The growing veteran population in Harker Heights has military, health care and city officials saying there is a huge need for more programs to assist active-duty and retired service members and their families who may be dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I knew there was something wrong, but I didn’t know what,” said Harker Heights resident Dennis Nelson, 59, a retired Army sergeant first class.
Nelson retired from active duty in 1994, and recalls his deployments to Kuwait and Africa in the early 1990s. But while he was on active duty, PTSD wasn’t discussed very much.
He said it wasn’t until he got out of the military that he was diagnosed with PTSD at a VA hospital in North Dakota.
“It brought some relief because I knew there was something wrong and nothing I could do about it,” he said. The retired veteran, who has a 100 percent disability from the VA, has shared his struggles with his wife of 35 years, Helen Nelson.
“It’s very hard to live with a person with PTSD, because they go into a shell,” Helen Nelson said, adding there are times she spends an entire day in tears.
“He can be very friendly one minute and then just snap the next and start yelling and screaming,” she said.
Nelson continuously takes medications and tries to find activities to prevent him from reverting back to his old ways. But Nelson said for years he’s been given the runaround in his attempt to gain proper PTSD care.
“I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle all the time,” he said. “It’s an awful feeling.”
Harker Heights Recreation Center custodian Michael Requenez, 56, faces milder symptoms of PTSD.
“You don’t really realize it until afterward. Now that I’m back, if I hear sounds of a helicopter flying by or vehicle back firing or shooting, then my mind triggers a memory,” he said.
Requenez was a civilian contractor working in food service and laundry in Iraq from 2003 to 2010. Although he wasn’t diagnosed with PTSD when he returned, he said his behavior following the overseas tour affects his family.
He said he is worried about the availability of treatment he plans to seek in the future.
“There’s not enough personnel off hand to handle the amount and number of people who go overseas, which is tremendous,” he said.
Not enough help
Even officials at the Killeen Heights Vet Center, which offers counseling, outreach and referral services to eligible veterans, said they need help to treat those with PTSD.
“We could use more assistance, because it seems our population of veterans in this area is growing compared to even where it was five years ago,” said Robert Gombeski, a team leader at the Killeen Heights Vet Center, which is run by the VA.
Gombeski said the center, on average, has four counselors to assist with approximately 375 active cases, 95 percent of which directly relate to PTSD.
Counselors tailor treatment to each individual, he said. “Every veteran is different — you might have a veteran who doesn’t like crowds, but has to go grocery shopping, then we help them to go late at night or early in the morning when there are less crowds,” he said.
Some of the cases relate to service members who isolate themselves, become easily irritable, have startled reactions to loud noises, trouble sleeping and concentrating or feeling emotional or socially numb.
“There’s a lot of treatments but as of right now we don’t have a cure,” he said.
Harker Heights Mayor Mike Aycock is aware of the shortage of services, but said a variety of churches throughout the community provide counseling services.
“There probably is still a need, and if there is, then we will try to do what we can to fill that void,” he said.