Andy Price served a total of 7 years in the Army and Reserves and was deployed to Iraq twice. His service dog Bundy helps him deal with the lingering symptoms of PTSD as he rebuilds his life. Photo by Nick Shepherd.
It was 3 a.m. in a stark desert and Operation Desert Storm was officially under way.
When the order came to march, Lora Barker-Bowers was inside her tent. She took her magazine clips and emptied out all of the ammunition. She took her gas mask and three atropine injectors, which are used in case of a chemical attack, and hid them in a duffel bag with her ammunition. She then marched into Iraq unarmed.
“By that point, my mind was in a place to where I thought, you know, if I die, I die and this is all over with and I’ll never have to think of it again,” she said. “But if I die and it’s in combat, I have some honor left to me. There’s some dignity left in my life. Not everything was took from me.”
A few weeks earlier, Bowers had been raped, a gun held to the right side of her head, by a higher-ranking officer. She told him to shoot her.
Instead she was told he would put her gun beside her, go to the military police and say Bowers pointed her weapon and it was in self-defense. Then they would send her home in a black bag and call her treasonous.
All she could think of was her family believing she was a traitor, and it disgusted her. She said she could never tell the truth. If she was going to die in a desert far from home, it was going to be in honor, not disgrace. She was a soldier. She would die with pride.
She kept that thought in her mind over the next few weeks as she was made to work 21-hour work details by the officer who raped her. She couldn’t take showers or receive her mail. The only comforts she had during those long days were cigarettes and BC powders.
Higher-ranking officers finally intervened and told the officer to release Bowers to them or they were going to the MPs. She was released and the officer was told not to interact with her at all.
On Jan. 17, 1991, unarmed and hoping for death’s embrace, Bowers marched into Iraq.
Twenty-three years later, Bowers is in her living room, smoking a cigarette. A BC powder isn’t far from her reach. She still finds comfort in both during periods of high stress.
Around seven years ago, Bowers was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
PTSD is a mental health disorder which is caused by a person being placed in an extremely stressful or traumatic situation. It not only can affect veterans who were in combat, but anyone who has experienced a traumatic situation, such as being raped.
“PTSD can manifest in several different ways,” said Diane Whitehead, senior staff psychologist at Frontier Health. “The most common way is experiencing a trauma and that trauma can come back in a number of ways. It can happen quickly or take months or years to manifest.”
People who experience a trauma may have difficulty coping for a time, and that is normal. But sometimes, the symptoms get worse and can last for months or even years, affecting every part of a person’s life. If this happens, that person probably has PTSD.
Signs and symptoms of PTSD have always been around, but it was called by different names.
“It didn’t get the name until the 1980s,” said Dr. Patrick Sloan, chief of psychology and deputy associate chief of staff for mental health at Mountain Home VA Medical Center. “Prior to that, people have written about war-related stress since the beginning of time.”
When soldiers returned home after World War I, people used the term “shell shocked.” After World War II, soldiers who exhibited signs of PTSD were said to be “combat fatigued” or “battle fatigued.”
It wasn’t until after soldiers began returning home from the Vietnam War that medical professionals began putting all the signs and symptoms associated with PTSD into a single category.
Different people experience different signs and symptoms associated with PTSD. One common symptom is flashbacks, but each sufferer has unique triggers for them.
For Andy Price, a veteran of the Army who was deployed to Iraq twice, the smell of burning oil or burning flesh brings back bad memories.
When he was in Iraq, he witnessed a Humvee get blown up by an improvised explosive device. He was a combat medic and it was his job to go retrieve the bodies from the fire. Soldiers could not put out the fire on the Humvee because ammunition was going off inside.
Even when the soldiers, who were from Middle Tennessee, were on stretchers, Price and his unit had to use bottles of water to prevent the bodies from burning through the stretcher.
“Anytime you see an American soldier die, whether you know them personally or not, it’s very gut-wrenching,” Price said. “I have a good stomach for the mess, but my head couldn’t handle it. It still doesn’t handle it.”
Trash triggers flashbacks for Price as well. He almost caused a car wreck when he swerved to miss a full two-liter coke bottle in the road. Trash in the road reminds him of how the enemy would use trash for IEDs.
Another common symptom is nightmares, often very vivid ones. Bowers has nightmares.
When she was in Desert Storm, her unit had gone back to Kuwait for a couple of days and then back to Iraq. They came across a body, an Iraqi, who was dead. The body was bloated and swollen.
Before she knew what was happening, another soldier shot the body. Remnants of the body splattered on the side of her face. When she asked why he did that, the response was that he wanted to see what it felt like to shoot somebody up close.
For the first 12 or 14 years after she came home, she would wake up with holes scratched in her face. She had been trying to scrape off the Iraqi’s flesh from her face during the nightmare and would wake up with the side of her face covered in blood.
Now when she goes to sleep, she never turns off her television and turns a lamp down low. She does this so when she wakes up from a nightmare, she knows it was a dream and she’s at home, safe.
Other signs and symptoms can manifest in different ways. Price barely sleeps. He said if he gets 10 to 20 hours of sleep in a week, he’s doing good. Bowers sleeps in the living room, even though she has a king-sized bed. She said this arrangement lets her see both the front and back door. Bowers also can’t stand to have anyone on her right side, the side where she had a gun held to her head.
People who suffer from PTSD can also appear depressed, withdrawn into themselves, anxious, nervous, upset or irritable. They can experience changes in appetite and may develop a fear of being in a large crowd. Substance abuse is a common reaction.
Diagnosing PTSD in veterans has gotten better. U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-1st Tenn. and a retired physician, said the Department of Defense has become very proactive with PTSD.
Roe sits on the VA committee in Washington, D.C., and started the Invisible Wound caucus, whose mission is to promote awareness of and solutions for the mental health challenges facing service members and veterans.
The VA has also become more proactive in identifying veterans who might have PTSD. For any veteran who is a first-time visitor to the VA, a screening consisting of questions regarding the veteran’s mental health is done.
Both Roe and Sloan said the VA is close to hiring 2,000 mental health workers throughout the country to better improve the service.
Just as their symptoms vary, different people use different methods to cope with PTSD.
Bowers uses a combination of medicine and counseling to try and cope. Although the counseling is usually only when she wants to talk. Being confined to a certain time makes her highly stressed.
Price uses medicine as well, and says it really makes a difference. He also uses a service dog, named Bundy, to cope.
When he came back from combat, he was in bad shape. It only got worse. Finally, a friend of his told him he needed to get help. So he walked into an emergency room and said he felt suicidal. When the mental health resident saw him, he said he needed to get a dog because he was lonely and depressed and that he needed to get out more because he was isolated.
The thought of getting out didn’t appeal to him, so he got a dog. Price trained Bundy and paid for the certification to make Bundy a service animal.
“He keeps people from coming up behind me and creates a barrier where no one runs up behind me or in front of me or beside me, and scares me,” he said. “And knowing that someone has my back at all times is huge.”
Bundy also helps Price with mobility. Price was diagnosed with traumatic arthritis in both feet and ankles. Bundy wakes him up when he has nightmares. Price can also pet Bundy and calm down. Before Bundy came along, Price was taking 19 pills a day. Now, he takes six.
If you or someone you know may be suffering from PTSD, there are a number of ways to get help. If immediate help is needed, anyone can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255. There are community-based outpatient services in Bristol and Norton, Va., and Morristown, Knoxville, Sevierville and Rogersville in Tennessee. Anyone seeking help or wondering what their benefits might be can call 926-1171.
Veterans can also reach out to crisis workers at Frontier Health, which maintains a number of offices in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. Price said any veteran can reach out to him as well if they need help or just need to talk to someone who understands. He can be reached at (423) 754-2648 or you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Price is a graduate student at East Tennessee State University. He is supposed to graduate with his master’s degree in social work in May, the same month he is supposed to marry his fiancée. He sits on the board of directors for the Tri-Cities Military Affairs Council and is president of the Student Veterans Association. He served a total of seven and a half years in both active duty and with the Reserves.
Bowers has raised three kids and now has a granddaughter. She is disabled because of the PTSD but tries to have constant projects going on around her house to keep her mind busy. She served a total of 14 years in both active duty and with the Reserves.
Through everything that Bowers and Price have endured since they returned home, both remain proud to have served their country.
“I would do it again in a heartbeat if I could and I was able,” Price said.