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WILMINGTON, DEL. — Wars do awful things to bodies, and Air Force Maj. Roger Rodriguez had been a frequent witness. The veteran flight nurse had five post-Sept. 11 wartime deployments under his belt, every one of them spent retrieving the torn and broken bodies of U.S. troops from battlefields and field hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For years, what Rodriguez had seen and heard gnawed at him, as he wrestled with, but pushed aside, sleep problems and nightmares. He had been resilient — as the military terms it.
On his sixth trip to the war zones, what had been welling up inside slowly burst through the emotional shield he had so carefully constructed. When the Delaware Air National Guardsman came home in December 2009, he felt overwhelmed.
“Every person has a breaking point,” said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez asked to speak to a Delaware Air National Guard life skills counselor, who recommended he seek help at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Wilmington. Because he was still in uniform, he ended up at the mental health clinic at Dover Air Force Base.
He was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, joining nearly 1 in 5 active-duty soldier and veteran of those wars in dealing with the mental scars of what they saw and experienced, often during multiple tours.
Rodriguez hasn’t worked since and continues to be treated at both facilities.
In the early days — his 25-year military career began as a Navy hospital corpsman — Rodriquez rode a wave of youthful exuberance. Back then, he said he had the fire in his belly and “you pressed ahead” in overcoming obstacles.
During the recent conflicts in Asia, he was transporting and trying to keep alive young troops who weren’t a whole lot older than his two children.
“I was more aware of people’s ages that were getting hurt,” said Rodriguez, who remains assigned to the 142nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. “What bothered me the most was the severity of the injuries.” More sophisticated enemy tactics and roadside bombs were creating more double-, triple-amputees.
“It grinds on you,” he said. “Each tour takes a little bit out of you — mentally, physically, spiritually.
“It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been there,” Rodriguez said.
Because of the horrendous things he had seen, the nightmares began.
“I see patients screaming,” he said. “It’s kind of like watching a movie in my dream. And I see patients laying there, I see patients bleeding. I see them asking for help. And you just can’t get to everybody at one time.”
Yet Rodriguez has been able to maintain the semblance of a normal life. The opportunity to spend more time with his wife of 23 years, Carina, and their children — Victoria, 14, and Alexander, 12 — has been the “silver lining” of his diagnosis, as they have served as a stabilizing emotional anchor and a vehicle through which to heal, he said.
“Just being involved with the family and what they’re doing helps keep me grounded,” Rodriguez said at his home in Bear. “Going to therapy, of course, helps, both at Dover and at the Vet center. That helps. The meditation helps. But what (really) helps is the kids, and dealing with the kids every day, dealing with the family.”
Rodriguez said he takes his children to school every day, and helps them with their homework.
“Sometimes they teach me a thing or two,” he said. “Spending time with them at dance, basketball and soccer has kept me moving forward.”
But his is more than a story about support and healing, Rodriguez said. It’s about facing the disorder head-on, accepting the treatment and doing his part to dispel the oft-repeated stereotype of the crazed war veteran who becomes violent.
Living with PTSD
It’s about living with PTSD in a positive way.
“I struggle every day with my demons,” he said. “I still continue to be a husband and father.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ best estimate is that between 13 and 20 percent of those deployed have or will someday develop PTSD, which translates to more than 475,000 of the roughly 2.5 million U.S. troops who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The military has been waging an internal battle to encourage service personnel to seek treatment. As a result of soldiers and veterans who don’t seek out care, the extent of the problem is uncertain. Some don’t come forward because of the stigma of being seen as weak and fears about the negative effect on their careers.
“Many veterans believe, incorrectly, that treatment is ineffective - that if they have PTSD, they’ll always have it,” said Paula Schnurr, the deputy executive director for the VA’s National Center for PTSD.
Others, she said, don’t recognize the symptoms, which can range from flashbacks to impulsive or self-destructive behavior to emotional swings and difficulties to frequent run-ins with family members and friends.
Some are prone to blame PTSD for the violent behavior of its sufferers, but little is known about why some veterans get arrested, researchers say. The establishment of more than 90 veterans treatment courts nationwide is evidence that the problem is not insubstantial.
While a few police departments may record whether a suspect has PTSD, a 2012 study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that only 9 percent of the surveyed post-9/11 veterans with PTSD or traumatic brain injury had been arrested since returning home. Most were for minor crimes.
The study noted that most of the arrests were “more strongly linked” to substance abuse and criminal history.
A top Delaware mental health expert agreed with that conclusion.
“To make the claim that it’s either causal or not causal is a bit dangerous because you don’t know what their pre-morbid condition was before they went in the military,” said Marc Richman, assistant director for Community Mental Health and Addiction Services for the state Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.
There is evidence that having been in combat is associated with violence later in life, said Terry Schell, a senior behavioral scientist with Rand, a public policy think tank in Santa Monica, Calif. “But we don’t have any reason to believe it’s because of PTSD,” he said.
While acknowledging some sufferers have turned to violence, Rodriguez, who contacted The News Journal, wants to offer a different perception to counter what he sees is a media-driven stereotype of the PTSD-afflicted combat veteran who becomes involved in criminal behavior or who commits suicide.
“But there are people out there who are getting the help that they need, and still trying to be positive and moving forward with the mental illness that they have,” he said. “Not everybody turns to the bottle. We deal with everyday struggles in life just like everybody else.”
“There’s many more people like the guy you’re writing about,” said Schnurr of the National Center for PTSD, which was established in 1989. “The vast majority don’t have a problem with the criminal justice system.”
Whether they do or do not, PTSD sufferers struggle with life-disrupting symptoms. Rodriguez deals with sleep apnea, an ear ailment called Meniere’s disease and short-term memory loss.
To tame his demons, he attends weekly individual and group therapy sessions, is on medication, has gone through a variety of therapies and has done meditation. He says “keeping a daily routine” helps him.
It’s uncommon for older troops to develop PTSD, Schnurr said. On the other hand, a more educated and mature person such as Rodriguez might have more success dealing with it - particularly if they have a strong social network, social support, economic stability and access to resources, she said.
“He’s obviously very fortunate to be able to manage the symptoms,” said Richman. “They can be overwhelming. Just to keep things in check.”
On the right path
Rodriguez doesn’t always succeed.
“There are days when I can’t get out of bed,” said the 44-year-old Air National Guardsman, who has been rated as medically unfit but remains on convalescent leave while his disability rating is finalized.
But Rodriguez feels like he’s on the right path, and that he’s not the only one.
“There are guys who push through every day, and are learning to live with it,” he said.
Guys like Rodriguez. Taking it a step at a time.
“My road to recovery?” he said. “Every day, I’m trying to recover a little bit.”