The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Foundation of America has branched out to Huntsville by hosting weekly support group meetings at the Veterans Memorial Museum on Wednesdays at 7 p.m.
David DeKerlegand, who served in the U.S. Army for 21 years, is the veterans’ coordinator for Camp Hope, a 90-day program in Houston that helps assimilate combat veterans with PTSD back into society. Dekerlegand was one of the main coordinators in bringing the PTSD Foundation of America up north to the Huntsville area.
“We want to help combat veterans find their new norm and help integrate them back into civilian society,” Dekerlegand said. “During an outreach, we noticed that there was no one in this area [to help with PTSD] so we networked with the university, the museum and Jeffrey Clark to organize a group.”
PTSD is more than just an acronym. To museum volunteer, retired law enforcement officer, and U.S. Army veteran Jeffrey Clark, PTSD is life.
“When you say you have PTSD, you’re immediately labeled as crazy, truth be told,” Clark said. “However, we’re not the crazy ones. You all out there in the real world are the crazy ones.”
Clark served eight years during the 1980s and 1990s as well as an additional 17 years in law enforcement as a border patrol officer. According to Clark, over time humans have lost many of their primal instincts. However, as a soldier in combat, some instincts are renewed.
“The reawakening to the primal instinct of survival occurs during combat and then you put the combat veterans back into a fantasy world where everyone only has one primal instinct—where they see that everything’s rainbows and butterflies and nothing bad is ever going to happen to them,” Clark said. “I’m constantly identifying potential threats because I live with a heightened sense of awareness. Combat veterans live in a more realistic world where there are dangers around every corner, so there’s a compatibility issue.”
The PTSD support group in Huntsville hosted its first meeting on Jan. 15. Both Dekerlegand and Clark are members of a support group located in The Woodlands where, according to the two veterans, having combat veterans facilitate the meetings to help other combat veterans is vital.
About 30 percent of men and women who have spent time in war zones experience PTSD, according to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
Clark said there are currently 800 registered veterans at Sam Houston State University. Although at their very first meeting they only had one attendee, Dekerlegand said in about eight months he hopes their group will build up to reach maximum capacity between 40 and 50 regulars.
“Everybody in that room, even though we may not know each other or be complete strangers, has a bond that instills a level of comfort where he might tell me something that he won’t tell his wife because she can’t understand what he did in Afghanistan whereas I can,” Clark said. “There’s a certain level of comfort among strangers if they’ve experienced the same things.”
There are different severities of PTSD, according to the VA’s National Center for PTSD.
Clark’s own particular case includes symptoms of intense nightmares accompanied by sleep walking, he said.
“When I got back home, after two weeks of throwing my now ex-wife around in my nightmare-state of sleep walking – because I thought she was one of my soldiers and she needed to take cover so I’d throw her off the bed because she needed to take cover – it got to the point where when it came bedtime, she had to lock me in the living room because I couldn’t sleep in the same room as her and that’s where I slept for about 10 months,” Clark said.
In another instance, Clark was found in a hotel lobby screaming at a private who didn’t exist.
Clark said another symptom for him is uncontrollable emotions.
“Today I could be at home watching TV and a laundry detergent commercial can come on and I’ll start crying like a baby. There’s nothing I can do about it,” he said. “I used to think just ‘man up, it can’t be that bad,’ but you can’t control it and you have to learn to deal with it. … I spent four days in Saudi Arabia in the 90s during Desert Storm. The conscious me thinks that was nothing—I shouldn’t feel the way that I do because I only went on four missions— but the four missions I went on were fairly traumatic.”
Clark said he hopes the combat veterans at SHSU and in the Huntsville area will take advantage of this opportunity he and Dekerlegand are offering so that they may be able to avoid going through what they did.
“I’m 46 years old and some of those kids at the school are in their young twenties,” he said. “I don’t want them to have to go through those 22 to 23 years of suffering that I’ve gone through. Unfortunately PTSD is kind of like your salvation—it’s a never-ending process because once it’s there it never goes away, but that doesn’t mean that it has to consume you.”
According to Clark, although PTSD may not be completely curable, it can be helped as long as a person is willing to try.
“You’re hurting yourself because the rest of the world is going to continue to spin and everything else is going to continue to go on—you’re just not going to be a part of it,” Clark said. “You’re cheating yourself and you’re hurting yourself by not getting out. You’re not hurting those people over there, you’re hurting yourself. So let’s get you help and let’s get you fixed so that you can enjoy life along with everybody else.”