Oregon Iraq veteran is one of 75,000 battling post-traumatic stress

From the Coos Bay World, November 28, 2009

Kevin Dubisar and his wife, Ali, take a trip to the North Jetty on a recent Saturday. Due to post-traumatic stress disorder, Dubisar prefers to stay away from large groups of people and uncertain environments. Dubisar feels safe at the beach, flanked by the ocean and deserted sand.

“When Lily saw the picture, she said ‘Where’s Daddy’s teeth?’” Ali Dubisar said.

The 27-year-old doesn’t smile anymore, or do a lot of things he used to.

Dubisar survived a one-year deployment to Baghdad, Iraq, but the war has followed him home.

“Life for me, as I knew it before the war, has completely changed,” Dubisar said.

Everyday life has become a constant battle.

Dubisar, along with an estimated 75,000 other American veterans, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Dogs are barking in the street, and I’m thinking a bomb or something is going off,” Dubisar said. “I’m constantly looking outside, up and down the street.”

The U.S. Department of Defense estimates 40 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have some level of the mental illness.

“Almost half that we send over there come back damaged,” said Tom Mann, public information officer for the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs. “It’s probably the same numbers for every war. We are just looking for it now; before we weren’t.”

Coos County has an estimated population of about 8,500 veterans, meaning roughly 3,400 would suffer from PTSD based on the calculation. Not all veterans are veterans of war, and many Coos County vets served in previous wars.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can occur after a traumatic event — car accident, rape, bombing. It’s been called different names, like “combat fatigue” or “shell shock,” but the illness essentially has been around as long as war itself. The signature symptoms include reliving a terrifying event, severe depression, nightmares, hyper-anxiety, withdrawal, startle reactions, uncontrollable anger and irritability. Other acts, seemingly unrelated, also carry the mark of this debilitating disorder — addiction, fighting, divorce, suicide.

But just because it is widespread among soldiers, doesn’t mean there’s not a stigma associated with PTSD.

“It’s embarrassing,” Dubisar said. “It makes you feel like you’re weak, like you’re not a man or you’re crazy. People just don’t understand.”

Still, Dubisar has sought help. He uses a mixture of psychotherapy, group counseling and medications.

Realizing your triggers is one of the most vital steps in therapy, said Eugene Vet Center Counselor Susan Aviotti, who’s based in North Bend. But even recovery carries unflattering connotations.

“I don’t want people thinking I’m a 27-year-old pill popper,” said Dubisar, who only has a few more credits to go before graduating with a criminal justice degree. “But that is the only thing that calms me down sometimes.”

Aviotti said continued exposure to combat or severe trauma causes a chemical reaction in the brain. Once a soldier is home and his brain is triggered by something associated with the trauma, his brain reacts the same as it did during wartime. That is why medication often is a necessary part of treatment.

“I have tried to mentally reprogram my brain to think how it did before the war, but I can’t,” Dubisar said.

Before the Marshfield graduate joined the U.S. Army in 2001, he liked to hang out with friends and was a good student. He was clean cut, but doesn’t want to shave anymore. It reminds him of his military days.

“I avoid everybody. I used to like family functions and hanging out with the boys,” he said. “When I came back all that stuff was really stressful. It’s because you don’t have control of everybody. When you are over there, you have lots of control.”

At war, Dubisar would be awake for days.

He remembers coming under mortar fire one day while driving back to the base in Sadr City. His truck was splattered with shrapnel. He only got back to safety using emergency air to keep the tires inflated. When he reached the base, everyone took cover. After things quieted down, Dubisar moved his truck. As he walked away, there was a piercing boom. The truck exploded.

He wasn’t hurt, but often startled at the smallest of noises. He was always on guard — he had to be to survive. Now that he is back in Coos Bay, that survival mentality hasn’t subsided.

A car backfiring, a suspicious glance from a stranger, or a mob of people at Walmart all can be triggers.

“The whole time I have to keep reminding myself that I’m in Coos Bay,” Dubisar said. “In a split second, you feel like you’re back in Baghdad. When there is a lot going on, there is more of a possibility of something bad happening. I don’t trust people.”

When Ali Dubisar forgot to put a jacket on her daughter one day, her husband exploded angrily. She thought it was her fault. In her husband’s mind, a small mistake like that could mean death in a war zone.

“Ninety-eight percent of the time it has nothing to do with the person that you are freaking out on,” Dubisar said.

It wasn’t until Ali Dubisar started going to a group for spouses and partners of combat veterans that she started to understand why her husband acts the way he does.

“I didn’t know what was wrong at first,” she said. “He was always angry. It was like he had an argument going on in his mind. He is always lecturing me on every possible thing that can go wrong.”

Unfortunately, many never learn to cope. Mann said VA statistics show only about a third of all veterans ever seek treatment.

One of Dubisar’s closest friends committed suicide while with him in Iraq, but the surviving soldiers never talked about it.

The suicide rate for Oregon male veterans is more than double that of non-veterans, according to the 2005 Oregon Violent Death Report. From 2000 to 2006, 1,066 male veterans took their own lives — that’s 3.7 a week.

Veterans with PTSD do not receive a purple heart for the mental scars inflicted by war. But their wounds are real, as is Dubisar’s plight. He is taking the steps, along with his wife, to recovery.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be fully healed,” he said.

But by getting help and admitting he has a disorder, Dubisar said he believes he can live a functional life post-war.