Battle at home: Local vets and soldiers struggling with PTSD


AURORA | Fireworks on the Fourth of July will sound like gunshots to Manuel Gonzalez.

For the Iraq veteran, it’s a jarring reminder of his artillery duty, searching the desert for the most dangerous villains.

“I can’t handle the noise,” said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Gonzalez, who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2007 and is now in the Army Reserves.

This July, like every July when he’s back home from combat duty, he and his wife will escape the Independence Day cacophony and find solace in the mountains.

As a civilian, that’s one of the ways he’s learned to cope with his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He deals with it alone, in the comfort of a quiet place, in the gym at night, on a fishing trip, by drinking a soda instead of a beer, because he knows intoxication incites violence.

“I’m trained as a combat soldier, so whatever you go through, you adapt and overcome it, so that’s my mindset,” he said.

To underscore the importance of the disorder, officials have named June as National PTSD Awareness Month. As part of that campaign, psychologists are encouraging people like Gonzalez, who lives in Aurora, to seek the help of professionals, instead of going at it alone.

Between 10 and 18 percent of the veterans who have returned to the United States from Iraq or Afghanistan likely have PTSD, said Lawrence Wahlberg, a psychologist and program manager of the PTSD Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program at the Denver Veterans Affairs office.

Those soldiers have likely been traumatized repeatedly in combat, he said. Persistent exposure to roadside bombs, snipers and death are common ways that veterans can be psychologically affected by war, he said.

“They are never able to let down their guard and begin dealing with the trauma because the traumas pile up more quickly than they’re able to deal with them,” Wahlberg said.

People can also have PTSD from a variety of traumatic experiences other than war, said Chelsea Dize, a research psychologist at the Anschutz Medical Campus.

Those include sexual or physical abuse in children and adults, terrorist attacks, serious car accidents, and natural disasters like fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and earthquakes. Early intervention is key in helping them understand the disorder, Dize said.

A combination of psychotherapy and sometimes prescribed medications like anti-depressants can help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD.

But people who come home from war are often the most vulnerable PTSD sufferers, because of how much distress they’ve had to endure overseas, Wahlberg said.

“The kinds of things that sometimes civilians can do in order to deal with the traumatic event, as tragic and unfortunate as it can be in a civilian, a combat veteran is often up against something that’s even more severe because it’s sort of unremitting,” said Wahlberg, who has been working with vets since 1991.

When Gonzalez returned from his first Iraq tour in 2003 he had classic psychological symptoms of PTSD.

His very first panic attack happened during an action movie in a theater. He broke into a cold sweat and became disoriented.

“I knew I was in a movie theater but I wasn’t sure why I was hearing gunshots,” he said. He left the room to gather his thoughts, and couldn’t bring himself to go back inside.

Next in the succession of Gonzalez’s PTSD symptoms came signs of what psychologists call “hypervigilance.”

“My wife realized it first,” Gonzalez said. “She kept asking, ‘Why do you keep looking over your shoulder, on rooftops, looking behind bushes?’ To her she thought it was weird, but for me it was natural.”

Nightmares also became prevalent.

“I would have flashbacks of things I would see over there, whether it was shooting or hanging out with friends or seeing dead bodies,” he said.

His attitude toward dogs changed drastically. Once a dog-lover, Gonzalez says he doesn’t trust the animals at all anymore since dogs in Iraq often roam free and carry infections like rabies.

Through inner reflection and abstinence from alcohol, Gonzalez has discovered what triggers his negative emotions. Still, his advice to other soldiers suffering from PTSD is to seek therapy.

“Not everyone can handle it the way that I have,” said Gonzalez, who is currently in the Master of Business Administration program at the University of Denver.

For U.S. Army veteran Matt Beals, who was a machine gunner in the infantry battalion on Iraq tours in 2003 and 2008, therapy helped him deal with emotions of guilt and anger. But it took him until 2009 to convince himself that he needed help.

“As an infantryman you rely on your mental strength, and my problem was always, ‘OK I’m infantry, I should be able to handle this myself,’” he said.

The Aurora resident recently went through a therapy program that lasted about three months, but it wasn’t easy.

“Somewhere in the back of your mind, even though you know it’s not true, you think you’re going to walk out and you’re going to be cured,” he said.

He still has bad dreams and vivid flashbacks. The smell of petroleum, heavy traffic and concrete barriers bring him right back to Iraq.

Psychologists say there’s hope for Beals and others who might see no end to the torment of living civilian life.

“We see people who no longer meet the diagnosis of PTSD, and we also see people who retain the diagnosis of PTSD but live a better quality of life,” Wahlberg said.

It might be an uphill battle to convince veterans of the need to seek help, but it’s important because early intervention is promising, Wahlberg said.

“We know the quicker people can access care, the quicker people can deal with PTSD,” he said.

Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or [email protected]