While conducting research for my latest article, I ran across a headline that really hit me close to home: “Veteran fights VA to keep PTSD diagnosis”. The story was about a veteran who had been twice diagnosed by his local Veterans Administration (VA) hospital with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, while receiving treatment, he got a letter from his local VA hospital downgrading his diagnosis to a “personality disorder” - without his seeing any doctor. This was inexplicable considering his PTSD symptoms were based upon his traumatic battlefield experiences in Afghanistan. He contested the VA's decision with the help of AMVETS, a non-profit organization of volunteers that assist veterans in their attempts to “secure claims, benefits and medical diagnoses.” Unfortunately, no information is available to reveal the results of his appeal.
I also spent years in a battle with the VA. In 1970, while stationed with the 26th Engineering Battalion (I Corps, Americal Division) in Chu Lai, Vietnam, I was wounded when a 120-mm rocket landed 25 feet away. Fortunately, four of us were lucky enough to walk out of our hooch suffering only minor injuries, mostly small shrapnel wounds and busted ear drums. You wouldn't believe it by seeing the picture of the place where we were lived.
However, about 12 years later, I began to experience a severe startle response, which is an immediate, involuntary reaction to “sudden, startling stimuli, such as sudden noise or sharp movement.” This is one of the four responses listed by the VA as symptoms associated with PTSD.
Although there are an assortment of reactions to a startle response, mine varied from minor twitching of my head and shaking of my right arm, to eventually falling to the floor with severe body spasms, and even going into shock several times (they were really loud, nearby noises! And I still hide every time I see a balloon nearby). I also experienced temper outbursts.
Over the next 20+ years, I sought treatment at VA hospitals near the places I lived: Phoenix, Ariz., San Jose, Calif., Boston, Mass., and Austin, Texas. In every instance I was shuffled off to a psychologist who was unable to help me. Why? Because they decided I was depressed so they prescribed appropriate pills. I began to suspect that, back in the 80s and 90s, the VA just did not want to diagnose PTSD on anyone so they kept turning me down for treatment and benefits.
A few years after returning home to Austin, I found a sociologist at the Austin Veteran Center who treated me over a five-year period. The best advice he gave me was to be persistent in applying for PTSD treatment at the Austin Outpatient Clinic.
My breakthrough, came when my primary care doctor sent me to the VA Hospital up the road in Temple, Texas. While undergoing an electroencephalogram (EEG), the nurse intentionally made a sharp, loud noise resulting in my traditional shaking response. Finally, I had medical evidence of my affliction on the EEG which resulted in long overdue treatment and a rating of 10% disability.
Yes, I'm much better now, but PTSD will never go away; it just becomes manageable. Bio-feedback worked for me.
There is no way I can compare my PTSD reactions to those men and women who have experienced severe traumatic injuries from their service in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. I can barely imagine being in a vehicle blown up by an improvised explosive device (IED) and the resultant trauma associated with these types of events.
From my experience, I know the VA clinic here in Austin has done a fairly good job in treating veterans like me with PTSD. And I can only hope that is the same at all VA hospitals and clinics across the country.
What I can do is advise veterans who begin experiencing symptoms of any kind, especially those related to their wartime experience:
• Go to or call your nearest VA clinic or hospital and make an appointment to see a primary care doctor
• Be persistent in requesting treatment and the benefits associated with your illness
• If you have any difficulty getting the treatment you need or are being denied VA benefits (this shouldn't happen, but it does), then contact and seek assistance from an organization as AMVETS or your U.S. congressman and/or your senator(s)
• And, as a last resort, acquire legal help to act on your behalf; there are a number of firms that specialize in negotiating with the VA.
Remember, you served your country and your country owes you. If you need help, then go get the treatment you deserve as well as any associated benefits coming to you.
Don't forget that if you are suffering, your family and loved ones are also suffering. Getting treatment for yourself is also helping them - so do not delay. Trust me, I've been there. After all, I've been suffering from a startle response for over 30 years.
Good luck veterans! And God bless you all!