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Portrait of a Survivor Part 2 : Light at the End of the Tunnel

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Coping with the Aftermath of MST

(Writer’s note: All names, except for that of the counselor, have been changed to protect the identity and privacy of the people in this article.)

In an article published in the April 26th issue of this newspaper, we related Terri Smith’s (not her real name) experiences with Military Sexual Trauma while serving in the United States Army. For the full article, go to: https://www.hernandosun.com/2024/04/27/an-account-of-military-sexual-trauma/
This article will relate Terri’s experiences from the time she was discharged from the Army in 2011 to the present day.

Terri received an honorable discharge at the age of 24 and was granted a 70 percent disability. She immediately enrolled in nursing school and earned her Bachelor’s Degree. During this time, Terri got pregnant and had a daughter. After earning her Bachelor’s degree, she went on to earn her Masters and then her Doctorate. “I did all that because I wanted to make a life for myself and my daughter.”

It was also a way for her to cope with her PTSD, basically to bury it. “It kept my brain busy, so I didn’t have to think about my pain and my experiences,” she remarked.

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Terri worked in a hospital and in a wound care clinic. Then, she transitioned into teaching and taught for eight years as a nursing professor. She even taught during Covid, but eventually, she got to a point where, physically and mentally, she couldn’t do it anymore. Terri has been working from home for about a year, doing clinical reviewing for patients who have been denied care and writing appeals for them. “If I couldn’t work from home, I wouldn’t be able to work at all right now. I can’t deal with the public and social interaction.”

Terri has now been deemed 100 percent disabled and wouldn’t have to work at all, but again, she does it because it keeps her mind busy and gives her a sense of purpose.

Like many people who suffer from PTSD, Terri has been suicidal at times and for a long time, she had no support system. Most likely, it was sheer willpower and thoughts of her daughter that kept her from suicide. She still has suicidal thoughts, but she’s able to recognize those thoughts and cope with them. Terri also has a strong support system with her fiancé, John, and his family.

Terri’s been coming to K9 Partners for Patriots (K9P4P) for more than a year. During that time, besides receiving counseling, she was matched with her service dog, Casey. These two things have been an invaluable help for her.

Damian Watson, an Army veteran and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at K9P4P, has worked with Terri and other veterans through individual counseling sessions and group therapy, as well as marital and family counseling. Sometimes, people have a hard time getting through the classes because they’re rigorous, so Watson sits in with them.

“We’re preparing them for when they get out in public. We talk them through these difficult situations and let them know they’re in a safe environment [at the center],” he remarked.

Some of the therapy consists of “de-sensitization,” in which they go back to the traumatic events. The more they are able to talk about their experience, the more they physically and emotionally move away from it. “Initially, when they [the clients] talk or think about the traumatic events, they’re having all those thoughts and feelings they had in those particular moments. To be able to resolve that event, we want to be able to provide them with more control over it.”

What happens often is that if you go to someone, whether it’s your parents or your commanding officer, you hope they’re going to help you, but they don’t. That makes you hesitant to seek help again. “In terms of the counseling, Terri has come a long way. She’s more willing to open up and her interpersonal communication in the home and establishing boundaries has improved,” Watson commented.

One serious complication of PTSD is insomnia. Sometimes, she can’t sleep at night or can’t enter into a deep sleep. She often has nightmares and flashbacks. Casey senses this starting to happen and licks her face before it happens.

“Stress will exacerbate my insomnia. I’ll wake up, freak out and it takes three or four hours to come down from that. It impacts all aspects of my life. I’ll only go to grocery stores if I’m with my fiancé.”

Terri wakes up in extreme chronic pain due to the beatings she received in the combative training class. The pain will be almost unbearable throughout the day. She has had three neck surgeries, back issues and chronic migraines. “I work out three to four days a week and it keeps me from being in more pain and it keeps me off pain medications.”

Before Terri met her fiancé, John, she was depressed and socially isolated. Now she has someone to relate to and vice versa. He’s an Army veteran, has PTSD and is 100 percent disabled. “Sometimes I lash out at John for nothing that’s related to him. He’s understanding and supportive. Having a supportive person is a game changer.”

As with any blended family, challenges can arise. Terri’s daughter and John’s 14-year-old son have conflicts and they have to reassure the children that this behavior is normal.

“We’ve told the kids not to ever play around trying to scare us because we might hit them and not even on purpose. I want my daughter to understand this, but I don’t want her to know what I’ve been through. It’s too much at that age. I’ll tell her when she’s older so that she can be aware of these things and know that she can always come to me for support. When I feel overwhelmed, I step away and ask her to give me some time by myself.”

Participating in activities helps Terri deal with her issues. She has a horse and goes horseback riding. She and John like traveling, fly fishing and hunting. Outdoor activity helps her relax and keeps her focus on something besides her pain.

Terri and John socialize with a group of people, some of whom are veterans and some who suffer from PTSD. She tells them they need to get their benefits and participate in counseling. One of the issues that come up sometimes is suicidal thoughts. Like in the Army, they have “battle buddies” that they can rely on.

“You don’t know at what point anyone is actually going to commit suicide. I tell my friends that if at any point you feel suicidal, you need to call me. I have Baker Acted several people. In helping other people, I’m helping myself. That’s one of the reasons I became a nurse.”

Terri states that she lives in survival mode on a daily basis. “My goal is to live life and be happy and NOT live in survival mode. It’s a slow process getting to that point, but I do feel like I enjoy my life a little more and I have someone to enjoy it with. I get to do things that I wouldn’t have gotten to do alone.”

Terri has come a long way in the past 13 years, facing her demons alone. Now she sees the light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to having a child to care for, an understanding fiancé, a network of friends and the professional help and support that she receives from K9 Partners for Patriots.

For more information about K9 Partners for Patriots, call 352-397-5306 or go to www.k9partnersforpatriots.com. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, then Press 1. For assistance with obtaining veterans benefits, contact the local Veterans Service office at (352) 754-4033.

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