By Sydney Purpora
It was May 2005 and David Carlson, who was about 21 years old at the time, had been in the U.S. Army National Guard for a little under a year.
After searching for HVTs for hours in 100 degree weather on foreign ground and finding nothing of interest, Carlson and his dismounted operation unit began marching back to their Bradley fighting vehicle.
Out of the silence, Carlson heard a three-round burst of automatic gun fire. He assumed it was negligent discharge, accidental firing by one of his “battle buddies,” and turned around to see who it was. It wasn’t one of his battle buddies.
Standing in the middle of the road behind their formation they saw an Iraqi with an RPK machine gun firing on their unit.
“I realized at that time I had never been on that side of automatic gunfire before,” Carlson said. “It’s different being
behind the gun versus being on the other side of the gun.”
Serving in the U.S. Army National Guard for nearly seven years and going on two tours in Iraq had Carlson constantly in the line of fire. Years after his service, Carlson is recalling these experiences.
Veterans around the nation like Carlson are struggling with symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), reliving vivid memories from their service. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, about “18.5 percent of service members returning from Iraq or Afghanistan have PTSD or depression.”
The administration reported veterans self-medicate with alcohol or other drugs in an attempt to cope with these symptoms.
Addiction within the veteran community is an ongoing issue often linked with mental health disorders. The Chippewa Valley is working to help the problem in the area by providing services specialized through the Chippewa Valley Veterans Treatment Court and Eau Claire Veterans Services (VA).
Veteran addiction and mental health disorders
The U.S. Census’ 2016 American Community Survey reported 5,899 veterans living in Eau Claire County, making up 7.3 percent of the total population in the area.
Before improvements to available services for former soldiers, those who were having trouble adjusting to life outside the military were sent to military provided warrior transition units.
These military units, are designed to provide wounded, ill and physically and mentally injured soldiers with treatment.
After Carlson’s second tour in Iraq, he was sent to the closest transition unit in Fort Knox, Kentucky. He described the facility as a civilian rehabilitation center.
“It had nothing to do with any kind of military oriented, PTSD combat oriented, problems with adjustment, anything like that,” Carlson said. “It was just civilians in a drug treatment program that were mainly on hard-core drugs and then a couple soldiers that were put in there.”
Only a few days into his time at the center, Carlson was approved for early completion and left after 21 days. After that, Carlson said he avoided a diagnosis of PTSD because he knew there weren’t adequate resources available to help. This is when his alcoholism became worse.
Carlson began using alcohol as a way to “numb those feelings” he had as a result of PTSD. This is something Tim Moore, the Veterans Service (VA) director for Eau Claire County, said many veterans do when they are suffering with a mental health disorder.
Since Jan. 1, 2017, Moore said 145 out of 630 veterans in the area have a known alcohol and other drug abuse (AODA) issues .
“The self-medication is huge.” Moore said. “Veterans are, instead of going to the VA,or not knowing how even, they’re turning to a bottle and to an illicit drug and it really exacerbates the issues.”
A group of researchers surveyed 596 veterans from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines regarding their mental and physical health as well as AODA issues.
The study revealed 13.9 percent of the veterans tested positive for possible PTSD. Additionally, 39 percent tested positive for possible alcohol abuse and three percent for possible drug abuse.
Criminal justice assistance
In response to the issue of veteran addiction, the Chippewa Valley Veterans Treatment Court opened in 2011 and was reorganized in 2015 to help veterans who are in the criminal justice system get the proper care.
Janet Weix, both the Mental Health Court coordinator for Eau Claire and the Veterans Treatment Court coordinator for Chippewa County, said the program allows veterans to get the treatment they need.
“We really look at all the individuals and see what needs they have and then how do we address them,” Weix said. “Because we know if we don’t meet those needs, if we don’t help with that, if we don’t correct that thinking, people will relapse. People will go back to criminal behavior. And if they do that during the program, they then are facing jail time, prison time, that kind of thing.”
The diversionary program runs about 13 months, involving cognitive behavioral programs, alcohol and drug abuse counseling, one-on-one counseling sessions and weekly check-ins with Weix and the court.
Any veteran can get into the court through a self referral or referral from anyone involved in their case or related to them. Then once every other week, the triage team for the court gets together and evaluates the referrals to see whether they should move on through the court.
When veterans come into Veterans Treatment Court, Weix said they typically do not have any prior connections to the services in the community. Consequently, a lot of what the veterans court does is get them those connections and make sure they have housing, health insurance, possible employment and what they need “to be successful.”
Every other Thursday, participants have a formal court hearing where they share their progress with a judge. Weix said participants are also encouraged to get involved with other “pro-social activities” outside of the programs requirements.
To graduate, the veteran has to complete the required classes, randomized drug tests and treatment. To recognize their hard work through the program, family and friends are invited to a graduation ceremony in the courtroom to celebrate.
“So once they have completed all of the hoops we have them jump through, we have a graduation party,” Weix said. “The judge presides over that. He comes down off the bench, shakes hands, hands them a certificate and they get a coin for graduation.”
Weix said the veterans court process is meant to be a positive and encouraging one that allows participating adults to work at their struggles in the proper setting with the right help.
Carlson started Veterans Treatment Court Dec. 30, 2015 and graduated June 29, 2017. His time in the court gave him the chance to work on himself.
“Up until veteran’s court I was basically at odds with all authority in the United States,” Carlson said. “So my period of incarceration was very, was very rough. Getting released, I still looked at authorities with a lot of suspicion and I held a lot back from them, just in case I needed to use something against them. Whereas with veterans court, I saw people that genuinely wanted to help. And so bit by bit, over that 18-month period I opened myself up to them and it’s paid off.”
In addition to the court system, the Eau Claire VA works to “provide superior services and advocacy for Eau Claire County veterans and their families.” ?
Moore said within the past five to 10 years the Department of Defense and the VA have recognized their lack of resources within past treatment programs and are now shifting to better meet the needs of veterans.
Moore is also a member of the the county Veterans Treatment Court panel which means he advocates for Eau Claire veterans who go through the city’s court system. The Eau Claire VA provides services not only to veterans working with or possibly going through veterans court in the future, but also any veteran in the area who is in need of help.
Moore said most of the work the VA does involves service disability claims. The term “disabled veteran” is a legal term. A VA service connected disability refers to a veteran who was injured during or after their service, who filed a claim to receive monthly compensation as well as healthcare benefits.
Although there are many veterans who file a disability claim for physical injuries, Moore said the claims also cover mental health issues.
Veterans suffering from mental health issues are going through something specific to them and their experience in the service, which is why Moore said it is important for them to connect with services like the VA to get them the proper treatment.
“Let’s say someone hurts their knee in the service,” Moore said. “Well, you can also hurt your mind, too.”
As far as services that are available at the Eau Claire VA center, Moore said they are limited. Chippewa Falls has an outpatient clinic where they provide psychiatric management and medication-assisted treatment. The area also has individual therapy and coping skills groups.
But if a veteran needs more extensive care, they get a ride to St. Cloud, Minnesota — which has a branch of the Minneapolis VA — through the free Drive a Van (DAV) program. The veteran is also set up with an appointment at the St. Cloud facility and can then be admitted to its inpatient facility if needed.
David Holewinski is the veterans justice outreach (VJO) specialist for the Minneapolis VA location. The VJO program started as a prevention wing in conjunction with the VA’s initiative to end crime and homelessness in the veteran population.
Covering a total of 51 counties, Holewinski is a mental health provider focusing on veterans involved in the justice system for the VJO program. His job includes making diagnoses, treatment assessment and recommendations and he runs case management for those going through the judicial system, such as veteran’s court, or the VA.
Holewinski works with both systems to perform chemical health assessments on identified veterans and based on those results he makes a recommendation on the level of care needed. Veterans who come though his office, he said, often times have a primary and secondary diagnosis.
“It’s not uncommon for a lot of the vets that I’m working with where PTSD is their primary diagnosis and they might be using marijuana or alcohol as a coping mechanism for sleep or pain or nightmares or other areas,” Holewinski said.
Most of the time, Moore said, veterans use alcohol as a coping mechanism because they were able to use it during the service as well. For Carlson, alcohol was “the easiest” to obtain and it was something he used a lot in college.
“I didn’t drink much during service,” Carlson said. “It might have just been because … my alcoholism was starting to get away with me my freshman year so maybe that’s why it was just an easy thing to turn to.”
Although Carlson still suffers from PTSD, he has overcome an alcohol dependency and is using his experience to educate others on the subject.
Spreading his knowledge about crisis intervention, Carlson who is also a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire English student, speaks at a variety of correctional facilities or for criminal justice programs. Recently, he spoke to the veteran’s wing for the Department of Corrections at the Oshkosh prison regarding a new program initiating treatment over punishment.
During these presentations, he gives perspectives on veterans getting home from Iraq and Afghanistan who may come in contact with law enforcement.
Carlson earned an honorable discharge because of the work he did and the effort he put into his tours. Receiving the honorable rating helped him get the treatment he needed through the veteran’s court.
While not all veterans receive an honorable discharge, Carlson stressed the importance of these resources regardless of the nature of their discharge because “a lot of good soldiers are coming home and will need them.”
“So this is an instance where our country is in a very kind of an unstable position right now. Very divided,” Carlson said. “And after 16 years of war, this is a situation where veterans could really do a lot a lot of good. But there’s got to be resources for them to make it to that point where they are strong enough to contribute.”