Lessons From A Vietnam Veteran

Service dog-KenCostichandBandit

Ken Costich with Bandit, his service dog.
Photo courtesy of “Dogs Go The Distance,” an official US Army Program

A few days ago, I made a new friend who is a Vietnam veteran. He entered the grocery store with his service dog. Standing under fluorescent lights between a kiosk of wine bottles and neatly packaged red meat, we struck up a conversation—not about the weather, or the how well-behaved his dog is, though that did come up, but about mental illness. It does seem odd that a conversation with a stranger would go so personal, but this phenomenon has been happening to me with increasing frequency. And I feel honored.

For forty years, my friend, who I will call Mike to protect his privacy, lived with debilitating post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). He’d had a few marriages that didn’t work out so well because his former spouses couldn’t understand what he was going through. He acknowledges, how could he expect another to ever really understand his nightmares? How can you translate the experience of witnessing a buddy, caring for another wounded buddy, fall over in an instant after a shot to the head?

Mike’s mental illness has impacted his ability to work and he has lived off disability and military pension. Life has been challenging. But on that afternoon a few days ago he showed little of the hard road he’s been on. My conversation with him was delightful, insightful, and warm.

 What has helped him? When he finally got a diagnosis he was able to get more effective treatment. But like most individuals living with mental illness, it’s not a straight path. His doctor first demanded he quit using substances and then prescribed medications to address his PTSD and other symptoms. He tried several, but none of these worked. As Mike says, treatment for mental illness, “Is not a one-size-fits-all deal.” Mike later trained his own service dog, without whom, he says, he wouldn’t be able to have a conversation with another person in a grocery store. His vigilance and paranoia would be on overdrive. When he said this, I thought, what a shame this outgoing, friendly, kind soul would have been incapable of interacting with others, a person whose positive life force had, on that particular day, brought me hope for humanity.

 Mike and I talked so long, and so honestly, that the grocery store workers joked about our reunion and such. On this Veteran’s Day, I will keep the blog relatively short and impart the lesson he had learned and seemed keen to share.

He emphasized how beneficial his dog, a constant companion, and his wife, who is a uniquely nurturing person, are to his recovery. 

He told me that treatment for his PTSD was not going to reverse the illness because he’d lived too long without treatment. Treatment now enables him to continue learning coping skills. He emphasized how beneficial his dog, a constant companion, and his wife, who is a uniquely nurturing person, are to his recovery. His dog keeps him safe and in one case, kept him from getting chippy with a police officer out of concern over what would happen to the dog if he were cuffed and thrown into jail. Hey, I say, whatever it takes.

Mike is on the waiting list for a new PTSD program through the VA hospital but keeps getting bumped to make room for troops coming home from the war. “And that’s okay,” he says. “Because these guys have a better chance if they get treatment right away. I’m all for that. We know a lot more now than when I came home.”

And that’s a very good point, Mike. Let’s get the troops treatment as soon as possible to give them the best chance for recovery. That’s one way to honor our troops.

Thank you Mike, for your service.

A Note about the photo: While Ken Costich (shown in the above photograph) is not the man I met, he also lives with PTSD and is part of the US Army’s service dog program. You can read more about it at:  http://www.army.mil/article/35297

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