Veterans tackle their trauma with grit, gusto, word games

Rob Withrow came to kick his drug habit and get his life back.

William Nowling signed up because of his wife’s ultimatum: Get help, or else.

And Tim Ross is here because he’s ready to ask for help after a dozen years trying to be the guy who puts other veterans first.

They’re some of the veterans enrolled in a three-week inpatient program for post-traumatic stress disorder at the VA Puget Sound’s American Lake hospital in Lakewood.

They’re leaning on each other as much as their caregivers to find a way to live with the invisible wounds of war.

“The camaraderie with these PTSD guys, a lot of us haven’t felt that since we were discharged,” said Ross, 45, a former Navy aviation ordnance technician who served during the Gulf War.

They are enrolled in one of VA Puget Sound’s most serious PTSD treatment regimens, one that takes patients away from home for weeks at a time to work through mental health issues that eat away at relationships and careers.

“I lost my job. I was losing my family,” said Ross, of Tacoma, who processed claims for the VA until he could no longer go to work early this year.

The program is part of a growing portfolio of treatment services at the local system that will include a new behavioral health research center in Seattle within the next few years.

The demand for services is growing quickly. VA records show that about 30 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans enrolled in the system seek care for PTSD. Veterans from earlier conflicts are turning to the programs in increasing numbers, too.

“They are finally seeing the evidence that this is helpful, that they might get their lives back together,” said Joel Mitchell, VA Puget Sound’s director of behavioral health.

Last year, Mitchell said the local VA hired 90 new employees for behavioral health programs. He strives to maintain a “no wrong door” policy, meaning any veteran can show up in Seattle or American Lake and get a mental health appointment immediately.

“Any veteran can walk in today and be seen,” he said.

That’s a marked contrast to some VA programs elsewhere in the country, which are under fire for delaying patient care and for using gimmicks to make it look like they were meeting expectations.

The Lakewood inpatient program is in its second year since a $7.3 million renovation spruced up therapy offices and the dorms veterans share. Patients face long days of therapy mixed with recreational events as they focus on coping with their stress.

After hours, veterans spend time together in a safe setting. It’s a form of group therapy favored by the VA and supported by studies in 2008 that showed veterans benefit from talking about their experiences with other veterans.

For some patients, the program provides a community they have not felt in years.

“By week three, they’re like, ‘I feel like I’m back in the military,’ but with a smile, like in the good way,” said therapist Tyler Loder, 30. He’s an Iraq veteran and former artilleryman who wanted to become a VA therapist after seeing friends struggle with what they went through in combat.

Nowling, on his fourth day in the program when The News Tribune visited, attested to the benefits of being around other veterans.

On his first day, he said he vented about his family and his career. Both have suffered since his service in Iraq and a breakdown he had while working in an Army recruiting station. He learned he had PTSD in 2010 but did not find a good treatment option.

“I just would get in fights with my wife and my kids,” he said.

Ross gave him a “come to Jesus” talk in which he prodded Nowling, 55, to think of how his PTSD affects his wife. Nowling was still thinking about the conversation days later.

“Sometimes you have to get a perspective from somebody else to understand what’s going on,” said Nowling of Deer Island, Ore.

On a recent day in the inpatient program, he was part of a group of veterans playing Scattergories, a word game that their provider wanted them to think of as a coping mechanism in stressful moments.

If you feel yourself losing control, she said, give yourself a challenge such as thinking of all the desserts you can name with the letter “E.” Giving your mind something to do will turn your attention from the stress that might overwhelm you, she said.

They played a few rounds of the game. Edible underwear, of course, got the most laughs among dessert choices.

Ross won nearly every round. He’s had trouble containing his emotions in the past. He wanted to try.

“When your stress level is up to here and I feel like I’m about to pop, it’s hard to think like this,” he said.

Withrow, 34, was one of the younger men playing the game. He found his way to the inpatient program this year after problems he’d been avoiding reached a climax: His wife left him, and he temporarily lost his kids to protective custody.

He knew he was struggling with PTSD when he left the uniformed ranks in 2008. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer profiled him in 2007 as a “broken warrior” facing Army discipline for his outbursts since his Iraq deployment in 2003. He wound up with a discharge that allowed him to retain his VA benefits.

After that, Withrow didn’t do much to learn how to cope with PTSD. He was unemployable and looking at life on the streets.

“I thought I was a piece of crap,” he said.

Now he said he’s on the mend. He’s in for a series of inpatient programs at American Lake this year intended to help him address substance abuse, PTSD and homelessness.

He knows he has a lot of work ahead, but “I’m finally getting my life back together.”

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com