Life after war
After more than a decade of deployments to the Middle East, soldiers are learning to adapt to life away from the war zone. The Steamboat Pilot & Today spotlights some of Routt County's veterans and the difficulties they face in the transition to civilian life.
Steamboat Springs The flurry of activity in Michael Condie’s office earlier this month reveals why it could take decades for communities across the United States to fully realize all of the physical and mental impacts the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had on young veterans.
Routt County’s Veterans Affairs officer said he recently processed the paperwork that will help a few veterans, mostly from the Vietnam era, receive treatment from the VA for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“You don’t know the monsters that everyone has in their heads,” Condie said from his office at the Colorado Workforce Center in Steamboat Springs. “As a soldier, you see things, and you see things you never see in this country.”
He said many of the veterans he is helping served in decades-old conflicts and for years have self-medicated with drugs and alcohol.
Many also don’t seek treatment because of the pride they acquired during combat.
“But pride be damned. You need to take care of yourself,” Condie said in front of a poster of Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer above the words “We owe you.”
He said he has seen very few veterans from the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan seeking treatment of PTSD or other ailments through his office.
Vietnam veteran Bob Mullen also has seen just a few of those younger vets at the PTSD support group he started a few years ago.
“These guys haven’t really felt like they wanted to talk about it yet,” Mullen said.
“It’s a difficult thing to talk about. Having PTSD is admitting that there is something wrong with you.”
But he said combat affects every soldier in some way, and the disorder isn’t something to be ashamed of.
Mullen, who suffered from PTSD as a result of his time in the Marine Corps during Vietnam, plans to further raise awareness of the disorder by climbing 14ers this summer as part of a fundraiser. He trains daily by walking 5 miles with a 50-pound pack on his back.
Recent national news reports show PTSD and other mental disorders in combat soldiers are being diagnosed more rapidly than any physical wounds.
Time magazine reported this week that a new Pentagon assessment revealed traumatic brain injuries and PTSD are “now often referred to as the ‘signature wounds’ of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars.”
For many veterans here, Condie is the first point of contact to access health and other benefits from the VA.
After spotting patriotic license plates on cars driven by veterans, he’s the guy who will leave his business card on a windshield, hoping the gesture results in a phone call.
But his job is a difficult one, and many veterans continue to fly under his radar.
“Convincing vets to come and see me is like pulling teeth,” he said. “When many of them get out of the service, they make a left turn and go on with their lives. It would be nice if they would come because I could hook them up with benefits and compensation.”
Condie’s efforts come as local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts also are struggling to attract young veterans fresh out of the service.
Vietnam-era veteran Jim Stanko said he hopes the trend reverses itself because each generation of veterans has helped to secure benefits and funding for future ones.
These groups specifically have worked hard with state legislators to ensure medical assistance through the VA has improved for local veterans in recent years.
A telehealth center established in Craig in 2007 is proof of that.
The center, which serves about 450 veterans in Northwest Colorado, allows veterans to receive health services remotely without making the 320-mile round trip to the nearest VA hospital in Grand Junction.
“Some people think of it as just a TV, but it’s a lot more than that,” clinic technician Tonya Knez said.
The machine is equipped with otoscopes, stethoscopes and cameras.
“Anything we touch to the patient, the provider on the other side can hear it,” Knez said adding that patients can receive routine physicals from a primary care doctor using the machine.
The telehealth center has expanded its reach in the past six years, and officials hope to attract more veterans from Steamboat Springs.
Knez said it also serves veterans living in Hot Sulphur Springs, Kremmling, Rangely, Meeker and Vernal, Utah.
If remote treatment isn’t an option, Condie’s office provides a shuttle to the VA hospital about once per month.
“I feel like I’m really able to help people here,” Condie said. “It makes my job worthwhile.”
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com