Still Fighting
Soldiers returning from combat struggle to cope with life away from the battlefield
by Bill Donahue


“It’s like a bad day every day.”


That’s how Jamaica Sunshine Cleary describes it—the aftereffects of the things she saw, felt and endured overseas, while serving the country as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps. In 2004 she put “boots on the ground” in the hotbed of Fallujah, Iraq. Her job was to help in the distribution of supplies to her fellow troops, her convoys often taking fire and running the gauntlet of jerry-rigged explosives set by enemy forces. Although she left Iraq in 2005—she experienced the worst violence of her six months there the night she left, with “fireballs everywhere”—one could say part of her remains there, still caught in the grinding teeth of war.


Cleary suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition first diagnosed in soldiers following the Vietnam War, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Veterans who saw combat in Vietnam were found to have a number of psychological symptoms—recurring intense nightmares, emotional distress, horrifying recollections of traumatic events, etc.—not documented in any other diagnostic category, although the symptoms had been observed in veterans of previous wars, having been described as “shell shock” or “combat fatigue.” The disorder also causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of normal functioning.


It’s not difficult to comprehend the jarring transition a solider must make in returning to “normal life” in the suburbs after time on the battlefield. In addition to coping with the horrors she saw in Iraq, Cleary had a tough time adjusting to life without a weapon, which she’d had as part of her code of dress ever since boot camp. “To not have weapon,” she says, “felt like I was missing something.”


As for her struggle with PTSD, she recalls one incident when she had just moved back to the Philadelphia suburbs. She heard loud, staccato-like bursts—similar to the fire from the muzzle of an automatic weapon—outside her home. She immediately dropped to the floor, thinking enemy combatants with rifles were right at her window. It turns out the noise was just someone lighting off fireworks, but the incident is emblematic of how something innocuous can transport a PTSD sufferer back to some of the worst moments of their lives.


“My PTSD is so severe sometimes that I don’t want to leave the house,” she says. “Most people don’t understand the serious ramifications [of PTSD] unless you have experienced something traumatic. It would be nice if there were more information to inform the public of PTSD. It’s not that I’m comparing it to breast cancer, but people know what that is and are sympathetic. … Imagine having panic attacks or anxiety for prolonged periods of time, every single day. That’s what it can be like.”


Calling in Support

Recently U.S. Senators publicly scolded the director of mental health operations for the nation’s veterans, suggesting the government must hasten the delivery of services to those with PTSD and related afflictions. Faced with a 34 percent spike in the number of veterans who have sought mental-health services since 2006, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs has not kept pace, the senators suggest. Because of this, too many veterans are waiting too long to get help and, as a result, they are succumbing to suicide, drug abuse and other problems, according to Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, head of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.


The United States is already witnessing a record suicide rate among veterans, with as many as 18 veterans killing themselves every day. Although PTSD is most commonly associated with soldiers returning from war, the disorder can affect anyone who has faced events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury or involved intense fear, helplessness or horror, according to the APA. This can include police officers or firefighters, for example, or victims of child abuse. Psychotherapy and medications have both proven helpful to address the symptoms of PTSD, although symptoms can linger for years. Sources suggest there is no definable cure.


Even so, more support appears to be on the way for veterans who suffer from PTSD. More than 1.2 million veterans sought mental health care in 2010, and the number of mental health professionals assigned to veterans ballooned by 48 percent from 2006 to 2010, growing from 14,207 to more than 21,000, Mary Schohn, head of the VA’s mental health operations, recently told a Senate panel. Congress, meanwhile, has earmarked $5.7 billion for veteran mental-health services, an increase of 136 percent since 2006.  


In the meantime, local veterans afflicted with PTSD are finding ways to cope. Cleary, who is a single mother, finds solace in minding her two children and simple tasks.


“I’m constantly trying to distract my mind, telling my brain what to think instead of the other way around,” she says. “I keep telling myself it’s been seven years since I’ve been there [in Iraq],” she says. “You’re constantly telling yourself you’re OK, but having someone to talk to about it is critical. Maybe it’s a therapist or a best friend, but for me it’s my kids.


“There are days when I don’t go anywhere I don’t have to,” she continues. “The kids have been a huge help, because if we need milk I go get milk. I do my best to concentrate on my children; I get them involved in things, like my 4-year-old having soccer on Saturdays. [The kids] are definitely the life saver of the day. I’ll feel much better if I sit with them and color for 10 minutes.”