Soldiers Share Experiences
January 12, 2014 6:00 am • By Brian Gehring
Stephen Herda didn’t think anything had changed, much less himself.
Even after he was wounded in a rocket attack in Iraq in 2007, Herda said, he considered himself to be the same man when he returned home to Mandan.
Others noticed a change.
“I’m pretty much an open book, if you want to read it,” Herda said.
Herda, a lieutenant colonel with the North Dakota National Guard, is one of the U.S. military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
A study by the Congressional Research Service, the Veterans Administration and the U.S. Surgeon General estimates that at least 20 percent of the 2.3 million American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have PTSD and/or depression.
The study did not include the 2.6 million veterans who went to war in Vietnam.
Dr. Kirby Schmidtgall, director of phycological services for the North Dakota National Guard, said symptoms of PTSD are numerous and varied. PTSD is a heightened crisis response that becomes a problem after the crisis is gone, he said.
PTSD symptoms don’t always start soon after the traumatic event. They may surface months or even years later. They also may come and go over the course of many years.
Schmidtgall said professional help should be sought if symptoms last longer than a month, cause great distress, or interfere with work or home life.
Sgt. 1st Class Tim Wicks of Bismarck was critically wounded by a roadside bomb in 2006 in Afghanistan. The attack killed two North Dakota soldiers under his command, Sgt. Travis Van Zoest and Cpl. Curtis Mehrer, both of Bismarck.
Another soldier in Wicks’ unit, Nathan Good Iron, was killed in a separate attack.
Wicks spent 17 days in a coma with a traumatic brain injury from the blast that shattered his legs, broke his pelvis in two places and fractured several vertebrae. He said some soldiers fear that seeking help for PTSD or other issues could affect their careers.
“Perception is reality,” he said.
In his case, Wicks said, he knew something had to change.
“I buried three soldiers that year,” he said.
He felt “numbness,” a feeling like he was “just going through the motions.”
Wicks said he sought help at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Fargo.
“I knew I needed to fix things inside,” he said.
Herda said the stigma surrounding PTSD has diminished as more is learned about the disorder.
Still, he said, it’s often difficult for soldiers to ask for help.
“As a soldier, you’re trained to take care of things,” Herda said.
Herda said he was in physical training “inside the wire” when a 240-mm rocket struck, hitting his left side with shrapnel. He spent nearly a month in hospitals in Europe before rehabbing for 5½ months at Fort Carson, Colo.
He said his injuries left him unable to shoot at a level of proficiency he wanted, but teaching others has helped him regain his passion for shooting. He is now an instructor for the Guard’s shooting team — one of those things he loved. North Dakota Guard members historically have done very well in competitions with other units from across the country.
After returning to duty, Herda said, he had a hard time leaving his office most days, preferring to keep to himself.
After coming back from the shooting range, he found a 9-mm round in his pocket, a leftover from the range. He set the bullet on his desk.
A co-worker asked him about it one day. Herda told the co-worker bullets were only good for one of two things — homicide or suicide.
“I’ve always had kind of a dark sense of humor,” Herda said. He recalls telling the co-worker the fact he was still here was likely a good sign.
“I made a joke about it,” he said.
Later, Herda said he placed another round on his desk after a trip to the range.
When the same co-worker asked about the second bullet, Herda told him he might miss — again joking.
Word spread, Herda said, and his commander came in and said, “Tell me about these bullets on your desk.”
He said once the conversation started, he began to realize that while he didn’t see any changes in himself, others had taken notice.
Once he began counseling, Herda said he began to notice the changes, himself.
“I couldn’t believe how much better I felt,” he said.
Brig. Gen. David Anderson said the Guard has taken a more proactive approach in recent years to help veterans deal with PTSD and other issues.
He said the No. 1 priority is to take care of all service members.
With the support of state government, he said, services were expanded. There were regional family assistance centers and service member and family support locations in the state, and the Guard opened its first centralized service center in Bismarck in 2009.
A second military service center opened in Fargo in December 2011.
“The best way to do that (help veterans) was to consolidate things,” Anderson said.
There has been more of a focus to let soldiers know it’s OK to seek help, he said.
“We try as commanders to let them know it’s not a sign of weakness,” Anderson said.
One thing that has changed for soldiers during the course of the war is that demobilization time has increased.
Units returning to the U.S. spend a couple of weeks at a base before being sent home.
Wicks said that’s a difference from Vietnam and the early years of the war in the Middle East.
“Back then it was get on a plane and 18 hours later you’re home,” he said.
He said during World War II, for instance, soldiers spent a month together on a boat returning home. It allowed them to share experiences and bond as battle buddies before returning to their homes and families.
Chaplain David Johnson said as more has been learned about PTSD, more emphasis has been put on maintaining those bonds with fellow soldiers.
Johnson said prior to 10 years ago, the National Guard didn’t have full-time chaplains or counselors. Now, chaplains deploy with the troops.
While some soldiers do connect with the chaplain, others prefer to reach out to their own pastors or with family members, he said.
“It’s important they keep those connections,” Johnson said.
Wicks said today, he feels at ease walking into to a clinic or simply picking up the phone to talk.
It has helped, he said.
“It gets better ... it doesn’t necessarily go away,” he said.
“People still ask how different my life is now. I tell them it’s still my life ... plus and minus a few things.”
He wants others to know that it’s a life worth living.
“The people I have served with ... bar none, are the finest anywhere,” he said.
Yet he knows there are guys “who will walk into gunfire, but won’t walk into an office to get help.”
And he wants them to know: “It gets better.”