After a seven month Army deployment in Bosnia, a seven-month deployment in Afghanistan and a 12-month deployment in Iraq, Justin Weathers came home a different man. He found he couldn’t really talk to his family and friends.
“I didn’t even know what emotions were anymore,” he said. “I’d been trained to turn them off for so long that there wasn’t a switch to turn them back on. I couldn’t understand the concept of joy or happiness; all I knew was a feeling of insecurity. I was in a constant state of hyper-vigilance.”
Weathers noticed he was drinking more than he ever had. Only later did he realize the alcohol was masking symptoms related to the trauma he’d experienced while in the Army.
“I felt like my life was at rock-bottom and nothing mattered,” he said. “I felt like I had nothing to live for and I didn’t know why.”
Tired of feeling isolated from mainstream society, one day Weathers decided he’d had enough.
“I was despondent,” he said. “I drank a bottle of Jägermeister and swallowed a bottle of aspirin.”
Neighbors heard a commotion and thought Weathers was in the midst of a domestic dispute. The police arrived, which made Weathers angry. Instead of passing out, the adrenaline seemed to make him sober up.
“I felt like I was back in a combat situation,” he said. “It turned into a two-and-a-half-hour standoff.”
Once the police finally convinced Weathers to come out of his house, he was arrested and the court ordered a full psychological evaluation. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly referred to as PTSD. The condition is often triggered by terrifying events — either through experiencing them or witnessing them. Symptoms commonly include nightmares, insomnia, flashbacks, bursts of anger, anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts about the event or events.
According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, 30 percent of active duty and reserve military personnel deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan — roughly 730,000 men and women — have mental health conditions requiring treatment. Unfortunately, less than 50 percent of returning veterans in need actually receive any mental health treatment. The Veterans Administration reports that an average of 22 veterans die by suicide every day.
When Nevada County clinical and forensic psychologist Page Brown heard Weathers’ story, she volunteered to become his therapist. Brown has been working solely with veterans for more than 17 years.
Feeling agitated and nervous about the idea of being in an unfamiliar and confined space, Weathers was initially hesitant to go to Brown’s office. Once he did, he said he had to sit in the corner, where he could get a full view of the windows and door.
It’s been six years since Weathers first walked through Brown’s door, and much has changed.
“I’m a lot calmer,” he said.
“It’s much easier to talk to people about what I went through and still go through. If not for Page, I probably would have ended up in jail. She has been a huge influence.”
After a year of one-on-one therapy with Brown, Weathers reluctantly agreed to try group therapy with fellow veterans. That’s when the truly healing began, he said, as he began to feel a little more comfortable each week.
“You don’t think other vets feel what you do until you get into group therapy,” Weathers said.
“But it’s just like going back and being with the guys you served with. I felt camaraderie — I didn’t feel alone. Now we all know we can trust each other; the guys have my back.”
Group therapy can be a tremendous help to returning veterans, said Brown, but the challenge is getting them to come to the office. While some are not aware that cost-free therapy is available, others live in isolation.
“Fear and distrust is normal,” she said.
“How they’re acting is normal given the abnormal situation they were in. Once they are discharged, vets are scattered. What I’ve tried to do is to recreate the sense of family they felt while in the service. Part of what I love about this job is that so often I get people who trust no one and they eventually learn to trust me. It’s a great honor. When it comes to the groups, they’re in charge. They never have to discuss anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.”
A therapy group with veterans ranging in age from 22 to 87 gives members perspective, she added.
“The older reserves are quicker to realize that combat changed them, and they’re more likely to get treatment sooner,” Brown said.
“The younger reserves come home thinking they’re normal, but after they fail a few times, they start to recognize there may be a problem. It’s good for them to hear the older vets say, ‘I felt just like you and I’m better now.’”
The Nevada County Veterans Services estimates there are approximately 9,700 veterans in Nevada County, roughly 10 percent of the population. But that number may be low, said Gary Brown, executive director of Welcome Home Vets in Grass Valley who happens to be Page Brown’s husband.
“Many vets are not counted,” he said.
“Due to lack of trust, they are living in the woods. Avoidance and isolation are common symptoms of PTSD.”
Those are the ones hardest to reach, and the longer vets are out of the military, the less likely they are to associate their symptoms with their deployment, added Gary Brown.
“People need to know that even if you never picked up a rifle, you can have PTSD because of what you’ve witnessed, like nurses, for example,” he continued.
“This issue ripples out to family members, and our goal is to reach out to them, as well.”
While some veterans are hesitant to reveal they were once in the military due to stigma, there truly are valuable resources available to them once they do.
“Treatment makes a huge difference,” said Gary Brown.
“In the past four years, no one in treatment in Nevada County has committed suicide. We’ve found that the bonds formed among vets can change their lives. Whether or not you supported a particular war, the fact is that PTSD is an epidemic. But if we can get them to build trust, treatment works.”
“Everyday thousands of vets leave active duty and go back home,” he said.
“There are a lot of us out there, and we look out for each other. You can find that second family you used to have. On a bad day, I can call someone who understands me. That makes a big difference.”
To contact staff writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.