. And these were really BIG men. All those T-shirts had to be XXXLs.

They called themselves the “uso unit” - uso meaning “brother” in Samoan. And when they opened their ceremony with a couple of songs in Samoan, they sounded like brothers who had been singing together all their lives with that sweet, unique harmony with which all Pacific Islanders seem to be born. And sure enough, “Stress Management through Art and Music Therapy” was one of their newly learned skills.

PRRP “embraces the philosophy of resilience and recovery by teaching residents how post traumatic stress disorder has affected their lives and their family’s lives and how they can recover from their disorder.” By scanning the program, one gets a feel for other newly learned skills: “Communication Skills,” “Management of Emotions,” “Anger Management,” “Grief and Loss,” “Biofeedback/Relaxation,” “Daily Living and Coping Skills” and “Parenting/Interpersonal Skills.”

In his welcoming comments, Ken Hirsch, M.D., Ph.D. and director of PRRP, shed light on the roots of PTSD: how most of the symptoms of PTSD are learned assets in combat, but are debilitating at home where they must be unlearned. Consider: hyper-vigilance (guarding against attack) but always “on guard” at home; suspiciousness (who can you trust?), but “paranoia” at home; hyper-arousal (always ready to react), but can never relax at home; attention to detail (safety depends on it) but obsessive concern at home; discipline (necessary for survival), but treating family like soldiers at home; “stuffing” emotions except for anger (no role for gentler emotions in combat), but inability to feel or show any emotion except anger at home, and light sleeping (ready to react at all times), but “insomnia” at home.

And according to Dr. Hirsch, inability to sleep is perhaps the most serious symptom of PTSD: “It undermines the immune system and all aspects of physical and emotional recovery, and ultimately longer-term health and well-being.”

Hirsch also emphasized the importance of “Cognitive Processing Therapy” (group therapy) whereby the men get to know and trust one another. Progress is based upon each man’s realization that others have the same problems he’s having so each man benefits from the discussion and solution to another man’s issues.

As each man received his “diploma,” he was encouraged to say a few words and, to a man, each used his allotted time to express his gratitude to various members of the PRRP staff in the audience, and to family members in attendance, but especially to his new band of usos to whom, over the past eight weeks, he had reached down to pull them up, and they had reached down and pulled him up.

The ceremony ended on a lighter note with a video of their group field trips - a barbecue and fishing at Hickam harbor, Moanalua park, Oahu tour, fishing at Sand Island, Waikiki Beach, Arizona Memorial and another barbecue at Oahu Veterans Center - with plenty of playful hamming it up along the way.

Graduation for these men does not mean they have recovered from PTSD. Like most recovery programs, it is an ongoing process, but they do have a giant head start in the right direction. And for our recovering warriors, that is the very least we can provide.

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