Michael Johnson can’t go one day without sweating profusely, experiencing night terrors and venting his anger. It has been almost a year since the 40-year-old finished his tour of duty in Afghanistan, where he was left with many scars from endless days in the trenches.
But the scars are not from bullet wounds or as a result of combat. Johnson’s scars are ingrained in his memory from witnessing bloody and dismembered casualties of war.
“I was in combat all the time even though I never fired a gun,” Johnson said. “I experienced things people should never see. I don’t think people should live like this.”
Johnson, like many veterans who have returned from the war in the last four years, is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other war- related medical problems.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, met with veterans Tuesday who served in the Middle East at the North Chicago Veterans Affairs Medical Center who are dealing with PTSD, and said treatment for the potentially debilitating disorder is long overdue.
“Without treatment, veterans with this issue are at high risk for alcohol and drug abuse, relationship problems and worse,” Durbin said.
Durbin estimates the prevalence of PTSD sufferers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan range from 15 to 30 percent. The wide range in estimates shows the difficulty in diagnosing PTSD and the complicated road ahead for the more than 200,000 to 300,000 veterans who seek VA treatment, he said.
A study released last month by the Department of Veterans Affairs reported that one-third of veterans coming back from the war who seek care at VA hospitals have some form of mental health issue.
Durbin said in the coming weeks he intends to continue visiting VA medical centers throughout the state in hopes of introducing legislation to improve the way the country responds to the many veterans who sustained injury during combat.
“Injured troops come home to find, in too many cases, substandard outpatient care and a big fight on their hands to justify the need for ongoing care,” he said.
Last week, the Senate passed a supplemental appropriations bill that contained $1.8 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Veterans Health Administration was to receive $454 million for medical services, including $300 million for mental health enhancements to treat veterans.
David Reisberg, a former Army Ranger, said he supports the government stepping in and doing something to aid troops who suffer from PTSD.
“After we come back from our tour of duty, we don’t know where to go for help or who to ask for help,” Reisberg said.
Reisberg said when he finally did seek help from the VA, his medical records were lost and he was not able to receive treatment — an issue that Durbin is tired of hearing.
North Chicago VA social worker Nancy Gallagher, who consults with returning veterans, said thousands of veterans have been lost in the system and have experienced difficulty getting treatment. However, Gallagher said she has gotten word from government officials that those issue will be addressed.
“I mean it is unfortunate that something like that happens to our veterans,” she said. “That’s why it is important we work with the soldiers soon after they return home.”
But Cary resident Amanda Schumacher said every veterans does not seek help due to fear and the uncertainty of public perception.
“We are taught to be tough and be strong the whole time we are in the Army,” Schumacher said. “Once you get out of that environment it is tough to express your feelings. Not many people understand what it is like to be in war.”
The 22-year-old Army truck driver said she indulged herself in work and school after returning home from Iraq to not have to deal with her own issues.
“My family noticed I was totally different after I came home. I was depressed and angry, but I did not always know why.”
Dr. Tariq Hassan, chief of staff and the North Chicago VA, said it is important once a veteran returns home they immediately talk about their problems to a loved one or a counselor.
Hassan said many of the 300 patients, both inpatients and outpatients at the hospital, are assessed by doctors and then placed in group treatment where they are able to express their feelings to without ridicule.
Johnson said after being placed in a five-week program, he has seen a tremendous improvement in his condition.
“I probably will never be normal, but without this program I would probably be living in a car somewhere,” he said. “It saved my life.”