Veterans work to ease their fellow soldiers’ transitions back to civilian life.
When David Tharp, ’88, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, sat with his family at a table in a Texas Roadhouse, he was jolted by a seemingly unmistakable sound.
“When that alarm went off,” Tharp said, “we were trained to hit the ground, wait two minutes, then come up, assess the situation and offer assistance where needed. So, when I heard that sound, the only thing I thought about as I hit the floor was whether I should have grabbed my family and brought them down with me.”
The sound was another patron’s phone that sounded just like the alarm he heard while serving in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Airfield.
“By the time I recognized my wife’s voice asking me what I was doing, it was too late. Here I was on this floor in front of a restaurant full of people,” he said. “All I could say was that I was ‘Hanging out with the peanuts.’”
Currently serving as a “GS-14 Manager” of a Waco, Texas, post-traumatic stress disorder program addressing the needs of some 40 veterans, Tharp’s education and expertise, combined with his own physical and mental wounds from his time served, make him an invaluable voice in the current national conversation about how to care for our returning service people.
“When you’re in theater,” Tharp said, “you have a mission to do and nothing is going to get in the way of that mission. When I was there, we literally worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week. It never stopped.”
Such was the case when, shortly after his arrival in Afghanistan, Tharp found himself standing over the flag-draped body of a 19-year-old who had died from a massive head wound.
“The flag was dripping with blood,” he said. “But at that time, you really don’t have the ability to process what happened. So it’s not until you get back home, sometimes months later, when life and everything around you sort of calms down, when everyone back home is congratulating you … that’s when you start to sort through all the things you experienced.
“So in theater people use avoidance, they use numbing techniques to help them cope with the conditions in combat. But when they come back home, those mechanisms that helped them in war become their worst enemy here. They become isolated, they use denial, they don’t want to talk about it, they don’t want to think about it, and they may end up self-medicating.”
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the first Gulf War and other military conflicts have followed. Much has been made of the plight of returning veterans, but as Don Rogers, an Indiana State kinesiology professor who specializes in recreation therapy, explained: “I think it’s difficult for the media to communicate the whole picture of just about anything.”
Rogers, himself a naval veteran who later suffered a spinal injury in a motorcycle accident, has worked with veterans, many of them from the Vietnam conflict, and has discovered the value of physical activity through his involvement in wheelchair athletics and training as a recreation therapist.
Not surprisingly, when he assumed responsibility for Indiana State’s Sycamore Outdoor Center roughly a half-decade ago, Rogers decided his next move would be to provide physical healing for the area’s veterans.
With the help of both Indiana State students and alumni, he first launched a Wounded Warriors program — offering a regional event each fall and spring for local veterans. He then turned to Team River Runner and has opened up the world of watersports, especially kayaking, as yet another avenue toward solace for the Wabash Valley’s veteran population.
“You don’t have to have a ton of skill,” Rogers said. “You’re out there with friends, and being out on the water has a calming effect.”
Both Rogers and Tharp agree that for today’s returning veterans, the respect afforded to them from the general public — regardless of the near-inevitable politics that swirl around American involvement in overseas affairs — is vastly better than it was almost a half-century ago.
Despite the improvement, much work still needs to be done to improve the emotional and mental damage that war inflicts on those who serve.
“Congress has been asleep at the wheel for the last eight years,” Rogers said. “We could have been doing a lot to help our veterans, but Congress would not act. We need to get past the political polarization that’s been going on, and Congress needs to do its job and appropriate funding so that organizations such as the VA hospital system can function in the manner in which they are supposed to.”
For Tharp, who started CombatPTSD.org, a major step in improved treatment begins with a more accurate understanding of what PTSD is for a combat veteran.
“Historically, PTSD treatment had its basis in sexual assault. So they approach PTSD with the idea that everything hinges on a single major event, but the reality is that every single day things happen that put incredible stress on the mind and the body,” Tharp said.
Besides acknowledging the importance of family, Tharp adds that the military should adapt the training program it uses so well to prepare soldiers for hyper-vigilance needed in combat to encode in them the ability to mitigate that heightened awareness at home.
On the Web: Watch a video of Indiana State partnering with the Wounded Warrior Project and the Boy Scouts for an event to help injured veterans and their families at youtu.be/fxKa6yQORdk