Dan Overton of the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs spoke at a recent Sno-Isle Libraries forum on veterans and mental illness in Monroe.
Dan Overton of the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs spoke at a recent Sno-Isle Libraries forum on veterans and mental illness in Monroe.

How war impacts human beings hasn’t changed, but the proliferation of symptoms has exploded.

That was Washington Department of Veterans Affairs Traumatic Brain Injury Program specialist Dan Overton’s message at a Monroe Public Library panel on veterans and mental health. The VA and communities are determining how best to respond, he said.

“The survivability of the war that we are engaged in currently is off the charts compared to other wars,” Overton said. “The reason we are having such an influx of problems with traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma and PTSD is because of our folks that are coming back.”

Donald Lachman, special projects coordinator for the VA, headed the Jan. 27 forum, which is part of the “Issues That Matter” series at Sno-Isle Libraries.

He said the U.S. has been fighting global terrorism for nearly two decades. The landscape of combat has changed, and so have signature wounds, he said.

Lachman said soldiers can recover from 90 percent of the physical injuries that were deadly during the Vietnam War. He said advances in body armor, medical care and training are major factors that have led to the shift.

“But that also means many of our veterans are compromised for the rest of their lives with serous wounds and trauma,” he said.

Women’s roles in the military are now the same as men, but they have a higher risk of experiencing sexual abuse, Lachman said. The VA is continuing to learn about and better respond to survivors of that specific trauma, Overton said.

When a superior or fellow solider is the perpetrator, the experience is magnified because the abuser is someone whom their life depends on, and whom they in return are supposed to defend. It’s difficult for women to report, and doubly difficult for men, he said.

Overton said it is just as important to talk about the invisible wounds returning soldiers suffer as the apparent ones. Most scans won’t pick up on neurons that no longer function as they should following a traumatic experience. People with PTSD know something is wrong, but they can’t easily identify it, as one would be able to with a limb that was blown off, he said.

The mental health condition is so hard to cope with and address because it is based on an event that isn’t happening, Overton said. He likened it to a “lurking like a monster under the bed” that can chose to show itself during inopportune moments, or at times when someone has let their emotional guards down and are vulnerable.

Overton said the disorder — a term that can hinder rather than help because when people hear it about themselves they believe they can’t be fixed — develops when a person experiences something that alters the way they see the world. In an instant everything they knew changed. Their new reality is that they generally are not safe. Addressing that disconnect is complex, he said.

“It’s difficult, it’s long, it’s arduous, because we are battling a memory,” he said.

Lachman said within the next year the VA’s ability to connect veterans with the supports necessary for recovery is expected to balloon. A new WAServes pilot program has been rolled out in nearly half a dozen counties, including in Snohomish. It is designed to help veterans access the services they need any time of day, he said.

Lachman said one important part of the process for the VA has been looking into alternative services. Two panelists addressed the topic. Karla Hawley offers music therapy, and Sky Valley resident Arleen Gibson uses horses to help her clients. 

Hawley said she employs techniques that include supervised exercises to pinpoint what a veteran is struggling with. She said what soldiers tend to go through is termed complex trauma, which is when one person is acting in a way that harms another, she said.

“The wounds go very, very deep, because they go against human nature and it’s very difficult to reconcile,” she said.

While they may never go away, there are treatments, techniques and learned ways of thinking that can help veterans tolerate those feelings, Hawley said. Music is one way to start building that resilience. It can help people suffering from PTSD to engage in self-expression, which is compromised when they struggle to cope, she said.

Gibson said working with horses can tap into critical emotions. A traumatic experience often disturbs someone’s ability to process feelings in ways that not everyone has the means or skills to repair. Pairing up with animals also has the ability to bring someone back into the present, she said.

Veteran and panelist Jim Bloss said the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Homefront is a good starting point for veterans and their families. Knowing where to go to receive support and services can be difficult. It is often hard enough admitting how much someone may be struggling, he said. 

The program is six sessions and free, Bloss said. Trained volunteers who have experience with similar situations teach the courses.

“For mental health, in particular, it becomes really about families and friends, that help support that individual often getting help and getting into that pathway of support,” Lachman said.