It took 42 years for an event to trigger Vietnam veteran Samuel’s post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Like most vets, he didn’t talk about his experiences with anyone, but after a co-worker attempted suicide at work, Samuel, who asked to remain anonymous, fell unexpectedly into a deep depression.
The day he killed a group of Vietnamese came rushing back.
He reached out for help.
Unfortunately, Iraq War veteran Christopher Steward reached for a gun when the trauma of his combat service overwhelmed him.
On Dec. 10, Steward lashed out violently, threatening to kill himself. It took a five-hour standoff with Payson police negotiators to get Steward to come out of his home peacefully.
Tragically, Steward’s gripping story hints at the struggle of a number of veterans returning from the nation’s longest war —which has left lasting and inexplicable wounds on some of its survivors. These wounds are often brushed off by society, as veterans deal with their emotions in secret.
Rim Country combat veterans have limited options. Fortunately, Merritt Center founder Betty Merritt holds free retreats for returning combat veterans on her Star Valley property.
“When is this town going to wake up?” asked Merritt after she heard about Steward, who threatened his girlfriend, fired two shots in an apparent suicide attempt and then holed up in his home with his teenage son.
Most veterans looking for help have to drive to Prescott or Phoenix. Often, combat veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan don’t even know where to get help, Merritt said. A group of veterans told her they didn’t know what services were available to them or how to access those services.
A breakdown in the system can be costly.
In February 2009, a standoff with a Gulf War veteran almost ended fatally.
Michael Gene Robinson fired several shots at police in his front yard, allegedly believing they were Iraqis. After rattling his yard with bullets for nine hours, Robinson surrendered as well.
According to reports, nearly 30 percent of returning Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) veterans are enrolled in Veteran Affairs health care, primarily for post traumatic stress disorder.
“Recent military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan represent the most sustained ground combat operations involving American forces since the Vietnam era,” according to the American Medical Association.
“The majority of military personnel experience high intensity guerrilla warfare and the chronic threat of roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices.”
Veterans of all wars report symptoms in addition to depression and alcohol use.
Merritt said there is a way to deal with PTSD that doesn’t involve covering it up with substances or denial.
At her center, vets go through a four-weekend program that gives them the tools to reintegrate back into civilian life.
Samuel thought he had stuffed all his bad memories away — the day he killed Vietnamese, the day he watched fellow soldiers get hurt — he locked it all away.
But in February, those issues resurfaced when a co-worker tried to kill himself.
As he watched, all Samuel could think about was the mission — to save this person. As people frantically yelled around him, Samuel felt responsible for saving his life.
Although the person survived, Samuel walked away feeling wasted.
Samuel recognized his PTSD had returned and had engulfed his life.
“I always knew something was there, but I went on living,” he said.
“Having that experience — the retraumatization — it brought back issues from Vietnam, it brought back the nightmares.”
Samuel’s personal life turned upside down. Although he didn’t want to strike out violently, inside he felt ripped in half. The remorse and regret he had carried for 42 years now overwhelmed him.
While in Vietnam, Samuel did what he had been trained to do — kill.
However, after returning from war, Samuel felt shame for what he had done.
“Killing other people doesn’t fit with our belief system,” Merritt said. “And when we do something outside of our morals, we feel guilt.”
Merritt said she strives to help veterans returning from war deal with that guilt instead of carrying it around for decades.
“Things got blocked inside and I never really dealt with it,” Samuel said.
“I never want that to happen again,” Merritt said. “I want them to have a chance to not carry it all those years. Here, they learn techniques to deal with it.”
Samuel said after visiting with Merritt, he is learning to release blocked energy from the war, although he has a long way to go.
When Samuel heard about Steward, he said he was not surprised.
“A lot of people have this fear and paranoia,” he said.
Most vets are afraid of confronting their fears, Merritt said.
Flipping the switch
Vets who do not get help risk being triggered by something that throws them back into combat mode.
When this happens, combat techniques learned in war emerge. For some vets, this means reaching for a gun.
Although we don’t know what was going on inside Steward’s head Dec. 10 when he grabbed his gun and fired off two shots, officers say it nearly killed him.
Payson Police Det. Sgt. Dean Faust said the whole incident allegedly started after Steward had an argument with his live-in girlfriend.
Steward went upstairs to an office, busted up a door, threw things around and fired one shot from his handgun.
When this didn’t get his girlfriend’s attention, he went into the front yard and fired another shot.
Both shots were apparent suicide attempts.
Steward’s girlfriend fled the home and called police. Steward and his son stayed inside, ignoring police orders to come out.
Instead of firing at the home or busting through the front door, police surrounded the home and Faust went to work trying to figure out Steward’s history. Knowing a person’s history helps Faust talk with the person and focus on the real issue.
Faust learned from family and friends that Steward was dealing with issues from the Iraq War and suffered from PTSD.
After two hours of silence, Steward finally started talking with Faust. Steward downplayed the situation, asking Faust why the police had not knocked on his front door.
After another hour, Steward agreed to come out.
Memories still fresh
Iraqi War veterans like Steward are dealing with fresh memories.
Although they have been home, they haven’t found a way to integrate back into society.
When drugs and alcohol no longer cover the pain, some turn to suicide as a way out.
Merritt said veterans attending her program often say they don’t want to feel anything; they want to disappear.
They know they are no longer in combat, but they don’t know where they fit. They aren’t the same person they were when they left and they aren’t on the mission, so who are they?
At the Merritt Center, vets are encouraged to embrace their shame and create a new mission for their lives.
“The veterans from combat come with several needs: to recognize and understand the trauma they experienced and the resulting reactive behavior patterns created and to know they can learn ways to adjust, release and transform the patterns that disrupt their civilian life functions,” she said.
Most vets who complete the program feel ready to move on, although they still carry those memories with them.
Merritt said if people know a veteran who is suffering, they should reach out to them.
“There is help,” she said. “Here, we teach them basic training for life.”
For more information about the Merritt Center, call (928) 474-4268.
The next men’s program for returning combat veterans starts Jan. 14 with the women’s program starting Feb. 25.