Arnold James is a war veteran now living in Long Beach. Photo by Jesus Hernandez.
Bombs going off. Screams in the distance. Machine-gun rounds rattling all around you while bullets whiz past your head, burrowing into the hot sand behind you. This is not the first time you’ve faced enemy fire, nor will it likely be the last.
Scenes like this are not uncommon among many of the war veterans lucky enough to return home.
Ernie Aguilar, an Operation Desert Shield veteran, knows the hardships of battle. Now a student at California State University Long Beach (CSULB), he also knows the battle veterans face upon returning from war. “Initially, it is really hard readjusting to civilian life,” said Aguilar, sitting behind a desk at the Veterans Resource Center (VRC) in LBCC. “Imagine having a litter of puppies. If you take one of the puppies and train him to be a guard dog, then after a while you return him to the litter, that dog will never stop being a guard dog. He won’t be like the other dogs. That is what it’s like for soldiers coming back. We will always be guard dogs,” explained Aguilar.
Aguilar returned from military service in 1998, and it took him 12 years to come to terms with the fact that he suffers from a very real disease of the mind named Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He explained that there a number of things that can trigger PTSD, “My helicopter got shot down so the sound of a helicopter gets me on edge.”
Unfortunately, many veterans are not aware of this disorder and turn to drugs or alcohol as a way of coping.
Aguilar learned the sobering truth when he was charged with a DUI three years ago. Luckily, he has come a long way in those three years. He was recently named Veteran of the Month by Congresswoman Linda Sanchez for his extensive work in veteran affairs and advocacy.
“Integrating was also hard,” recalled Aguilar. At family gatherings or parties, Aguilar simply couldn’t remember the names of family members beyond his immediate family. “My cousins or something would come up to me and say, ‘Hey Ernie, how’s it going?’ and I would just be like, ‘Um…do I know you?’”
While every veteran faces their own personal struggles, some have dealt with more than just PTSD upon return. Arnold James, Operation Enduring Freedom veteran and Long Beach resident said, “Vietnam veterans got no recognition—people hated them. We treated our vets really bad.” James has served in the military off and on since 1977, when he first joined the Navy. “It wasn’t until we came back from Iraq that a lot of veterans started getting recognition,” said James.
For James, PTSD always had its signs. “I started noticing that I might have it when my hands wouldn’t stop shaking. . .I would wake up with nightmares,” James said. He took care of his mother in Florida for five years until her passing in 2010. “I was evaluated for PTSD only about a month after my mother passed away,” said James. “The doctor must have asked me about 150 questions before he asked me anything combat related. . .the guy wasn’t even in the military!”
Veterans get evaluated for PTSD using a system called Percent Service-Connected (PSC). This is a way of categorizing how traumatized someone is from war; the lower the number, the less trauma an individual has experienced.
When James got evaluated, he was told that he would likely land between 40-60 PSC. This means that James would be compensated anywhere from $400-$600 a month for the rest of his life. The military has taken care of James’ medical bills and the veteran’s hospital provides support groups that help deal with a lot of the stress that many veterans might be facing. Sometimes though, maybe this is not enough for veterans traumatized by war. “I like alcohol; it helps you forget shit,” James said with a chuckle.
Furthermore, there are many female veterans who not only face PTSD, but might have gone through sexual trauma. “You can’t have treatment [for women] right in the middle of a center full of males,” said Aguilar. The help is there but it might seem almost inaccessible for many female veterans due to the gravity of their burdens and an environment that may not be sensitive to their experiences.
With this in mind, Aguilar recommends that every veteran have a strong support group and to also find out what their PTSD triggers are. Veterans who are seeking support should call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.