HOUSTON – Spencer Walker of Fort Bend County said he had lost his sense of identity and purpose after returning from war.
After serving four years -- including a deployment to Operation Iraqi Freedom -- the transition back to civilian life didn’t go as planned. Walker initially noticed the culture shock after enrolling in college classes about two months after returning home.
“That was just a heck of a transition,” the United States Marine Corps Corporal said.
Over the next 12 years, Walker and his family fought some of their toughest battles as Walker dealt with alcoholism, anxiety and lost employment.
“I wouldn’t address my own combat trauma, PTSD,” Walker said. “I wouldn’t address my substance abuse issues. And so I lost jobs. I lost my family.”
About 23% of all Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Seventeen veterans die by suicide each day due to the disorder.
Mental health experts said multiple deployments are among the factors leading to PTSD. However, new treatment options are promising.
“The veteran today looks different than the veteran that maybe came back from Vietnam or survived World War II,” said Elizabeth Kleeman, a suicide prevention coordinator at Houston’s Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center.
In the last year, the hospital has opened a new mental health facility and hired 100 new mental health staff members. Also, the VA is utilizing the Telehealth App, which gives veterans 24-hour access to counseling visually or through a phone conversation.
“You can go to your car on your lunch break, open up your phone,” Kleeman said. “You have an appointment scheduled with us. You open up the app, and you can talk to that provider and get what you need and really feel better about going back in.”
The hospital also now has 13 new marriage and family counselors. Therapists understand now that involving the entire family has long-lasting benefits.
“People that come in for couples and family therapy stay in therapy three times longer than they do for individual therapy,” said Laura Shely, a licensed marriage & family therapist at DeBakey.
Spencer Walker has been winning his battle with PTSD in recent years.
After needing the intervention of the court system in 2014, Walker has mentored more than 150 veterans whose PTSD has landed them in legal trouble. He also now is a director of a mental health advocacy organization.
“There is help out there, and there is hope,” Walker said. “And there are folks around you that love you, (and) are concerned for you. It takes a true warrior to step up, to reach out, admit that they need some help, and to seek it.”
Mental health experts said veterans must seek help within days of transitioning to civilian life. They said some triggers could unexpectedly bring on stress.
Veterans can contact the National Crisis Hotline 24-hours a day at 800-273-8255. They can also chat online or text.