News Details

Veterans discuss PTSD signs

Written by Laura Peters

Source: Staunton News Leader
Published: Wednesday 26 June, 2013

STAUNTON — Ben Shaw had blown all his money on toys and alcohol. He was living on his parents’ couch at 28 years old.

Once a highly esteemed Marine, he came back from the Iraq War in 2007 after being overseas for four years.

He says he doesn’t remember much of his life after he returned home. He took almost all his money to purchase a motorcycle and hit the road. The rest of his cash, he drank it away.

“Don’t ask me what happened during that trip, I was drunk for most of it,” he admitted.

He had found love, then had his heart broken after his fiancé cheated on him, left him and took the ring.

During a PTSD and suicide forum at VFW Post 2216 in Staunton, he told his story about how he thought he could escape all his problems with ending his life.

“Late 2008, I’m sitting here grasping at straws, by process of elimination I tried all these things, nothing’s working, nothing’s sticking. Nothing was sort of hoisting me out of where I am,” Shaw said. “I remember just mulling over this and at one point I just caught myself saying, well if this doesn’t work, I’ll just kill myself. It was stunning. It was not something I expected. It was not something I intentionally thought about.”

To this day, he can’t explain the thinking behind his suicidal thoughts.

When he would come back between different deployments, he was a hero. And after he got out of the Marines, he lost the hometown hero flair.

“I’m no longer special; they’re no longer flocking to me,” Shaw said about his mindset. “I wasn’t able to grasp another mission of equal value to me after the military.”

At first he didn’t want help.

“Do you want me to cry with you? No,” he joked.

When he started having suicidal thoughts, though, he sought out people who could mentor him and not bring him down.

Shaw, now a veteran peer specialist for the Virginia Wounded Warrior Program, tells his story to bring awareness to the issue.

After finding a community of support and gaining a sense of self worth, the now-33-year-old is married and living in Charlottesville. Shaw has turned his painful past into a story of struggle other veterans can see a good outcome from.

“These are critical issues for all of us, especially the returning veterans,” said Camilla Schwoebel, director of Virginia Wounded Warrior Program for Region 1.

According to the Veterans Health Administration, 20 percent of U.S. deaths from suicides are veterans. There are 950 suicide attempts per month among veteran receiving Veteran Affairs health care services.

Before 2003, the rates of suicide in veterans were much lower, Schwoebel said. Civilian suicide rate for ages 20 to 24 is 11.1 per 100,000 people. But for veterans in that same age group, it’s 22.9 per 100,000 people, Schwoebel explained.

“It’s almost double,” she said.

For those older than age 24, the civilian rate is 20 per 100,000 people. For veterans, it’s 38 per 100,000.

The VA established a Veterans Crisis Line in 2007 to help aide those veterans contemplating suicide. According to Laura Clevinger, suicide prevention coordination for VA Salem, the line is open 24 hours a day and 365 days a year.

“You can’t put an 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. time period on crisis,” she said.

Organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Program, VA and Blue Ridge Crisis Intervention Team among those that help veterans who struggle with PTSD or suicide.

Clevinger said rural areas are the hardest to cover. In one instance, a veteran from outside of Tazewell called the hot line — which is based near New York — and said he took an entire bottle of pills to end his life.

The hotline dispatched emergency responders to his home and saved his life.

Clevinger said the biggest hurdle is to know when and how to ask if someone is contemplating suicide and if it’s overall OK to ask someone.

“We’re not programmed, we’re not wired to kill ourselves,” Clevinger said. “It’s important for everyone to be aware that we may only have one opportunity to work up the courage to open up.”

Clevinger said the most upsetting thing to hear after a veteran takes his or her life is from others saying they never saw it coming.

“It’s important to ask the question,” Clevinger explained. “We all have what’s needed and that’s compassion.”

Serving with the VA in Salem, Clevinger said she came across a veteran who struggled with PTSD and didn’t feel like he deserved to feel that way. He said that he wished he had his leg blown off, because he felt that was an “honorable wound.”

“He felt ashamed that his wounds were not visible,” Clevinger said.