June 3, 2008 – When Marine Marty Smith, 27, was medically discharged in 2006, military officials said it was because of damage to his hearing. But after returning home, his hearing wasn’t the only dramatic change his wife, Heather Smith, noticed.
“That’s when I started seeing the anger, temper and him wanting to be alone and never around us,” said Heather Smith, 33, who had only been married to Marty Smith for only three weeks before his deployment.
Military doctors also saw the early warning signs.
A medical physical after serving in Iraq in 2003 diagnosed the Hattiesburg resident with post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety disorder that can occur after you have been through a traumatic event. Military personnel advised him to check in with the local Veterans Affairs office for treatment, but he put it off until this year.
“I did what most do,” said Smith, who spent eight years in the military and served six months in Iraq. “I was too worried about getting a job and settling down with the family.”
The U.S. Army last week released data showing a rise in the number of troops who have been diagnosed with PTSD after tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.The data collected from U.S. military facilities from January 2003 to Dec. 31, 2007, has the total number of cases at nearly 40,000 for all four branches of the U.S. Armed Services.
For many soldiers like Smith, who was stationed on the border of Kuwait where he and other troops “stopped and shot rounds every few miles all the way to Baghdad,” being on constant guard is exhausting, said Beverly Smallwood, psychologist at The Hope Center.
“Having confronted danger and death itself, people feel they must constantly be on guard to protect themselves and those they love,” Smallwood said. “The body stays constantly prepared to confront threats… the classic ‘fight or flight’ syndrome of stress.”
Although Marty Smith didn’t think anything was wrong, Heather Smith said she and the couple’s three children – ages 7, 8, and 13 – saw the shift in his demeanor. Despite the couple’s two separations, it was a threat of violence toward his wife that forced him to finally seek treatment.
“He got so mad at me and he’d never threatened me like that,” she said, speaking of his threat to break both of her arms during an argument. “I got up the next morning and went to the recruiting office here and asked what kind of help was out there, because he either needed to get help or I was gone.”
Marty Smith’s PTSD was rated at 10 percent at the end of his tour, but after seeing a psychologists at the VA in Biloxi, his percentage increased to 70 percent and doctors told him he couldn’t work. Because of his temper, he wasn’t able to keep a job so the rediagnosis has allowed him to collect disability while he seeks treatment.
When describing his anger and temperament, Smith compares it to the Incredible Hulk – calm and controllable, but when it changes, all should steer clear. He said he can be triggered by anything – from a person’s open disrespect to the way a person dresses.
“In my mind, if it’s things that wouldn’t fly in the Marine Corps, those are the things I get mad about,” he said.
Heather Smith recalled an incident when her husband was furious after losing a can of smokeless tobacco while at a local golf course.
“I was chewing everybody out,” he said. “People would walk by and I would just chew them out.”
She said the family isn’t close to being the same as before his deployment. Now, the children avoid their father when his mood changes.
“If they know that I’m calm, they will come around, but the first bit of anger, they go away,” he said. “It makes me feel bad, but it also makes me think things will get better.”
Heather Smith now is pushing for a Hattiesburg PTSD support group to cater to the needs of families and veterans. Currently, group support is only offered to veterans through the VA in Biloxi.
Marty Smith has issues with the discharge process and feels the psychiatric evaluation barely scratches the surface.
“It’s almost like hurry up and get them out,” he said. “They don’t dig in and find out exactly what’s wrong with you.”
He didn’t remember seeing a psychiatrist but his wife insists the time was minimal.
“He saw a psychiatrist for 20 minutes,” she said.
Smallwood said specific treatment options include exposure therapy that gradually exposes a person to the things that trigger the post traumatic reaction and gives ways to cope with it.
“It’s not an either or treatment,” she said. “Medication can calm down symptoms but a person still needs to address the issues.
“The tendency is to try to avoid them (the issues) but then the world becomes smaller and smaller and a person also finds themselves overreacting to other things and the family pays the price with the irritability and anger.”