" null "
FORT KNOX, KY – Pity the fool who mistreats Janet Swanson if these four guys ever catch him.

They learned more than anyone should have to know about death while soldiers in Iraq. They credit her with saving their lives. Their sense of gratitude is fierce.

They know very well that war is hell – but peace can be worse.

They are Luke Abbott and his pals Jeff, Chad and Mike. They came to her when their internal wiring was blown loose. They were prone to flare into lethal attack mode. Without warning they made soaring, searing plunges over the edge to violence, bottomless depression and gory fantasy.

She reeled them in.

Out of respect for their privacy we’ll not list most of their last names, except for Abbott’s. He is the kind of guy who stands up for his beliefs, and he believes that more people need to understand more about what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is doing to America’s soldiers. He was introduced to Sentinel readers last June shortly after he earned the first of his two Purple Hearts in Mosul as an Indiana National Guardsman. He plans to become a preacher. It is a family tradition.

Ms. Swanson conducts daily group therapy sessions with the walking wounded spit out by the Iraq war. She recently drove from Louisville to the edge of this sprawling army base to dine with four of her charges. They couldn’t say enough good things about her.

When one said, “She puts us on the hot seat and we’re very grateful for her,” she demurred: “That’s very funny. Because from my perspective, the way I see it is that it’s not so much that I push them, but they’ll start talking about things without me interrupting a lot of the time. I think sometimes I push them there and sometimes I think that they would go there anyway.”

She figures her delicate appearance is an asset in her line of work. She says she is “non-threatening.” They say “dynamite comes in small packages.”

Swanson, 26, has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Wisconsin and a master’s from Colorado State University. In a few weeks she will move to Colorado to be with her boyfriend. Our four new friends are a little worried about what their lives might become without her.

Swanson says Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is “an anxiety disorder that occurs in people who have gone through more than the brain can absorb.”

She speculates that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs survey finding that PTSD afflicts 18 percent of American soldiers returning from Iraq might be an understatement. “That seems like a low number,” she said. “It might be closer to 30 percent.” The VA determined that about 31 percent of Vietnam vets suffered from PTSD.

Loud noises, any number of smells, or sometimes nothing at all can trigger what PTSD experts call “hyper-vigilance.” That is to say it instantaneously makes folks as jumpy as a cat burglar on methamphetamines. What you and I might see as a hassle, they see as a matter of life and death, a sluice gate of mortal rage.

It can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Soldiers with PTSD are often loathe to visit restaurants because of the noise and congestion. If they do sit down to eat, it will almost always be with their back to the wall, so they can see what’s coming. Loud noises spook them. Patronizing waiters risk losing their teeth, or worse. Rude drivers are especially at risk. Sometimes even the most understanding spouses are, too.

During our session, a waitress filled up a birthday balloon from a noisy helium machine behind our table. When the valve shrieked, Abbott jumped like he had bumped into an electric fence. She warned him the next time.

Says Swanson: “They act like they are back in Iraq. They aren’t connected.”

Something to avoid when with an afflicted warrior: Asking, did you kill anyone in Iraq? “None of them like to be asked that,” Swanson says. “They resent being asked about it. For these guys it is a very sensitive issue.” Not only is it an unpleasant memory, they detest the presumption that strangers have the right to ask them about such things.

She hasn’t noticed much difference between afflicted members of the National Guard and the regular Army. “In some ways they might be more prepared (than the Guard) for the task, but not necessarily for the result,” she said.

Why group therapy? “Other vets can really relate to that person better than a family or a civilian,” she said. Veterans are less intrusive because they understand each other. She says it is a matter of ‘I understand because I was there.’ That’s the hook.”

She believes the retelling of experiences helps “process” the memories “and make sense of them. With retelling, the experiences become less emotionally-charged, less powerful.”

Writing also helps. Periodically, she has her subjects put pen to paper.

Sometimes symptoms don’t get really bad for a year or more. Then they gush in, seemingly out of nowhere.

Treating this condition is expensive. At Swanson’s hospital the rate for such therapy is $125 a day. She meets with Luke Abbott’s group five days a week. A month of medication for one of these men might cost as much as $1,500. The military is covering Abbott’s costs – for now.

What are the odds of curing any given PTSD patient? “That depends on how you define success,” she says. “If you define it as progress, at least 90 percent. Almost everyone leaves the program saying they made progress. That said, it’s not over. There are months or years to go.”

How long? “We don’t know. We’re just kind of guessing at this point.”

She is concerned that “eventually with so many soldiers returning and needing mental health treatment, the fund of money might not be there.” But she perceives an improvement in the military’s approach to the problem. “I do think the Army is getting better (at treating PSTD). The policies have changed.”

Many attitudes have not changed. Soldiers are reluctant to begin therapy. They see it as a weakness. “Many of these guys will have to deal with individuals who will not believe that PSTD is a real thing,” she said. “Many of these guys will find it a lot more difficult to advance in their career.”

Also, “They likely will not want to, or will not be as capable of, returning to combat a second or third time. And our military right now really needs people who are deployable,” Swanson says.

“Some are angry. Others have to grieve the loss of the career and some are just so relieved at having the opportunity to get out of the Army – but that might not last.”

How does she handle it all? “I just try to think of it as when I’m in it during the day I give 100 percent to them and when I’m not with them I give 100 percent to myself.” She works out a lot. Says Swanson: “I need to be a whole and healthy person.”

Note: As a turret gunner Abbott protected Sentinel Editor W.S. Wilson when Wilson was an embedded reporter in Mosul, Iraq, last summer.