Thursday, October 25, 2012

Veterans, PTSD, and Simple Customer Service (Wouldn't it be nice...)

It seems best to start with my husband's Facebook status from last night.  It alone will get my point across (but of course, I'll have to add my two cents :) ):

"Well I went to the VA today. For a shrink appointment but at the check in was told that my doc wasn't seeing anymore patience because she has been promoted. I never got a letter or a call. So the VA mental Heath dept. has yet again canceled my Heath care. I don't have a social worker anymore because he's to busy to care and don't show up for group meetings. Are when he's there he leaves early saying he got work to do. Now I don't even have a shrink and cant get my meds anymore. people wonder why Vets do the things they do. We can't get help from any where. We are truly alone in our fight. NO HOPE."

In the past two years, my husband... a hero with severe (VA's words) PTSD and well as Traumatic Brain Injury has been shuffled through FOUR different people to handle his psychiatric medications.  For anyone, changing doctors constantly is at the very least uncomfortable... but for a Veteran who has to really, really, *REALLY* work at developing any sort of bond, it's almost catastrophic.

We wait for months to get appointments, when we are able to get them they are often first thing in the morning (which, for those of you who don't live in our world of PTSD, TBI, and the related sleep issues, can present a monumental challenge) despite my continued pleas to make sure that he is scheduled no earlier than 11:00 am so that I, as his wife and caregiver, have the best possible chance of getting him there on a "bad" day, and then after seeing someone once or twice, without notice, explanation, or an opportunity to see the current physician a last time, we are unceremoniously swapped to someone else.

His first psychiatrist in our current VA system was actually good.  We saw her once a month.  She listened.  She didn't balk at my hubby's sarcasm and she sort of got our odd sense of humor (a coping skill we've developed over the years).  But, she was moved into the C&P department.  That time, however, we did at least get one last appointment for her to explain to my husband what was happening (an ideal move in a less than ideal circumstance).

Then, we were assigned to a psychiatrist who barely spoke English.  I don't say that to be cruel, I mention that because it meant the two times we were able to see him (one time that he forgot to even put his notes in the system and my husband was recorded as a "no show" despite the fact that we'd spent 30 minutes in his office), the conversation was almost impossible.  It consisted of me explaining what medications we had tried, including some that had caused really *BAD* reactions, and then him re-prescribing those medications.

Then, for a short time we were able to see the Nurse Practioner who does double-duty in our VA's TBI clinic and in the mental health clinic.  In many ways, this worked well because she's familiar to us (we see her quarterly in the TBI clinic), but in the State of Alabama she can't prescribe certain types of medications (including some of the hubby's sleep/anxiety stuff), so while she could help with some things, she couldn't cover everything.  She also explained that in our VA it's not "preferred" for there to be a crossover between the two clinics (the same provider seeing a patient both places), though honestly that doesn't make a lot of sense to me... especially when you're dealing with Veterans who need consistency to a greater degree than most.

So, then we got assigned to yet another psychiatrist.  This one, thankfully, was actually pretty good.  But, since our mental health clinic was short staffed by this point, it took 3 - 5 months to get appointments with her.  We had the first appointment, the next was scheduled for 8:00 am on what ended up being a horrible PTSD/TBI day and we had to cancel, that appointment was re-scheduled (almost 3 months later) for yesterday... and now we're back to the start of the story.

Honestly, in dealing with ANY hero... but especially when serving heroes with mental health problems... good old fashioned customer service should be the first order of business.  There's a lot of this scenario that can't be fixed overnight (understaffing, high turnover, etc, etc, though there are initiatives in place to hire more providers but in all honesty that may take years at best to trickle down), but simple CUSTOMER SERVICE can be fixed.

  1. If a provider is leaving or changing jobs, that provider should meet with patients at least once more to explain and if, at all possible, introduce the Veteran to the new provider.
  2. If there isn't time for a provider to meet with patients, then someone else that Veteran is familiar with should be tasked to do that job.
  3. Veterans should also be notified... not with just some computer generated form letter... but with a signed letter AND phone call explaining what is happening and what steps are being taken to ensure their continued care.
  4. When a provider leaves and a Veteran already has an appointment scheduled, that Veteran should AUTOMATICALLY be assigned to a new provider and an appointment scheduled to prevent any lapses in care.

This is basic stuff.  And, in any situation where patients are choosing to stay with or move to a different "civilian" provider or clinic, these steps are in place.  When there is a concern about patients/customers leaving, there is an emphasis automatically on customer service because it impacts the profitability of the business and the wallet of the physicians involved.  While that may not be the case in a VA setting, we should be so much MORE dedicated to going above and beyond in service to the "customers" because those customers have literally laid their lives, bodies, and minds down in service to us.

So, we do have another appointment scheduled with yet another provider... a month away... more waiting... more hoping and praying for my hero and others like him not to give up.  If we really are going to start making a dent in the growing suicide, divorce, substance abuse, death, and destruction being left in the hearts, mind, and homes impacted by combat, we have to start the places that can be changed NOW and keep working towards the long-term changes needed overall.  To put it simply, our heroes don't have years to wait for people to start getting this right.  By then, they will have lost hope in a system put in place to help them and we as caregivers will find it nearly impossible to get them to the resources they need. 

Hoping (and praying) for better,

Brannan Vines
Proud wife of an OIF Veteran
Founder of - an organization dedicated to helping heroes and their loved ones survive and thrive after combat with real world info about PTSD, TBI, and Life After Combat!


Monday, October 15, 2012

Monday Momism: Tough Noodles

There's a story that has long been shared in our family. When my oldest child was born, I was just 20 and not the greatest cook. One of the best examples was the not-so-simple task (apparently for me) of making macaroni and cheese. My son had just turned five years old when I made him a bowl one afternoon. My mother informed me that I needed to cook the noodles longer. She got on to me about the “tough noodles” and how macaroni and cheese was one of the easiest things to make. I'm not sure if it was the look in my eyes of not feeling like I measured up once again or the tone of her voice but suddenly, I had a hero come to my defense as my little boy exclaimed “I love you tough noodles, Mommy! That's the most you can love anyone!”

From that day on, “I love you tough noodles” became our own symbolic way of saying how much we cared about each other. It was the phrase used for the longest time as he would get out of the car each morning for school. He used it the first time he saw his little brother and his little sister.

Through the years, people would raise their eyebrows when they heard our expression. Some raised them even further when they heard the story behind it. Still, it was a phrase of deep meaning and love and those who knew us understood how special they truly were when we used the phrase towards them as well.

In time, my son outgrew that special phrase. When he read it one day on my old blog, he showed it to his girlfriend. It brought up memories for all of us, my mom, me and my kids. Although my now adult children think I need to “let go” at times, I think even they still appreciate such moments when I go down memory lane.

When my older son returned from war, I knew there were major changes within him. We found out he had a physical head injury on the left side of his skull that caused a brain injury, epilepsy, mood swings and memory loss. It was after the discovery that he read my blog post about our “tough noodles” phrase. We began using it a little more, usually when it was just family around or in a text.

One day, in a moment of frustration with his TBI and PTSD, my son asked me why I bothered to help him. I looked at him and said “Because I love you tough noodles and that's the most you can love anyone.” He hugged me and walked away.

The five year old boy who declared his love for his mother in spite of her lack of cooking skills, the one who was so proud of his younger siblings, the one who loved his country and his family enough to go to war for, that is the person I continue to fight for (and yes, sometimes with) so that he continues to get the help and respect he deserves.

Just the other day, I talked to him on the phone. Once again, I was reminding him of things his memory issues have made it hard for him to remember. He has decided to allow me to help him with those reminders as he knows I just have his best interests at heart. Before we hung up, he said “I love you tough noodles, Mom.”

That's why I help veterans. For the five year old still inside the soldier who left to defend our country and came back different, injured, stigmatized by society. If you have a family member who fought for our country and came back different, please know you are not alone. We are here to help all of you. We understand. We are moms, such as myself, we are spouses, such as so many within Family of a Vet, we are family members dealing with PTSD and/or TBIs every day on some level. We are here for each other and we are here for you. Why? Because we love our veterans and our FOV tough noodles.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Sacrifice of the Military Family: The Silent Servers

The military, the soldiers, most support them and appreciate what they do for us and our Country. Many will shake the hand of the soldier and thank them for their service. This is great, it makes the soldier feel good about their job; it makes the family proud of their soldier. Most realize the sacrifice that is made by the soldier when they join the military. The family knows what could happen while their loved one is serving and they accept that they may be without their loved one for long periods of time. But what about the soldier’s family, have you considered what the family goes through? What the family sacrifices? As a military wife, I can tell you some of what we endure daily in our lives as the spouse and what I have witnessed and experienced with my children and extended family members. 

As the spouse, we are always aware of the extended absences that we must endure at some point, or repeatedly while our loved is serving in the military. We have to be strong, resilient, self-sufficient, and able to handle anything that comes up. I have personally had to deal with surgeries on my daughter; a psychotic break-down with my son, who was placed in numerous acute care facilities and in a Residential Treatment Facility three hours from home; and my own heart attack on my daughter’s thirteenth birthday. When the service member is away from home the spouse must take on all responsibilities of the home and vehicle maintenance. We take on the role of both parents and must handle everything that comes up as we are essentially a single parent for the duration. Add to this, we must stay strong for our children and other family members.

Truly, I believe that the children have it the hardest. It is different for children depending on their ages. They have to endure not seeing the other parent and not understanding why they are not coming home when they are too young to understand what is going on. As they get older it can get tougher. The older children understand what is going on, they know that the parent may not return the same as they left, or be in one piece, or even alive. These children must endure the name calling of children who do not live the military life and, therefore, do not understand what the child is going through. Older children also often have to deal with being told that their parent is a murderer, baby killer, war-monger, evil person, or even that the parent left because of the child. They can be told that the parent doesn’t love them or want them, it is truly sad some of the things these children must endure from their peers, all while still handling the stress of school, homework, home life and social life. Even as the older child, they still do not truly understand exactly what is going on sometimes. My children have even been questioned by extended family members for information on my husband while deployed that they could not answer.

Whether on deployment, NTC (National Training Center), the field, or other type of TDY (Temporary Duty), such as school or other training, while the service member is away there will always be some sort of holiday or special occasion missed. Members have missed the birth(s) of their child(ren), birthdays, athletic games, concerts or plays, graduations, weddings, and even deaths in the family. Extended family, of course, wants information on their loved one, too. The problem here is that we don’t get information that is considered sensitive, such as where our service member is going while on mission, when they are leaving or coming back from that mission, or even when they are due to return home. There are instances known as a “Commo Black” or a communications blackout that happens when something serious happens while on deployment. This is where we have no contact at all with our soldier due to a death of a soldier, a missile hit on the FOB (Forward Operating Base), an IED explosion, or any number of things that warrant the family being notified by Military Personnel that something went wrong. These can last anywhere from 24 hours up to a week or longer, depending on how long it takes to notify the family. This is a very nerve-wracking time and all you can do is wait for that unwanted knock on your door, hoping it’s not your loved one, and praying that it isn’t anyone you know, and feeling guilty because you know someone, somewhere, is going to be hurting when they receive the notification. During these times, especially on deployments, extended family will try to persuade you to come “home” to be with family so that you aren’t alone. This entails giving up your home, possibly storing your belongings, uprooting your children, withdrawing children from school and enrolling into a new one, leaving behind friends you have made and going somewhere where the people, other spouses and children, may not be dealing with what you are dealing with and will not understand your thoughts, emotions, fears, and uncertainty. And, after all of this, once the service member does come home, the extended family wants to either converge on your home or have you immediately come to their home so that they can see their loved one. While this is understandable in every shape, form and fashion, what they do not always think about is that the soldier has to readjust to being home, readjust to being with his or her spouse and children, and readjust to being around people that are not soldiers that they have just spent the last 12-18 months with while having no other people around. This can be very stressful for everyone involved and more often than not, it cause a lot of hurt feelings and anger, and it is very difficult to make sure that everyone is happy and content at the end of any extended absence of the soldier.

So, as you can see, sacrifice is a very large part of the family, as well as the soldier. We are the “Silent Servers” who keep everything running smoothly at home so that our soldier can focus on their job and not worry about us at home so that they will not get hurt, or worse, killed while gone. We have to keep all things as normal as possible and maintain our strength to get each other through whatever situation arises. It is great when the soldier is shown appreciation for their service; they deserve it, no question about it. But, the next time you see a soldier with his or her spouse and/or child(ren), remember to thank them for their sacrifice and “service”, too. If it weren't for the family of the soldier doing what is necessary, the soldier could not do his or her job for always worrying about what is going on at home; always wondering if things are okay. The family is truly the backbone of the military, we are what keeps our soldiers confident that they can perform their duty and know their family is taken care of and is competently handling life without them.

Submitted by April Riccardino

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Book Review: Thirty Days with My Father: Finding Peace in Wartime PTSD

In the beginning of Thirty Days with My Father: Finding Peace from Wartime PTSD, Christal envisions herself, mom, and dad in a happy and carefree life, with her mom’s biggest worries being the rose bushes she should plant around the mailbox. She dreams of how things could be…if only war hadn’t been weighing so heavily on her father, and in return their family.

Growing up in a life where she felt isolated from her father, as he stayed behind closed doors, strumming his guitar: his lifeline and happiness in life, Presley was a child to a Vietnam Veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Looking back now, Christal realizes that music is her dads drug, as animals are hers. At the young age of 18, her dad (Delmer Presley) was drafted into the army, spending a year in Vietnam. When he returned home, he returned changed like many service members and over time with PTSD showing in all aspects of life. Presley grew up “walking on eggshells”, never knowing what would be that one thing to set her father off or to have him resort to locking himself behind closed doors. Growing up, Christal exemplified many signs of Secondary PTSD as she witnessed her father’s episodes.

Writing became the outlet that Christal used to process life and get through life. While taking a writer’s workshop, the speaker asked the class, “What if you wrote about the thing you fear the most?” The speaker himself has not been able to find happiness in life until he worked through his fears. Instantly, Christal knew what it was that she feared the most, her father and the war he had brought home from Vietnam. This was when she was challenged to focus on a thirty day project. She would call her dad every day to talk about the war that she grew up in. This was intended to help her in gaining closure on the past and heal from the memories that she could not suppress.  Surprisingly, her father had agreed to take part in this and would answer questions about his time spent overseas in war. 

The conversations began with a touch of awkwardness since they did not have a relationship due to how Christal grew up. Within time, a bond was formed and the talks became more open and honest. Both shared things they went through in life and within time, things they were going through. I relationship was finally being formed. They discussed Agent Orange and the forests of Vietnam. Her father spoke on the anti-war protesters that filled airports and places that held Vietnam Veterans. People would line the streets with signs, “Baby Killers”, “Dope Heads” and many other things, they were spitting on soldiers that returned from war. It wasn’t just men acting in this cruel manner, but women and children as well. Delmer emotionally tells things that Christal did not expect.
Over ten years after returning from war, Delmer Presley discovered he had come in contact with Agent Orange and that a big mass has developed in his lungs. While Christal Presley was in college, he had a part of his right lung removed due to this. He tells Christal of the many issues and lives that were lost due to Agent Orange. 

During one conversation, Presley asks her father what advice he would have for families of veterans today. His response is for family members to find a group and get counseling. Families need to know what to expect.  “War changes a person. It changes everything”. He also goes on to tell her that there is nothing she could have done to help him or to make things different. There wasn’t help for veterans after Vietnam, as there is now. 

As time dove on, Presley’s relationship with her father became more open and closure from the past was found. Bad memories from the past may still remain, but with forgiveness, understanding and moving on, Presley was able to begin remembering good times – from before the war came to stay.  Presley was able to relive the moments of smiles, laughter and enjoying the random times of happiness she shared with her father growing up.

After the thirty days with her father, Christal Presley made the decision to travel to Vietnam. She stands in the same places her father stood in Chu Lai. She walked on his landing pad at LZ Bayonet. She saw the mountains he saw during such a horrid time. She touched the same earth as he did. 

I encourage families of veterans of all eras to read Thirty Days with My Father: Finding Peace from Wartime PTSD. There are so many emotions tied into this story. As a family member to a veteran of war, this book will make you feel as though you are reading parts of your own life. As a civilian to the military life, you will grasp more as to what goes on behind closed doors that military and veteran families are still so reluctant to speak of. Presley has a captivating and unique way of capturing the good and bad moments in her life and pulling readers into her world. Thirty Days is an emotional read because of the sincere honesty it holds. It is a book that will remain a part in the lives and hearts of all that read it.

About the Author, Christal Presley:
Christal Presley received her bachelor’s degree in English and her master’s degree in English Education from Virginia Tech.  She received her Ph.D in Education from Capella University. She is a former intern at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, and spent seven years teaching middle and high school English in Chatham and Danville, Virginia.

Her first book, Thirty Days with My Father:  Finding Peace from Wartime PTSD, will be published by Health Communications, Inc. in November 2012.

Christal grew up in Honaker, Virginia, and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She is the founder of United Children of Veterans, a website that provides resources about PTSD in children of war veterans. In her spare time, you can find Christal playing with her dogs, tending to her chickens, and gardening.


ISBN-13: 9780757316463
Publisher: Health Communications, Incorporated
Publication date: 11/1/2012

Thursday, October 4, 2012

She Stands Alone

 Music is what has gotten me through my darkest nights. Music is what has laced my happy memories.  Almost always, I am singing a song.  In my head, out loud, to coworkers (they politely let me go on), and often as I go to sleep at night.  I am a walking soundtrack. I know the songs that will be played at my funeral, and morbidly enough, the songs that I think should be played at my loved ones funeral. My love for music was given to me by my mother, and it is something that connects me to her. Sometimes I play a game where anything I say has to be song, and it has to be a real song.  It makes life interesting, it makes life tolerable.  More often than not lately, my life has become difficult to tolerate.

I’m losing myself.  It dawned on me when I met with a lifestyle/diet coach, and she said, “When did you start letting PTSD define you?” She was shocked, and almost disgusted that I had “allowed his PTSD to define me”.  Of course, I bristled and thought, “It does NOT define me! I am me, always have been always will be, it just takes up a lot of my time, and it is a part of life!”  Trauma is a fact of life.  But for the last 6 years, I have been focusing on that, and unable to see the other piece of that fact.

 So is resilience.  Am I resilient?  For months I grappled with this, refused to believe it, and the old quote, “Thou doth protest too much” echoed in my head.  I have NOT been resilient.  I HAVE started letting this define me.  I miss me.  I miss who I was.  Can I be who I was?   Can I change my path and start to live my life in such a way that I am able to be true to my inner self?

Two coworkers and I went to a nightclub an hour away to see this band.  I wanted to go so bad, but from the time of ticket purchase, to the time of the show, I worried.  I shouldn't be doing this, it’s my only night off, I should be home, what if the crowd is too much my coworkers will know that I have Secondary PTSD like a motherfucker, they won’t understand, what if what if what if.

Determined not to risk any sort of decent reputation I have with them, I was going.  And deep down, it was what I wanted.  The old me wanted it.  Wanted to watch a band perform with crazy intensity, to have a few drinks, to dance, to get a t-shirt, to see how close up front we could get… I really hoped that no one would be stupid and that I’d have to flip shit on some sorry soul who doesn't know the reason behind the rage.

Once the music started playing, I relaxed.  I remembered how much this was me.  I tried not to worry about the kids, or the husband, or the inevitable messy house I’d be coming home to.  But throughout the second bands set, a string of lyrics came out and resonated with me.  Tears pricked my eyes, and I was able to choke them back.  But as I looked around, and listened to  the music, watching bodies sway, the musicians losing themselves in their own stories, I realized, I’m different.  Certain lyrics could be taken one way by the average citizen, but when they fell onto me, the magnitude of what hid behind them was startling.  Looking around though, no one seemed to notice.  I thought did you just hear that?!  My coworkers dancing a frenzied circle around me… No? 

I understand that things have different meanings for different people, but it had never been more apparent to me than that moment.  My experience has changed my perception.  And much of what I have experienced is not even to call my own.  It is often the aftermath, the bits and pieces of war stories I gather when I privileged to ever even be in earshot; When I am honored that the keeper lets it sit on his lips. 
I did find some humor in the situation.  I laughed to myself when I saw a man kind of circling around the outside of the drunken mob, enjoying his beer, enjoying the music, almost like he was not even there.  I warmly smiled as I thought, “That would be my husband if he were here”.  I reveled in the company of the girls I was with, they were so fun, so carefree, completely unbothered by the mass behind them.  I even found myself being silly with them.  Imitating some silly viral you tube video we had seen, dancing our way back to the parking ramp. 

I can’t say, “Have you let his PTSD define you?” because really, this is not just “his” war.  This is OUR war.  And if you can remain unaffected, untouched, then bless your yellow ribbon magnet on your gas guzzling SUV heart, and carry on.  PTSD/TBI in our Veterans is everyone’s problem.  I would not go so far as to say it defines me, rather, I am learning to reexamine and redefine myself because of it.  

Submitted by Kateri Peterson

Monday, October 1, 2012

Monday Momism: Support for the "New" Normal

Over the years, I've heard veterans, even my own family member, say that they don't need help, they don't need to “talk about it”, they don't need to be around “it”. What is "it"? It is something that brings back the memories of combat. The thing is, every day situations here at home can cause a flashback or a feeling of needing to be alert and prepared.  It is the new normal here at home. 

The first time I saw my son in a comfortable setting where he relaxed and talked after deployment was at my former supervisor's retirement party back in 2006. I had worked for a priest for five years and his retirement happened shortly after my son's tour of duty was up. It was a formal affair at a country club and we got dressed up for the occasion. At our table sat church members and friends of the man I worked for. Among them was a Vietnam veteran. My son spent the entire evening relaxed and talking with him as they sat side by side, with the gentleman's wife on his other side and me on the other side of my son.

Even then, I got it. I knew that my son felt more comfortable with that gentleman than anyone, including friends and family. They shared a connection that folks here at home just can't understand. I'm the first to admit that I will never come close to comprehending what our troops have gone through in a war zone.

Fast forward to last Friday. I did a television commercial with members of a local group that helps veterans and family members. After we finished, four of us went out to eat. Three were veterans. I was the mom of a veteran. Yet it was one of the most pleasant and comfortable times I've had in recent years as well. Why? Because we knew what each other had been through. We knew that we could count on each other. Even as a mom, I was accepted and trusted as part of the “unit” of trust that is hard to feel at times. We could chat about experiences and we could just sit and laugh and joke about goofy every day stuff. The trust and camaraderie was present.

If you are here on the Family of a Vet website, I'm sure chances are good it's because you or someone you know has been deployed. I'm also sure if you are a family member, that you feel alone and out of sync with others just as your veteran does. This is actually quite normal, the “new” normal of living life after combat with someone who has PTSD and/or a TBI.

I highly recommend that you find a support group in your area. If you have trouble doing so, please feel free to ask us to help you find the right resources. If there isn't one, it might be a sign that you could help start one in your community. But first, let us know where you are and we will help you see if there is one. In the meantime, we will be able to support you through our own online and on the phone.

Finding support, being with others who understand, is a wonderful feeling of acceptance. Spending time every week or even every other week with that group can make all the difference when you are feeling like no one understands because there are others who really do get what you are going through.

Lunch last Friday was nice. I spent it with three awesome people who did what my son did, they went to war for a country they loved and believed in. I went home with a smile on my face. Correction, I went grocery shopping (which can be hectic on a Friday afternoon, right?) with a smile on my face.

You're not alone. Whether you are a veteran, a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a child of someone with PTSD or a TBI. You're not alone. Let us help you discover the other people who share your experiences. Together, we can all make a positive difference in our “new” normal.