William Walker began looking for professional help long after he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy’s River Patrol Force, where he served from 1965-69 during the Vietnam War.
He proudly wears a black leather vest with his U.S. Navy patches sewn into place. Like many Vietnam veterans, he said he returned home to a hostile environment and kept much of his struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to himself.
When he enlisted in 1965, he stayed on a destroyer for the first year and a half in the Tonkin Gulf. Then he requested shore duty in Vietnam. He was granted an opportunity to go and was put on the river patrol boats.
Walker was a part of the effort along the rivers of the Republic of Vietnam to counter communist-inspired insurgency during the war from January to September of 1968. He participated in 161 patrols — 18 of which came under hostile fire. He received a certificate of River War Service from the U.S. Navy.
He stayed a year in the country and was given three options to choose from when he left.
Walker said he wanted something where nobody would even think about shooting him. He put in for a tugboat and then found out they were dragging a target for planes to shoot it.
“I said, ‘Man, I don’t get a break,” he said. “I stayed the last seven months on a tugboat.”
He said it took until 2012 for him to accept that he was fighting post traumatic stress disorder and to be willing to seek, and then accept, help from a professional.
One afternoon, while sitting outside with his would-be counselor, Walker was asked if he would be a willing participant in his fight against PTSD. He realized he had a choice to make, and that only one option had the potential to end happily.
“Whenever you ask someone for help, you also have to focus on this question: ‘Am I part of the problem or am I part of the solution?’” he said. “It rang my bell when I finally asked myself that question. ‘Am I part of my problem with my PTSD?’”
Walker said he’s learned many facts about PTSD and techniques to help manage his disease or to help others around him since beginning his treatment. Now he’s wanting to use that knowledge to start a larger conversation and to let other veterans know they’re not alone, and he’s there to listen.
“We can word this in a way so that it doesn’t embarrass, insult or cause a negative feeling,” he said. “To let them know and let them say to themselves, ‘I need some help.’”
Walker hopes his willingness to share his story will help other veterans feel secure in sharing theirs, or at least in reaching out to someone for help.
“About 5% of adults per year are going to suffer from PTSD. In a lifetime you have an 8% chance of dealing with some PTSD,” Jordan Bridges, the new veteran services coordinator for Burke and a direct care physician, said. “Females have a higher percentile of dealing with or having PTSD.”
The chance of a veteran dealing with PTSD doubles if they have seen combat, Bridges said, but may triple or quadruple if they have killed in combat.
“It’s an exponential type of situation,” he said. “The fact that you go into combat just magnifies all these risk factors. It is hard to wrap your head around that.”
Walker said many feel a deep sense of guilt when a comrade is killed in action, as if they could have done something, he said.
Bridges agreed, saying guilt and shame are two of the largest amplifiers for PTSD and veteran suicide.
“I think a misconception is that personal strength has nothing to do with PTSD recovery,” Bridges said. “You can have a really strong person where PTSD is just really causing problems in their life.”
PTSD doesn’t discriminate against the strong or weak, Bridges said, offering a few possible signs to suggest someone is strugglng with the condition.
■ One, they seem different.
“The very basic thing I think people mention is that they’re not the same,” he said. “I think that’s the first initial sign. They can’t put their finger on something specific other than they just realize it’s not the same person.”
Other signs include:
■ The person may be more distant or may just not want to connect.
■ It could be harder to connect with them.
■ They may be angrier or more agitated.
■ They may be on high alert.
■ They may avoid crowds.
■ They also may have nightmares or night sweats.
Kinnie Reina, who teaches a course on mental health first aid, said to also watch to see if someone goes from exhibiting symptoms to becoming exceptionally calm. That could be a sign that they are planning to commit suicide, she said.
“Or they may be writing letters or giving things away,” she said. “Or they make amends with people.”
To help someone struggling with PTSD, the first step is to become educated and try to understand it, Bridges said. It is specific to the individual, but making an effort to understand the situation will help.
He said other things someone can do to help an individual struggling with PTSD include:
■ Pay attention to triggers.
■ Be consistent.
■ Minimize stress at home.
■ Make plans for the future and follow through with promises.
■ Be supportive, but not forceful.
■ Be available and listen, but don’t judge.
■ Advice isn’t always needed, but a presence is.
■ Don’t manage their issues for them, take care of yourself too.
■ Do normal things with them, and keep inviting them and making plans.
■ Find someone you can talk to.
“You want to avoid any kind of specific triggers and, hopefully, there is enough good communication to where you both know what the triggers are,” Bridges said. “I think that’s crucial.”
Walker said it’s also important to be clear that you’re concerned about the person and that you show you care.
“It’s important to remember that this will never go away,” Bridges said. “You can’t make a traumatic event un-happen to somebody.”
If you think you may be struggling with PTSD there are a few things you can look for in yourself, but self-diagnosis is much harder, he said.
“Avoidance is such a piece of PTSD and I think it’s tricky for them to identify PTSD because of that,” he said. “I think the trick behind PTSD is you want to avoid your triggers, but what happens is that becomes habitual over time because you don’t realize you’re avoiding these things.”
Self-reflection and paying attention to obvious symptoms can help those struggling with PTSD monitor themselves, Bridges said.
He said other symptoms to look for include:
■ Violent mood swings.
■ Depression or high anxiety in places you wouldn’t normally feel it.
■ Feeling disconnected or avoiding connection.
Walker said the inability to keep a job is a big sign, too. He ran through 57 jobs after leaving the military and before his latest application.
“I’ve had more jobs than I’ve had birthdays,” he said.
It became difficult for him to keep a job because when he got used to his duties, he’d get bored. When he got bored, the bad thoughts and flashbacks would seep in and he’d either leave or get fired.
“It’s typical for other people to pick up on these markers faster than a person does themself,” Bridges said.
“There are things beyond your control and your power and you need help,” Walker said. “You become part of the problem if you don’t get out of your chair and go get it. But you have to stay with it. You have to stay with it.”