Emotional toll can weigh heavy on a war veteran’s mind

Asheville Citizen-Times (North Carolina)

Emotional toll can weigh heavy on a soldier’s mind


That’s the word Lois Edwards uses to describe her husband’s behavior when he returned home from Iraq.

A member of the Franklin-based 210th Military Police, Specialist Corey Edwards spent a total of seven months in Iraq with his unit, returning last June.

“When he came back, to be honest, he was hateful – very hateful,” Lois said. “Everybody kept telling him that he was being hateful, but he couldn’t see it.”

Corey, a Marine during the Gulf War in 1990 and ’91, says his most recent experience in Iraq was more grueling in some ways. It left him dealing with emotional turmoil months later, a common side-effect of combat, one that is every bit as prevalent as torn flesh and amputated limbs.

His Humvee got hit by a roadside bomb April 5, 2004. He suffered some hearing loss and was banged up, but he returned to Iraq to finish his tour.

When he came home to Western North Carolina, Edwards was always looking over his shoulder, always brusque, on edge and ornery.

“He couldn’t understand why he should be here,” Lois Edwards said. “He thought he should’ve been blown up that day. It really messed with his mind, bad.”

Corey found the emotional toll of combat nearly ruined his marriage.

“I’ll be honest, I was on the verge of eruption,” he said. “I had to open up, to basically try to get some control over what was happening to me.”

He knows he still has a ways to go, but he feels like he’s gotten control over his life again. His wife has been his “best friend” and a great listener through it all.

It’s absolutely crucial to get those feelings out, says John Cowart, a licensed clinical social worker at the VA Medical Center in east Asheville who has worked on the post- traumatic stress disorder clinical team for 24 years.

“Men coming home from war always experience some problems reentering life with their families and communities,” Cowart said. “The main problem they all feel is that they just don’t fit in.”

The type of combat in Iraq is particularly insidious, Cowart says, because “basically you never know when it’s going to happen. You’re constantly keyed up, and that’s a recipe for PTSD.”

Edwards says soldiers in Iraq know what their mission is.

“But when you go out on your mission, you don’t know who your enemy is,” he said. “The guy standing next to the road could be your enemy. The prime example is when we got hit by the roadside bomb. At that time there were a bunch of schoolkids off to the side of the road about 30 meters, and there was one man amongst them. I swear up and down he had some type of detonator radio or cell phone. It’s just those kind of things that stick with you.”

Those with PTSD often are emotionally distant, and they avoid thoughts, feelings or conversations that lead to remembering the trauma. Often they have recurring, intrusive recollections of what happened, sometimes called “flashbacks.” Some also engage in “hyper-vigilance” – always being on alert.

Treatment can be effective, but “there’s no magic pill,” Cowart says. He points out that Iraq veterans are receiving more counseling upon returning from combat than any previous generation of soldiers.

But many will still have adjustment problems – and the likelihood of problems increases with the number of times soldiers are exposed to intense combat situations. For those with PTSD, group therapy is the standard treatment, and some anti-anxiety medicines or anti-depressants can be effective.

The idea is for veterans to develop “adaptive coping skills,” essentially realizing that the trauma will always be part of their lives but understanding that they can live productively with it. Cowart says family members can play a key role, but veterans often need to talk to others with similar war experiences.

Cowart cautions that the disorder “is often a delayed reaction” that can surface many years or even decades after combat. He urges veterans to get help, to find someone to talk to.

Corey and Lois Edwards know how right he is.

“It doesn’t matter who you talk to – a friend, a spouse – anyone who will let you bend their ear for awhile, it helps,” Corey Edwards said. “My wife, she’s been great. We’ve talked and talked and talked about it, and it seems the more I get off of my shoulders, the more I can lighten up.”

Contact Boyle at 232-5847 or JBoyle@CITIZEN-TIMES.com

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