are things about post-traumatic stress disorder that only fellow
sufferers will understand.
The way a
whiff of Chinese food can trigger a flashback to a Vietnamese
village that was abandoned so quickly that family dinners were
left boiling on the fire.
strange, loud voice you get when you're talking to your wife but
really trying to shout down an uninvited memory.
hunting knife under your mattress, just in case.
things that you just don't share with civilians, not even your
spouse," said David Yazzie Jr., a Gulf War veteran and member
of the Navajo Nation's only PTSD support group.
Hunter, a clinical social worker with the U.S. Veterans
Administration, was hearing that a lot. So when she was assigned
to work with veterans in her hometown of Chinle, she decided to
give the vets a forum where they could talk about their
experiences among other vets.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Education and Support Group started
meeting a little over a year ago, business was slow.
one person would come, sometimes nobody would come," Hunter
said. "I kept changing the day and time, hoping to come up
with something that would work for more people."
eventually word spread. This past Tuesday, 14 PTSD sufferers met
at the Chinle VA Center to hear about and discuss sleep
weekly meeting features a topic, ranging from anger management to
numbing to startle response, but if the participants get
off-track, that's fine.
try to be flexible and go with what they want to talk about,"
usually has an icebreaker - Tuesday they did the Hokey Pokey.
we sing," said Iraq War veteran Joseph Jones. "Sometimes
we cry together," added Vietnam vet Larry Brown.
we laugh," said Yazzie. "That's the best."
the participants - ranging from grizzled World War II ground
troops to fresh-faced, troubled-eyed youths just home from Iraq -
seem to like being in an environment where people know what
they're talking about.
your spouse will go, 'Get over it! Don't be a baby!'" said
Iraq War veteran Joseph Jones, prompting nods and smiles from the
other guys. "There's just no way to explain to them what
you're dealing with."
group, nobody has to explain anything. They've all been there.
stress disorder, first identified as a syndrome in the 1970s
(though it certainly has existed as long as humans have), is a
natural reaction to a traumatic event such as an accident,
military combat or sexual abuse.
which may surface years after the event and continue indefinitely,
can include depression, isolation, anger, avoidance of feelings,
nightmares, guilt, and anxiety.
listed in the VA brochure on PTSD, but experienced by some of the
veterans in the Tuesday group, is unexplained physical pain.
losing his daughter, Vietnam veteran Lloyd Yazzie started to feel
a dull ache in his abdomen.
went to three different hospitals," he recalled. "They
did all kinds of tests. The doctors all told me there was nothing
wrong with me."
Yazzie ended up at the VA hospital in Prescott, Ariz., where a
doctor told him the pain could be a manifestation of
post-traumatic combat stress, long buried but brought to the
surface by the strong feelings involved with losing a child.
didn't know nothing about PTSD," Yazzie said. "But when
he described it, it made sense."
speaking, life had kicked Yazzie in the gut. Sure enough, when he
started getting treatment for his mental symptoms, the physical
PTSD manifests differently in each person, sharing experiences
like Yazzie's is a way to help each other, said Vietnam veteran
first came to the group because they invited me to offer a
prayer," he said. "But when I started listening to these
guys, I realized I was going through a lot of the same
Brown, "I come to the group for healing. But I also hope some
of what I say can help heal the young ones."
the elders in this group talk, I listen," he said.
"Somehow they've found a way to get through it all."
younger vets have the advantage of at least having heard of PTSD.
When the Vietnam vets came home, in some cases to boos and
catcalls, they were alone with their symptoms, said Don Bizardi.
fought sleeplessness and isolation for 20 years, at one time
moving into a separate house on his family compound because
"I just didn't want anyone to bother me."
his wife stuck it out, and together the couple sought treatment.
was lucky to have an understanding wife," Bizardi said.
"A lot of the guys who show up here weren't so lucky."
divorce is such a common result of PTSD, it could almost be called
veterans who went through it seem sympathetic to their exes - it's
not easy to live with someone prone to bursts of anger, or who
might reflexively fling a wrist across your face if you startle
him from sleep.
has been offering a support group for spouses and significant
others of PTSD sufferers, but so far no one has shown up.
still think there's a need for it, after listening to these
guys," she said. Anyone interested in such a group may call
Chinle group is not the only PTSD support group in the area, it is
at the moment the only one on the reservation. Tuesday's session
attracted participants from as far away as Shiprock.
from the north said they're hoping to start a group in the
Northern Agency. They'd been attending a mostly Anglo group in
Farmington where they felt hesitant to talk about Navajo
spiritual ills associated with combat have long been known to the
Diné, who developed the 'Anaa'jí (Enemy Way) and other
ceremonies to deal with it.
veterans in the group said they combine Western therapies with
Native healing, and in the all-Navajo Chinle group, aspects of
both Christian and Native spirituality frequently come up.
Tuesday's session, for example, one topic of discussion was the
spiritual merits of drinking spring water as opposed to buying
water in plastic bottles.
local pastors and medicine men are frequently invited to lead the
group in prayer, and the vets seem to respect each other's
spirituality even though spiritual views vary widely within the
the veterans keep coming because the group works.
I leave this room," said Brown, "I go home a better
father and grandfather - a better man."
Chinle PTSD group meets Tuesdays at 10 a.m. at the local VA Center
on the old BIA compound.
few weeks will focus on the topics of grief and loss, which can
trigger post-traumatic stress as in Yazzie's case. All veterans
enrolled with the VA are welcome.
starting a similar group in Piñon, Ariz., Wednesdays at 10 a.m.,
and may soon offer one on Hopi as well. The VA office in Fort
Defiance is also starting a group.
Chinle VA Center, 928-674-3682; or the Northern Arizona VA Health
Care System at 1-800-949-1005.
With PTSD a Lifelong Struggle