Post-traumatic stress disorder has been known by many names over centuries of combat, from battle fatigue and shell shock to soldier’s heart.
But in the past decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the psychological condition has received widespread public recognition as one of the invisible injuries that troops suffer. June has been designated as PTSD Awareness Month by the departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense.
The renewed focus by the VA on bringing awareness of the symptoms of PTSD and the treatments available is an effort to show it’s never too late to get help, said Mark Ballesteros, a VA spokesman.
Vietnam-era veterans, 7 million of whom are between ages 60 and 70, are reaching retirement age and losing the distraction of full-time work. That could lead to more reflection on old memories and trigger requests for help, Ballesteros said.
Statistics show 11 percent to 20 percent of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are receiving treatment for PTSD.
Tony Galvan, who joined a peacetime Army in 1995, is one of them. Eight years after his enlistment, he was on the front lines during the invasion of Iraq.
“Be careful what you wish for,” said Galvan, 41. “I always tried to glorify war until I found the sad reality of it.”
Galvan, originally from New York City, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2010 after two more tours in Iraq, a combined three years in the war-torn country.
He recognized his isolation from others and increased alcohol use as signs of a larger problem, but it wasn’t until after his discharge that he was diagnosed.
“I didn’t even know myself,” Galvan said. “I used to be happy-go-lucky. If you saw me in the bars before the war, I was the first guy to buy all the rounds.”
PTSD is a common reaction to any traumatic event, such as rape, childhood sexual assault or a natural disaster, and about 5.2 million adults are diagnosed with it every year.
For Galvan and other combat veterans, it’s difficult to set aside the hyperawareness after months of bracing for shots from a window or the road exploding under a Humvee’s tires. Even inside their safe zone, there was the threat of rocket and mortar attacks.
“You’re always paranoid,” Galvan said. “You’re either being watched or attacked.”
As a noncommissioned officer, Galvan shouldered the extra duty of counseling his soldiers; he packed up the belongings of 18 soldiers who were wounded or killed and wrote letters to their families. It’s the faces of the enemy and his soldiers that haunt him.
“At that stage, like other NCOs, I started keeping things to myself,” he said.
Galvan struggled to rebuild his life with a wife and four children after his discharge in 2009. He’s separated from them now after two arrests on verbal domestic abuse charges and is living in the domiciliary at the uptown VA hospital in Augusta.
Psychological treatment at the hospital and studying for a commercial driver’s license are helping him take steps toward renewed independence, but each day remains a struggle to get out of bed.
Galvan dreams of being one of many veterans who return home from war and lead well-adjusted lives.
“I’d sell my soul to be them,” he said. “Heck, I’d
sell my soul just to get some sleep without taking medication.”