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What discourages veterans from seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress? As part of our series War on the Brain, special correspondent Soledad O’Brien talks to former service members who have struggled to accept the diagnosis and get help.
Now to our special three-night look at the efforts to treat, diagnose and possibly find a cure to post-traumatic stress disorder.
One in five U.S. military personnel serving in combat will suffer some form of PTSD. But it often goes untreated because of the stigma associated with the disorder.
Tonight, special correspondent Soledad O'Brien begins our series, War on the Brain.
Almost every day, at some point, I would relive the IED attack.
It was like I couldn't turn my mind off, like I was being flooded, like a cyber-attack, reliving that explosion like a broken record. It just kept playing, and I couldn't stop it.
COL. GREG GADSON (RET.), U.S. Army: I remember I was driving, and I opened my window, and I turned my radio up, and I got it to stop. It was like it left an imprint on me, and I didn't even know where it came from.
Army Colonel Greg Gadson was blown out of his passenger's seat by a roadside bomb. He was in Baghdad 2007. His physical injuries were so severe, doctors assumed he would suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. But he was too embarrassed to accept it.
Why did you find it so hard to really believe that you had post-traumatic stress?
COL. GREG GADSON:
It wasn't something that I could identify with. You know, as an athlete, as a — as an officer, as a leader, we're trained to override pain, to override doubt.
Both his legs were amputated above the knee. He had permanent nerve damage, limited function in his right arm. Gadson underwent 22 surgeries. He was in rehab for 18 months. His abilities greatly diminished from his college glory days.
Trying to get off the pass, and down he will go. Great defense by Greg Gadson, number 98 of Chesapeake, Virginia.
Gadson played football at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Co-captain and outside linebacker, powering through was in his DNA.
Greg Gadson right here, he's got terrific football instincts.
You're a football player. You're a leader. I mean, you're all these sort of almost stereotypes, right, of like the tough guy in all capital letters.
Right. And you can say macho if you want to say that.
Yes, OK, I will say macho.
I mean, how much did your reluctance to get help was that this macho stereotype was kind of going to stand in the way of that?
Probably 100 percent of it.
I mean, every tough challenge in my life, I fought through. And that's what I — and so I was committed to fighting through it again, and without help.
I was very surprised that of the one in five people who get diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, like, half of them don't get treatment.
A massive number just do what you did.
Stigma surrounding post-traumatic stress disorder sometimes discourages vets from seeking treatment.
Good boy. Good.
The VA's chief mental health consultant is Dr. Harold Kudler
DR. HAROLD KUDLER, Chief Consultant for Mental Health Services, Department of Veterans Affairs: The most important thing to remove the stigma from PTSD is for people to talk about it, but, in talking about it, not fall into the stereotypes.
For people who have PTSD, they're at risk for depression, for substance abuse. They're at high risk for suicide, largely because of the nature of PTSD, to think about the world and yourself in negative terms, and this idea that nothing could ever go right.
To get to the heart of how stigma hinders treatment, we assembled a panel of veterans who struggle with PTSD, with assistance from the Military Service Initiative of the Bush Institute. They help reintegrate returning veterans.
Do you think being visibly wounded made it easier to have post-traumatic stress?
SGT. DEWITT OSBORNE (RET.), U.S. Army: Definitely.
DREW BARNETT (RET.), Former U.S. Navy SEAL: Absolutely.
Army Sergeant DeWitt Osborne received the Purple Heart for service in Iraq.
SGT. DEWITT OSBORNE:
I think it's more acceptable when you have visible wounds.
It would make sense to us.
It makes sense, all right? Ours is hidden. Doesn't mean we don't suffer as much, but it's hidden.
Kevin Rosenblum served five years in the U.S. army as an infantry officer.
CAPT. KEVIN ROSENBLUM (RET.), U.S. Army: As an officer, as a leader, the pressure , both internal and external, to be infallible, to be strong at all times, and never show weakness was there. And I didn't want to let my soldiers down.
In his first deployment to Iraq, his unit came under fire. He received treatment for the shrapnel in his right leg, but not for his post-traumatic stress disorder.
CAPT. KEVIN ROSENBLUM:
I saw a doctor when I got out, as everybody does, and just talked through some things. And he said, yes, I think you have post-traumatic stress.
What was your reaction?
I guess I just minimized it in my mind and thought that this is the toll of service in war.
Special Agent Drew Barnett, who served with Navy seals in Afghanistan, refused to believe that he had PTSD.
During my early training in the Navy, one of our instructors said, you know, hey, guys, it's better to die than look stupid. Just make sure you don't do both.
And in thinking about that, I realized that is a lot of the mind-set that we have, is, we don't want to, one, look weak, or we don't want to be someone who is not dependable.
And there is Maya Marshall, part of the 15 percent of service members who are female. She left the Army as a sergeant after five years. Shame, she says, kept her from getting help for her symptoms.
SGT. MAYA MARSHALL (RET.), U.S. Army: It came from combat, yes, but, OK, you have only been to combat one time. You have only been in the service for this long. I felt that they would be like OK, you're a female. Just get your feelings out of it, and just toughen up.
So, you thought maybe you didn't deserve it?
SGT. MAYA MARSHALL:
You hadn't seen enough combat.
You hadn't been in long enough. You're a girl.
Maybe you're …
Maybe my emotions. Maybe it is my emotions. A lot of times, I did say, OK, well, maybe it is my emotions. Maybe I do just need to push those aside and just toughen up and just move forward and drive on.
Photography is Gadson's passion and therapy. He uses the chair more often than his prosthetics, so he can have the freedom to capture his pictures.
You never use the word disorder or the D in disorder. Why not?
Well, D to me is — it's a negative label that doesn't need to be attached.
You know, the face post-traumatic stress are those that wear the uniform, less than 1 percent of our population. And so that word can be associated and labeled with all. We all have some level of post-traumatic stress. Does it make us dysfunctional? For most of us, I would say not.
Gadson pushed back hard against his diagnosis, until his wife intervened.
KIM GADSON, Wife of Col. Greg Gadson: He threw a number of mental health professionals out of his room when he was in Walter Reed.
He kicked them out?
Just kicked them out, or just chewed them up and spit them out like they were nothing.
What do you think has helped him accept a PTS diagnosis and that he actually needs help?
I think the fact that it stays with him. It stays with him. He's gotten treatment. He's working at moving forward on his life. He's doing a lot of great things, but every now and then, there's an episode. There's something he realizes: I can't always control this, so I have to keep working at it.
Gadson's made progress. Despite his injuries, he cycles and occasionally downhill skis. He tours the country making dozens of motivational speeches to soldiers and civilians.
Ladies and gentlemen, please help me welcome Colonel Greg Gadson.
Part of his message: Don't let shame get in the way of getting help.
For veterans, what I want to say is, look, we're always out there for each other, but you have got to take the first step. Display the courage, the courage that in some cases that you have displayed in all your entire military career, to go get help.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Soledad O'Brien in Alexandria, Virginia.
And, tomorrow, our series continues with a look at the challenges of diagnosing PTSD.
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