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PTSD: Still hard to talk about

on December 10, 2020

It’s a few minutes after 12 p.m. on Sept. 13, 2011. A dozen Taliban fighters are leaving from a car at a checkpoint at Abdul Haq square, one of the most trafficked areas in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers and AK-47s, they head toward the diplomatic district, an affluent Wazir Akbar Khan area.

They enter a nine-floor cement building undergoing construction and they go up on the roof.

Francisco Martinezcuello, a US marine sitting in his office nearby, hears six loud explosions. “That really scared me, I felt I was being attacked,” said Francisco, who worked at Camp Eggers, near the Afghan headquarters of the NATO ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) program. 

Martinezcuello, who enlisted in the Marine Corps when he was 16, was recalling the day that Taliban fighters launched a deadly attack on NATO Headquarters and U.S. Embassy. Although he thought he had overcome that trauma years ago, in 2011, after fireworks blasted off from SeaWorld near his house, he quickly rounded up his children to try and protect them. “And so that’s when I finally said I have a problem.”

Martinezcuello sought help, but many other veterans suffering from PTSD are much more hesitant to seek assistance, says Laura Lambertucci, an Italian cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist. And this can lead to more problems for people suffering from trauma.

“We are programmed to repair ourselves,” said Lambertucci, who specializes in PTSD cases. “But sometimes there are events that overwhelm our self-repair capabilities … The image of the soldier is like that of a superhero, but Superman also has his kryptonite.”

The psychotherapist believes machismo can get in the way of seeking support. The first step, she said, is acknowledging, “It is right to be sensitive and susceptible: suffering makes us human.”

Lambertucci believes that many veterans would benefit from Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. The therapy, which is encouraged by the World Health Organization, moves lights across the patient’s eyes to stimulate REM sleep, when both the emotional and rational hemispheres of the brain are connected. It allows the pain of the event to interact with the patient’s rational brain, thereby processing the trauma.

Barricades ruins of the war in Aleppo
Barricades ruins of the war in Aleppo, Syria. (Credit: Eleonora Bianchi)

“The essence of processing is in fact to understand that it [the traumatic event] is no longer now. Now you are safe, you are no longer there,” she said.

She added: “No psychotherapy has ever been able to erase the suffering. It is a part of us and it’s right to keep it, we just need to learn the right tools to handle it.”

Foreign officer J. P. Jenks, who watched fellow soldiers get shot as they patrolled the German border in the early ’80s, waited until 2007 to seek help. In his case, he underwent Prolonged Exposure Therapy, which forces patients to confront their trauma as a way to heal from it.

But after five weeks, Jenks said he could not deal with the pain and checked himself into a hospital.

“Subconsciously, you’re telling yourself the same lies every day of your life,” he said, adding that he sought treatment after his loved ones told him that he was becoming more aggressive, losing sleep and feeling numbness in his fingers.

Underestimating the damage caused by trauma, according to Lambertucci, no matter how long ago it was suffered, can worsen and even aggravate your situation. “Do not demonize the PTSD disorder,” she said. “Talking about it, opening up, and confronting it are the first steps towards access to treatment.”

For this reason Rhonda Harris, executive director of the Veterans Resource Program in Richmond, founded her vision in January 2000, honoring her Korean War veteran father. 

As Harris explains, the Veteran Resource Program provides a safe place, assistance and social support, ensuring the physical and mental health of the guests. Today, the center is adapting to the pandemic: trying to ensure the fundamental social interactions, but respecting the strict directives of protection given the seniority of Veterans.

Covid-19 has exacerbated the issues Veterans suffering from PTSD in Richmond face.

Veteran Resource Program board member Aminta Mickles, professor in Health and Human Services at Contra Costa College, says getting support as early as possible is key, but the pandemic has made it tougher for veterans to find counselors or therapists.

Mickles added that there are PTSD clinics in Oakland and San Francisco, but noted that veterans in Richmond with no transportation are finding it hard to get to those locations. “That’s another step back,” she said.

Researchers are also trying to learn how to treat PTSD before it leads to potentially damaging consequences.

The Laureate Institute for Brain Research launched The Mindfulness project as a way to increase resilience and offset long-term consequences associated with PTSD, says associate researcher Namik Kirlic.

The history of mindfulness has its roots in Eastern religions like Hinduism, Kirlic says. It was later westernized by scientists across the world, allowing them to learn through breathing and meditation to manage anxiety and stress without any feeling of shame or judgment.

Through an experiment conducted on some Marines, Kirlic and other researchers at the institute say they discovered that those receiving mindfulness training demonstrated significant ability to more rationally process threats and anxiety.

Kirlic is confident that PTSD cases can be reduced by increasing the resilience of veterans before they’re marched into battle. This would also save the government money. Preventative treatment could cut hefty costs on recovery and therapies.

“If we trained their bodies to be physically strong, why not train their minds?” said Kirlic.

It took Martinezcuello years to train his mind and he still looks for ways to deal with PTSD. Writing is one of them.

As he recalls, despite the horror of the trauma suffered, the duality of war also brings poetic memories. That is why he began to write, focusing on things that most fascinated him during his time in the army.

Martinezcuello tries to write to make sense of this world, to understand it.

“Because within all this death and destruction and pollution, I’ve never seen something more beautiful than desert Afghan rose.” Martinezcuello said. “You just sit there and you could stare at it forever.”

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