March 9, 2009 – It was during his first deployment in Iraq that Marine Cpl. David Tracy, 23, of Peekskill earned his Purple Heart.
“I was up top behind the gun when we stopped at a checkpoint and a roadside bomb exploded on the other side of the barrier,” said Tracy, an infantryman who served as a machine gunner in Baghdad and Fallujah.
Shrapnel nearly blew off Tracy’s right earlobe.
“The whole right side of my face was numb,” Tracy said as he sat with his wife, Becky, and 8-month-old son, Sean, in the living room of their Peekskill condominium. “The handkerchief I used to pull up to cover my mouth (from sand, smoke and dust) was soaked in blood. Two Marines on the other side of the road were hit and lying on the ground.”
Medical personnel at the base near Baghdad sewed up Tracy’s earlobe. About an hour later, he was back out on patrol.
Tracy noticed the ringing in his ears – tinnitus – right away. It took longer to realize that he couldn’t stop thinking about when the next blast from an improvised explosive device might hit.
“He’s very aware of our surroundings and making sure that we are safe when we go out,” Becky Tracy said. “He looks for a quick exit in case of an emergency. At night, I often have to calm him down, wake him up gently instead of scaring him more.”
Like generations of warriors before him, Tracy struggled to put a name to the hypervigilance, night terrors, irritability, survivor guilt and disturbing memories that he couldn’t seem to shake.
Shortly before his honorable discharge from the Marines in July 2007, Tracy was found to have post-traumatic stress disorder. Now he is fighting for an upgrade in benefits for the condition that often makes it hard to get through the day or sleep at night.
They called it “battle fatigue” during World War II, said Army Air Forces veteran Norman Bussel, 85, of Mohegan Lake, who has spent years learning to cope with the crippling condition. The term was “shell shock” during World War I, when Bussel’s father was gassed by German troops.
“No one comes home from combat without emotional baggage,” said Bussel, who was shot down April 29, 1944, over Berlin, lost four of his crew mates, and spent a year in a prisoner-of-war camp before being liberated by Gen. George S. Patton’s troops on April 29, 1945.
Even now, Alan, Robert and Edward Grigas, three brothers who served in Vietnam, are reluctant to admit to themselves the havoc that combat trauma has brought in their lives.
But each of them has spent more time battling over disability benefit claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs than they did fighting in Vietnam.
“I just got my benefits after fighting with the VA for five years,” said Edward Grigas, 57, of Somers, an Army combat engineer responsible for security at base camps from 1970 to 1971.
“I didn’t have any medals, so it’s hard to prove PTSD,” said Grigas, who lost several close friends in Vietnam and watched helplessly as his comrades were mortally wounded. “The VA denied me benefits three times. I had to remember things that happened 40 years ago to prove PTSD when I can’t remember what I ate yesterday.”
Two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star didn’t help his brother Alan Grigas, 60, of Goldens Bridge much.
“I had holes in me, but the VA said: ‘Prove to us it happened in the service,’ ” said Alan Grigas, who served with the 173rd Airborne in Vietnam. “They said: ‘Give us the names of the doctors and the people who were around you.’ The burden of proof should not be on the vet. It should be on the VA.”
Legislation introduced recently by Rep. John Hall, D-Dover Plains, would lift the burden of proof from veterans who served in combat zones and have a diagnosis of PTSD, allowing them to receive disability benefits without having to prove that a specific incident caused the disorder.
In the Iraq and Afghanistan wars alone, more than 100,000 veterans have been found to have PTSD, but only 42,000 have been granted service-connected disability for their condition, said Hall, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs. [This information was obtained by VCS using FOIA].
The disability claims backlog at the VA tops 800,000. A large percentage of that number are Vietnam veterans seeking compensation for PTSD, Hall said.
The Veterans Benefits Administration did not respond to requests for information on the number of PTSD claims or the reasons for denials or delays in processing them.
Bussel, a VA-accredited volunteer who helps veterans file benefit claims, said Hall’s bill is “vitally important” for combat veterans who are often homeless, depressed and show such deep feelings of hopelessness that he sometimes fears for their safety.
Despite the need, veterans are often reluctant to seek treatment or benefits for PTSD, said Rockland Veterans Service Agency director Jerry Donnellan.
“I see a lot coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan with PTSD,” said Donnellan, who lost his right leg while fighting with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, American Division, in Vietnam. “There’s the temporary euphoria of coming home with all their fingers and toes that can mask depression and underlying anxiety.”
Then there are “the John Wayne-types who are so tough they could bite trees,” he said. “They say: ‘Save it for someone who really needs it.’ “
Robert Grigas, 59, of Brewster falls into that category.
“I was taught as a Marine in Vietnam to face it and suck it up,” said Grigas, who received a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and a citation from President Lyndon Johnson for “courage, bold initiative and selfless devotion to duty at great personal risk.”
An acute form of diabetes – the result of exposure to Agent Orange, he said – has left him blind in his right eye and led to the amputation of a portion of his right foot. By 1999, he was too sick to continue work as a carpenter.
Eventually, he won full disability for PTSD when what he wanted was other compensation for his physical losses.
“I didn’t want benefits for PTSD because they made me out to be crazy and I’m not,” he said.
Whether it’s veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, or those who served in combat decades ago, it’s important in treatment to “reframe the issues so men don’t feel defective,” said Kenneth Reinhard, a clinical psychologist who runs the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the VA Hudson Valley Healthcare System in Montrose. “PTSD is not a weakness. It’s a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.”
Treatment, whether it consists of medication, group or individual therapy, or a combination of all three, can help the individual face the issues stemming from trauma and go on to lead a “reasonably normal life,” said Reinhard, who began his career working with Vietnam veterans in the 1970s.
Bussel got counseling from Reinhard for two decades, and he said it has freed him to live the “best days” of his life. He has written a book, “My Private War: Liberated Body, Captive Mind – A World War II POW’s Journey,” published by Pegasus Books. Reinhard wrote the foreword.
“I’m traveling on book tours and helping vets,” Bussel said. “Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have done that.”
Antonette Zeiss, deputy chief of the VA’s Mental Health Services, said members of the current generation of veterans are being encouraged to come in sooner so they can get treatment, even if they are not eligible for benefits. State-of-the-art treatment should now be available without delays, she said.
But PTSD is not the whole story, said Zeiss, a clinical psychologist. There are 442,862 veterans enrolled with the VA who have a diagnosis of PTSD out of a total 1,662,375 with some mental-health diagnosis, she said.
Continuing conflicts mean those numbers will grow. Up to 17 percent of veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD, major depression or other mental-health problems, Dr. Joseph T. English told Congress last year. He is chairman of psychiatry at New York Medical College in Valhalla, which is affiliated with the VA hospitals at Montrose and Castle Point.
But fear of stigma prevents many from seeking help, said English, a past president of the American Psychiatric Association. Soldiers are screened for PTSD before they are released.
“If they check off the symptoms on the sheet, everyone else will go home and they’ll be delayed,” he said last week.
For the many who would like to work for the FBI or a police or fire department, “any suggestion of a mental disorder could impair their ability to get a job,” English said.
Reach Susan Elan at email@example.com or 845-228-2277.