Most people weather life’s changes with little more than some slightly elevated stress levels. For someone with PTSD, however, even the smallest of life changes can make them feel like their life has been turned upside down.
Right now, I am three days from a major life change. In three short days, I will get on an airplane and fly to Florida where I will meet my service dog for the first time. His name is Chaunsey, the beautiful golden retriever in this picture. We will train together to learn what it means to be a team. I will learn what his ‘alerting’ behaviors are, and he will learn how to perform tasks that mitigate my disabilities. This is a huge step. This will be the longest I have been away from my family in, well… ever. I have never been away for even a night without at least my husband, if not my kids. This is something totally new to me. I will be hundreds of miles away from my support system and that thought scares me to death. The ONE thing that is keeping me from canceling the entire thing is this single simple fact…I will be gaining a new tool to add to my support system. A tool that will allow me to do something as simple as going to the grocery store alone, or taking my children to the park without having to worry about freaking out (though I will admit, most of the time they keep me pretty grounded to the present).
I also know that my life will continue to change once I’m home. No longer will I be able to hide away in my bed when depression is rearing its head because Chaunsey will need exercise and potty breaks. He will need to be fed and brushed, but most of all he will need attention. His needs will require me to come out of myself and engage in the world around me instead of hiding in my computer and isolating myself away from the world.
There are so many things that Chaunsey and I will do together that they would be impossible to list them here. But there is something I would like to share. If you, or a loved one, think you would benefit from a service dog, and you are a post-9/11 veteran, I encourage you to check out K9s for Warriors. Without their generosity, I would not be getting ready to enter this new chapter in my life. They are a non-profit group based in Florida that provides these dogs to post 9/11 veterans at no charge. Also, if you think you may need help with transportation to and from Florida (its a three weeks of training, lodging is provided), I encourage you to check out Veterans Airlift Command. These generous pilots volunteer their time to fly veterans and their families all over the country.
I will do my best to update everyone about our progress over the next three weeks. As I have said earlier, I am terrified right now…but I am also hopeful. I feel as if the light at the end of the tunnel is finally turning on and the darkest hours of my PTSD may soon be behind me. I know this isn’t a cure. I know there will still be bad days or weeks, but, I know with Chaunsey, I will have a life long battle buddy that will be with me 24/7. Everywhere that I go, he will go. When I have a bad day, he will be there. He will bring me out of the flashbacks, interrupt the panic attacks and help me with mobility. I will be his forever human. Neither of us will ever be alone again, we will be battle buddies, we will be a team.
In filing a claim with the VA compensation for PTSD, every bit of evidence can help. One such item is a Stressor Letter. This is a letter from you listing all the stressors that you feel contributed to your PTSD. This letter will likely be the hardest thing you have ever had to write in your life and potentially the most important asset in your claim.
There are three components to a stressor letter. Life before the military, life during the military (this is generally where your stressors will be detailed) and life after the military (where you will describe how PTSD has altered and effected your life. I’m going to describe to you how I wrote mine. My stressor letter ended up being eleven pages long and took me several days to complete.
The first stage is to write out your ‘Before the Military’ section. Begin by describing how you grew up, activities in which you took part and enjoyed. Anything that can serve as a contrast to the ‘After the Military’ section needs to be listed here. What did you enjoy doing before that you are no longer able to do? What was your outlook on life then that PTSD has changed? You will likely find as you work on the rest of the letter that you think of more items to include in the ‘Before’ section. You’re basically trying to give a snapshot of what you were like before your stressors occurred.
The hardest part of the letter is the stressor section. The ‘During the Military’ section will not be easy to write and I suggest doing it in stages. Begin by simply listing a timeline of events. Do not get into all the specifics of each event. Simply create an outline of the events that you feel contributed to your PTSD, include all physical injuries as well. Once this is done, begin to go back through your letter. Select one of the stressors and begin to add details of the event. For right now, only add details, don’t include your reactions. The idea is to get the chronological listing of all the events. Who else was involved, dates, being evacuated for an injury, etc. You’re simply telling the story of what happened. Continue to add this information for all the events listed in your outline. The final step is the hardest. This will be the part that requires you to really dig deep and be completely honest with yourself. No more denial here. Before you begin this section, make sure you have someone you can call on to keep you grounded. This part will hurt and you need to know you have a resource to back you up if you need it. At this point, you need to go through each item and add how it made you FEEL. Let it out! Put it on the paper. Did you feel helpless? Guilty? Were you terrified? Hopeless? This is the hardest part because too often we take all those negative feelings and shove them down deep where we think they can’t bother us anymore, but they need to be documented for this to truly be an asset in your claim. This was the part that took me the longest to complete and was the majority of the eleven pages.
The last step isn’t quite as hard. This is the ‘After’ section. In this part you are simply spelling out how PTSD has changed your life. What is different about you now? What are the symptoms you have to deal with daily? This is a good time to look up the signs and symptoms of PTSD and list out how each one effects your life. Don’t embellish here…keep it honest. If you don’t have nightmares, don’t list them. Not every one has every single symptom of PTSD. Make sure you explore every area of your life. How is it effecting your work? Your family? Your thought process, outlook on life, ability to function in society, etc. List your triggers, the things you can no longer tolerate doing such as walking through a grocery store without anxiety. This is where you show how PTSD has changed who you were before. Refer to your ‘Before’ section and see if there is something you listed that has changed and vice versa. You will find that going through the ‘After’ section, you will remember things to add to the ‘Before’. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself editing both sections as you go along.
Once you have written out your letter and you’re sure you’ve included enough emotional information to get your point across find someone you trust and ask them to read it over. Ask them if its concise, if it makes sense, does it get the point across. Perhaps ask someone from a veterans group to read it, a Veterans Service Officer can likely give you some pointers on how to improve your letter.
Above all, realize that as much as its going to hurt to write this letter, its going to help you in the long run. You can also ask friends and family members to write letters stating how PTSD is effecting your ability to lead a ‘normal’ life. These can also add weight to your claim with the VA. Remember, don’t let yourself get offended by what you may read in these letters. The person writing them needs to be brutally honest about how they see PTSD effecting you and its likely not going to be something you want to hear. They may see something that you don’t, some personality change that you haven’t noticed or have denied. Remember, they aren’t writing these things to hurt you, they’re trying to help you with your claim.
As I said earlier, this will likely be one of the hardest things you’ve had to do, but it will absolutely help your case. With this letter in your file, you don’t have to worry as much about getting a doc who doesn’t believe you writing a bad report for the exam. Your words will already by part of the file along with the letters from friends and family members. The more ammunition you include in your file the better. These letters, along with your doctors reports will give the bureaucrats making rating decisions a better idea of the true picture.
There are many websites giving advice on writing Stressor Letters, what I have provided here is basically a short synopsis of what those sites suggest along with my personal experience writing my own letter.
In an article in the New York Times titled ‘In Military Courts, Considering Alternative Punishment for Trouble Service Members‘, Mr. James Dao discusses the implementation of Veterans Court’s into the military judicial process. He discusses the various benefits as well as potential hurdles that would need to be addressed before something of this magnitude could be implemented across the entire military judicial structure.
Veterans court is a ‘special court’ that hears cases of veterans charged with minor offenses, particularly those diagnosed with service related injuries and illnesses such as PTSD or TBI. These courts have the ability to offer a suspended sentence in lieu of completing a rigorous treatment program to address the issues that led to the veterans presence in the court, rather than simple incarceration. Since its implementation in Buffalo, NY in 2008 there are now more than 80 such courts nationwide.
Mr. Dao argues that if the military were to take a similar approach, offering treatment in lieu of confinement and a less than Honorable Discharge the military could potentially prevent these future veterans from ending up in the civilian legal system. Veterans who leave the service with a Less than Honorable or Dishonorable Discharge are denied the very services that could help them the most by the VA such as mental health care. By treating the underlying cause of the offense, and offering the ability to receive an Honorable Discharge at the end of their treatment program, the military can take an active roll in reducing the burden of the civilian court in the long run.He did point out, however, that there are some hurdles that will need to be addressed before any such implementation can take effect on a large-scale level.
Some military bases lack the essential services needed to ensure the service member receives the very care he needs as a part of the program. Not all bases have Mental Health clinics capable of offering the type of in-depth care necessary for PTSD and/or TBI. Some of this could be outsourced to the local civilian population, however there are bases in locations where the resources simply are not available. Even so, there is the potential for these issues to be worked out. This is hardly an insurmountable task.
Implementing this system, in the long run, will only benefit the military and the future veterans who encounter this program. It will also go far in removing the stigma held by many civilians in regards to veterans with PTSD. Additionally, the veteran will also feel less hesitant to seek treatment from the VA because the denial of a problem will already have been surmounted as well as any potential fear of treatment.
These programs aren’t a joke. Its not a ‘get out of jail free’ card. It takes a lot of hard work to complete the rigorous requirements. Participants are generally required to continue working, meet their financial obligations, be compliant with taking their medications, therapy, and drug or alcohol rehabilitation. You can’t fake your way through these programs, the consequence of attempting to do so is the original sentence is levied. That, in and of itself, can be a very motivating factor in seeing the plan through to completion. In completing the program, the service member could either be returned to duty or separated with an Honorable Discharge. Its a win-win for both the military as well as the service member.
While a diagnosis of PTSD or TBI is not synonymous with predicting indications of committing a crime, it is a sad fact that most service members who are separated under less than honorable conditions will have trouble finding gainful employment. Couple this with the debilitating effects of untreated PTSD and you are more likely to see problems that can escalate to criminal charges. When you consider that approximately 20% of our service members have or will develop PTSD, that is a potentially staggering increase in the number of veterans who may one day find themselves in court. Heading this off while they are still within the service is paramount to their success in the future.
This isn’t a new concept. The article discusses the history of such actions dating back to President Andrew Jackson. If its been done before, there is little reason it could not be done today. Our veterans need this desperately. Today service members make up 1% of the total population but account for more than 20% of all suicides. I wonder how many of those veterans decided to end their lives rather than face pending criminal charges. We may never know the answer to that question. However this program has the potential to effect service members lives for the better. Doesn’t it seem like common sense to implement it on as large as a scale as possible?