The War on Addiction Comes Home - Page 3

By Jeff Forester 11/10/11

Combat veterans with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries are suffering from skyrocketing rates of addiction, alcoholism and suicide. Thirty-five years after Vietnam, is America creating another lost generation?

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Bringing the war home Photo via

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She continued, “We cope the only way we can, we laugh as much as possible…at his crazy memory loss, we laugh when his brain can't form the right words. We talk, seriously, on those days when he is doing 'good' so he understands what I am feeling and going through. I give him his space on the days when he is doing 'bad.' I try to treasure all the good days.”

“I am seeing these guys drinking or shooting heroin so they don't have the anxiety attacks or flashbacks,” wrote one wife, who's a nurse at a VA psych ward. “One of the main things we do is detox a lot of really young guys.” Two of her patients have overdosed on heroin.

Another woman called and said, “Addiction is a huge problem.” Her voice was even and quiet, the struggle and turmoil beneath her words like a great weight. “I left my husband at the end of March,” she said. “PTSD turns you into a beast…he was self-medicating…drinking all the time. I am pregnant with his child and he doesn't know and with him using I am not sure what to do.”

One woman takes care of her husband and also works as a nurse on a VA psych ward. “What I am seeing is these guys are drinking or shooting heroin so they don't have the anxiety attacks or flashbacks,” she wrote. “One of the main things we do is detox. We are detoxing a lot of really young guys.” Two of her patients have overdosed on heroin in the last few years.

None of the wives would allow their names to be used. Only a hero like Hector Matascastillo, brave in both battle and civilian life, has stepped forward to speak on the record. The wives understand anonymity. Says one, “I have secondary trauma issues, and it is hard to talk about. Surrounding the military is the stigma that you can't admit to being mentally weak [which] is preventing people from seeking help. The military has trouble recognizing PTSD and they don't communicate that you can seek help without repercussions.”

I pressed the wives, asking them why it was impossible to find a veteran beyond Matascastillo that was willing to talk about his PTSD and struggles adjusting to life after war.

One woman had a startling view. “PTSD changes your brain,” she says. “It makes them angry and kinda jerks; they lose their sympathetic response [where they would normally be] willing to help out with something like this."

Milan Christianson is a veteran who works as a psychologist, human relations and family life specialist and teaches at North Dakota State. He sees a need for groups like FamilyOfaVet. Christianson wrote the book for the Air Force that helps Chaplains help families deal with a major deployment and the return of their soldier. “The VA needs to be more connected with the civilian portion, that piece beyond diagnosis and prescribing medication,” said Christianson. “The military needs to train soldiers and their families to deal with family issues right at boot camp.  They (families and soldiers) have not been trained, and they do not know what they are up against.”

The “militaristic culture” of this war, says Christianson, is so much less than in previous wars. During World War II, for instance, with over half of all military aged males serving, the military culture was very much a part of mainstream culture.  Not so for Iraq and Afghanistan, with only about 1% of military aged males serving.  In addition, World War II Veterans returned to a booming economy and free education in the form of the GI Bill.

Said Christianson, “The number one thing we could do for these veterans is to give them a job or education.”

Congressman Tim Walz, a retired National Guard Command Sergeant Major, elected in Minnesota’s First Congressional District in 2006, agrees. Congressman Walz has become a national leader on veterans issues, serving on the House Veterans Affairs Committee and working to make reintegration easier for veterans and their families. Says Walz, “You need to have a comprehensive approach. From being able to get a good paying job to support your family when you return home, to getting the physical and mental health care you need and have earned, to getting the support your family needs as you reintegrate to civilian life—none of these things happen in a bubble. They are all interconnected and it’s important we approach our work that way.”

Matascastillo is proof that there is life after PTSD. He was finally able to get treatment, and he dove into individual therapy the way he did everything: balls-to-the-wall. “I did intensive therapy for a year, and pilot programs at the VA like spiritual healing, which was awesome.”

During therapy, Matascastillo was able to identify the thing that haunted him, the event from his 13 combat missions that put him on edge: he was in Kosovo in the late 1990s, on a hilltop to witness events and report back to command and ordered to take no action. He watched through his riflescope as the genocide unfolded, as soldiers rounded up and shot the all the men in a village and then raped the women. One woman had her baby torn from her arms and Matascastillo was forced to watch as they shot her child in front of her and then raped the mother. His eye was to the scope of a weapon that could end her misery, protect her child, and bring justice. But his orders were to do nothing and so, impotent, he watched. The horror never left him.

During his trial, many of the officers who Matascastillo had served under came forward. He was able to avoid jail time. He may have lost his wife and home, but not his career. In fact, after his therapist suggested a remarkable way for him to heal himself—by going back into the breach—he was able, with the help of supportive officers and his sterling record, to convince the army to send him back to Iraq in command of a full company of men as their Staff Sergeant.

He knew what these men faced and was relentless in training. “My men hated me,” he says. “I needed to train them hard so that they all came back and could hate me for the rest of their lives.”

They were sent to Al Anbar during the surge and saw heavy action. Matascastillo barely slept during that time—his energy was intense, his mind racing a million miles an hour. “It was a crucible,” he says. “But I brought them all home. Some purple hearts and shattered minds but all alive. Back home we went on parade and read the roster. I turned them all back to the commander and said, 'They are all here.'”

And then he collapsed. He wept. He allowed his racing mind to quiet and the demons to depart. Just two years shy of his pension, he retired and left the military. He got his degree as a psychotherapist and clinical social worker. Now he spends his life trying to help other vets navigate their battle related PTSD, TBI, drinking and drugging. “We do a lot of reality therapy to overcome that stigma,” he says. “We try to re-frame that stigma by being realistic.” His record is such that the jackals don't dare bite, so, like Audie Murphy, the most decorated warrior in American history who broke the code of silence during the Vietnam War, Matascastillo is carrying the message. “It is easier,” he says, “to live the rest of my life without worrying about what the military thinks.”

There is hope, and it is at the VA, warts and all. “The VA is a very frustrating system,” says Matascastillo. “But there you will find the warriors that have gone before you. The Vietnam era broke down a lot of barriers and guys need to be persistent and ask for help.” One of the women's husbands saw a speech therapist that gave him an iPod to help him break free of flashbacks. Apps reminds him of appointments and to-do lists, sends him reminders from his wife for his family calendar, and a special watch given to him by the VA vibrates against his wrist every 10 minutes, reminding him to come back to the “now” if he is slipping into flashback.

According to one of the wives, “Veterans need to register. All benefits depend on registry. The VA doesn't advertise. Soldiers can get five years of health care, and there's the post 9/11 caregiver program— you can apply for it if your husband was severely wounded post 9/11 and you get support and a stipend every month.” The second thing vets should do, she says, is to make an appointment with the transition clinic. If they don't feel like they can come to the VA, there are other resources. She urges the men and their wives to speak out, if only anonymously. “The more exposure we give to PTSD, the less stigma there will be,” she says. “The less stigma, the less self medicating. The less self medicating, the less dependence and addiction and broken families and legal problems.”

One of the wives perhaps best sums up the situation we find ourselves in when she says, “This war has come home to all of us. Now it is being fought in homes across the country. We are in the fight of our lives.”

The Huffington Post Impact has compiled a list of organizations that seek to help veterans like the ones mentioned here. You can read more about those groups, and ways you can help, here.


Jeff Forester is a writer in Minnesota. His book, Forest for the Trees: How Humans Shaped the North Woods, an ecological history of his state's famed Boundary Waters, came out in paperback in 2009. He has also written about sober high schools and relapsing addiction counselors, among many other topics, for The Fix.

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Jeff Forester is a writer in Minnesota. His book, Forest for the Trees: How Humans Shaped the North Woods, an ecological history of his state's famed Boundary Waters, came out in paperback in 2009. Jeff is the Executive Director of MN Lakes and Rivers Advocates MLR and you can follow him on Twitter.