It has been almost one full year since I first came to grips with my PTSD and started to realize it for what it is. It has been almost an entire year of learning more about myself, my family, and my fellow veterans. This last year has been one of the most formative years of my life I feel.
With the VA claims backlog slowing down the claims process for veterans, I resigned to a few facts last year.
- It would be well over 365 days before my benefits claim was reviewed.
- It would be closer to two years before I was able to start working with a service dog for PTSD.
I was okay with this, too. I knew there were plenty of other veterans who needed help much more than I did. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down and thousands of troops coming home from deployments, the VA system had been slammed hard with benefits claims, veterans in need of care, and so much more.
Somehow, all my expectations were turned around. To start, less than six months after seeing what dogs could do for veterans and talking with my psychiatrist and counselor about them, I was able to start working with Hearts of Gold, a non-profit in Morgantown, WV that trains and places service dogs in conjunction with WVU and their animal and veterinary courses. After talking with the instructor for one of the courses, I was told they had just started working with NIOSH in a research project called the ROVER project working on studying the benefits of service dogs with veterans as they reintegrate back into the workplace. I met a six-month old Golden Retriever named Baxter, and the rest is history. He is now over a year old and still has one more year of training, but he is doing amazing. You can see some more of Baxter here.
Next, I kept a close eye on the progress the VA was making with the claims backlog. Slowly but surely they were making a dent in it, even requiring the claims handlers to work a mandatory 20 hours of overtime each week. Then the government shutdown happened, and like many veterans, I lost a bit of the hope I had gained in the process. Every few months I have been receiving a letter in the mail that said the VA would contact me to review my claim; with the shutdown, I just expected to receive those letters a few extra months down the road.
Highly unexpected, I received a call from a Clarksburg, WV number on a random Thursday morning during the government shutdown. Because I knew that is where the VA hospital is located where I would go for my evaluations for my claim, I answered it. Sure enough, it was the VA hospital. They asked if I could make an appointment that very day in less than four hours to do the evaluations for my benefits claim. I didn’t ask any questions or even think twice about it. The government was shut down, I’d been waiting almost a full year for this, and there was no telling how long the VA would continue to operate during the shutdown. I had fully expected to receive a letter in the mail informing me of my evaluation appointments but jumped at this chance.
During my physical evaluation I was evaluated for my both my knees, my back pain, and my ongoing headaches. To my surprise (and benefit) I had actually been honest with the doctor in 2007 after I got out of the Army. Because I had mentioned my ailments then, it is a clear connection for the people reviewing my claim that it is service-connected. During my deployment, I had started having severe headaches, knee pain, and back pain. My psychological evaluation went well, too. I’ve learned one big thing this last year regarding PTSD.
You are your biggest advocate. Nobody can help you if you don’t tell them what’s hurting you.
Because I’ve come to realize honesty is so important in these situations, I was able to share with the doctor what life has been like since getting out of the Army after my deployment to Baghdad. I shared things I wouldn’t normally share, but again, sucking it up and pushing on won’t enable anyone to help me. I walked into those appointments worried it would be a “my word against the Army’s word” scenario, or that I would have to somehow prove beyond reasonable doubt that I was in fact having headaches (often debilitating) and could hardly bend over or squat without a good amount of pain. Or the doctor would think I was making up my anger issues or disconnectedness from others. I’ve become great at putting on a facade, as many veterans are. That facade will always prevent you from getting through things, though.
Like other wounds, PTSD can heal, but only if it is treated.