For many, it was the first time they stepped out of their homes to engage with their communities. Trepidation swelled as injured warriors began to shuffle through a conference room door in St. Augustine, Florida. Their quick eyes scanned the room carefully, becoming fully aware of their surroundings: the number of people, unusual objects, hidden areas, and nearest exits. Old habits die hard.
Battle readiness – it is not a naturally occurring state for most people. It is the result of intense and rigorous military training. It is the primal fight-or-flight instinct of mankind, honed and polished into a weapon every bit as essential as a soldier’s gun and Kevlar. Many who have wielded this sword have felt the lasting effects of its double-edge: hypervigilance, isolation, mood swings, and self-medication – just a few of the standard afflictions of veterans who struggle with combat stress in the civilian world.
“Combat stress changed everything about my life,” said U.S. Army and Army Reserve combat veteran Edwin Medina of Jacksonville, Florida. “I’m not the same person I was before I deployed. My friends and family would say I used to be easygoing – but that’s not me anymore. It’s a struggle every day.”
Combat stress is in no way a modern concept. From the melancholia and “soldier’s heart” diagnoses of the Civil War era to the surges of shell shock and battle fatigue cases during World Wars I and II, it is an entity that travels a path parallel to that of human warfare in the pages of history. And as the adage says, history repeats itself.
To date, it is estimated that as many as 400,000 service members live with invisible wounds of war, including combat stress, depression, and finally – the signature wounds of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) – post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Veterans suffering from these issues are often forced to endure recalling prompts, typically referred to as triggers, which are linked to situational or emotional experiences and memories from the combat zone. The sound of popcorn popping or fireworks exploding can induce the memory of an improvised explosive device (IED) attack. A random feeling of anger, sadness, or anxiety can recreate an emotional combat experience. More invasive than just a bad memory and more terrifying than a typical bad dream, these episodes can prevent veterans from living the everyday lives that many take for granted.
Allies in the Battle Back Home
In a post-9/11 world, the number of American men and women dealing with issues like PTSD and TBI has increased exponentially. In an effort to address the growing mental health needs of these injured veterans, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) created its Combat Stress Recovery Program (CSRP). Through the generous support of donors, CSRP offers warriors a range of specialized programs and services – each tailored to the veteran’s specific needs – all free of charge. WWP and its supporters believe warriors already paid their dues on the battlefield, so warriors don’t pay for any service they receive.
One of the more unique CSRP programs involves a multi-day rehabilitative retreat that allows warriors – and sometimes spouses – to confront the albatross of combat stress while communing with nature and tackling a multitude of physical challenges. Participants thrive within an environment that is accommodating to their
injuries and social anxieties, and the bonds forged with fellow veterans help remind them their battles are not being fought alone. WWP fuses mental health care with a military adage: “Leave No Man Behind.”
Frank Poupart-Roldan, a retired U.S. Army combat veteran from Tampa, Florida, recalls the first day of the challenging and transformative mental health retreat in St. Augustine, Florida.
“At first, I didn’t know what to expect,” Frank said. “These people were strangers to me, but there was something familiar. There was a hidden bond that we all understood and didn’t need to bring up.”
“Reconnecting warriors to each other in the civilian world is very important,” said Mike Linnington, WWP chief executive officer. “The peer support that played a critical role on the battlefield has the same function in their recovery at home. In combat, soldiers rely upon each other for survival. It becomes an unyielding trust. When warriors stumble, fall, or become injured, it’s the warrior marching next to them that will pick them up and carry them on their shoulder.”
Confronting Old Enemies
Combat-stressed veterans often resort to coping mechanisms like social withdrawal. While putting up invisible barriers between themselves and a world they feel is devoid of empathy might seem like a fix, such isolation can be detrimental to the psychological healing process.
When Edwin made that realization for himself, he knew he needed to take a leap of faith.
“I know what it’s like to be alone – to isolate yourself and have no help,” he said. “This event changed that for me. I needed this in my life right now. I needed to be with my brotherhood. I know each of those guys will hold me accountable for the goals I set for myself. I know they will call me out if I start falling back. And they will do all of it without judgment.”
Frank, Edwin, and the other warriors engaged in three days of tough outdoor activities that helped them step outside their comfort zones and created opportunities to confront their high-stress triggers. As they came face-to-face with their intangible adversaries, they gradually began to understand them – and from that understanding came the skills to defeat them.
“For me, the most challenging part was when we all were surfing at the beach,” Frank said. “It wasn’t just the physical part. It was mostly having to deal with the crowd – everyone was getting so close to us. But at the same time, it taught me to move past those triggers. This event was important for my recovery. I found myself having so much fun attempting to do something I never would have tried on my own, that I stopped noticing I was in a crowd of people I didn’t know. Suddenly I was out of my comfort zone – but I was OK. I think I conquered that.”
Exposure to traumatic combat and operational experiences affects service members and veterans spiritually, psychologically, biologically, and socially. WWP mental health rehabilitative retreats provide a safe, private environment for warriors to express themselves and share their combat experiences – with laughter and tears. At the end of the rehabilitative retreat, the band of warriors shares lessons learned from the activities that impacted their personal struggles most and sets achievable goals for their recoveries.
Many leave with new hobbies, battle buddies, and peace of mind.
Combat stress recovery can be a lengthy and sometimes difficult process. WWP strives to make that journey as positive as possible by offering the hand to help wounded warriors off the ground. And with that helping hand comes the promise that the warrior will never be left to fight alone.
Edwin said his brothers and sisters in arms just have to be willing to extend a hand in return.
“There are so many warriors who don’t know they need help,” he said tearfully. “You’ve got to get up and go! It’s gonna change. It’s gonna be good for you.”
With a renewed outlook and a resolve to continue on his path of healing, Frank echoed Edwin’s battle cry with one of his own.
“Get stepping,” Frank said. “You want to get better? There’s something here that can be your first step. The worst you can do is nothing.”
About Wounded Warrior Project
The mission of Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) is to honor and empower Wounded Warriors. The WWP purpose is to raise awareness and to enlist the public’s aid for the needs of injured service members, to help injured servicemen and women aid and assist each other, and to provide unique, direct programs and services to meet their needs. WWP is a national, nonpartisan organization headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida. To get involved and learn more, visit woundedwarriorproject.org.