Veterans old and new face similar battles

by Clay Neely

Editor’s note: This is part of a special focus this week on depression and suicide and how Cowetans can get help.

For many soldiers, a return to their native soil does not necessarily indicate the end of their journey. While their missions may be over, their own personal wars can continue to rage for years, and for many, unnoticed.

Jamie Harkins and Fred Keene are two veterans who suffer from PTSD. While their tours were 40 years apart, their experiences and stories are startlingly similar.

Sitting across the table from each other in a Starbucks, their recollections of vivid nightmares, shattered relationships and a slew of prejudices they have faced since their return are seemingly interwoven.

After completing five tours as a Marine scout sniper, Harkins returned home from the Middle East in 2013. During his tenure, Harkins was involved in three traumatic episodes derived from IEDs (improvised explosive devices). One roadside attack left his best friend mortally wounded, who eventually died in Harkins’ arms.

After being medically retired following an injury from an IED, Harkins returned home, and while the threat of death no longer loomed around every corner, it never registered with him. An ex-sniper, he was forced to endure the mental fallout of “doing things I didn’t want to do.”

Life at home upon his return was a nonstop barrage of rage, paranoia and insomnia. Harkins’ quality of life was non-existent.

“It was non-stop adrenaline – the feeling that I always had to be 110 percent at all times,” Harkins recalled. “Checking the locks on all the doors, the nightmares – living with the feeling that something terrible was imminent. Eventually, I gave up.”

One night, Harkins called his staff sergeant to inform him that he intended to commit suicide.

“He told me to stay put and that he was on his way,” Harkins said. “But he never showed up.”

Since returning home, Harkins hasn’t kept in touch with the rest of his squad on a regular basis – citing the emotional strain it puts on him.

“Every single one of us went through a divorce. Every single one,” Harkins said. “I lost my best friend in battle and another hung himself in his locker. They’re all undergoing similar circumstances. I try to offer encouragement but they’re facing their own battles.”

Fred Keene left the army in 1972. Upon his return from Vietnam, he faced an indifferent and sometimes hostile reception. He recalled a number of people cursing and spitting on him – one of the many memories he’s attempted to suppress over the years.

“I never knew what PTSD was when I left the Army,” Keene said. “All the horrible experiences and memories – I would dig graves for them in my mind in order to camouflage them. It was the only way I knew how to get on with my life.”

Over the years, Keene managed to suppress the memories which haunted him but it was only a matter of time before they came back “with a vengeance.”

“I couldn’t think of anything good,” he said. “The demons ran wild and it was a helpless feeling. I found myself at the end of my rope.”

Through the “Healing 4 Heroes” program, both Keene and Harkins ultimately found their lifeline in the form of a service dog. Healing 4 Heroes is a nonprofit group based in Peachtree City whose mission is to train and place psychiatric service dogs to veterans with PTSD. The synergy built between both dog and soldier creates a special bond that restores a quality of life that may have been long forgotten.

“I wouldn’t be here talking to you right now if it wasn’t for Panda,” Harkins said. “In fact, I wouldn’t be here at all. Panda saved my life.”

Panda has proven to be an indispensable part of Harkins’ life, waking him from nightmares, reminding him when to take medicine, scouting the house, and providing unconditional love and support.

“This dog is my best friend and has made my life worth participating in,” Harkins said.

Personal demons aside, Harkins and Keene both attest to the fact that ignorance regarding their condition is only rivaled by the denial of the VA to address the issues of PTSD and depression.

“It’s a losing battle attempting to get help from the VA,” said Harkins, who has subsequently abandoned the idea of the armed services providing any kind of support. He now frequents private practice doctors and therapists.

“I placed a call to the VA about a year ago and they just recently returned my call,” Harkins said.

While Keene will call on the VA for items such as hearing aids and eyeglasses, he, too, has found the most support from private practice doctors.

However, one of the biggest hurdles these two men have faced since their return is ignorance. From the acknowledgement of their condition to the use of their new service dogs, they find themselves constantly defending their condition and their four-legged friends.

From skeptical citizens to angry store owners, the two men find themselves engaging in debates they’d rather not have.

From a convenience store clerk who said Harkins’ didn’t need a dog because he “wasn’t blind” to the grocery store manager who insisted that Keene’s dog would create a medical hazard inside his store, the two men are confronted with ignorance on a regular basis.

While Keene has found help through his dog, Zeke, he still carries little faith in people as a whole.

“Since returning home from Vietnam, my faith in people slowly evaporated,” he said. “When I encounter people who are hostile toward my dog, it feels like we’re both fighting for our right to be heard and exist.”

Harkins agreed, citing that the misconception that a large safety net exists for veterans is a lie.

“It’s either people telling me that the service dog won’t work or that PTSD isn’t a ‘real’ condition,” said Harkins. “It’s a neverending battle.”

For these two veterans, the service dogs have restored their lives to a manageable level, but their advice for those suffering from PTSD is dire.

“Once you’re done with your service, the military wants you swept under a rug,” Harkins said.

The best advice Harkins has for anyone who is suffering from PTSD is simple: “Find help.”

“Help is not going to come looking for you,” he added.

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