US & World

Southern California veterans struggle with PTSD

Iraq veteran Marshall Lewis
Iraq veteran Marshall Lewis
Grant Slater/KPCC
Iraq veteran Marshall Lewis
Veteran J.R. Browning and his wife Nicole
Grant Slater/KPCC
Iraq veteran Marshall Lewis
Frances Lucas was a nurse in a military hospital in Bilat, Iraq. She wonders if she suffers from PTSD and has experienced what she calls "attacks" where she starts crying "like a baby."
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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What was once called "battle fatigue" afflicts hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans. Post-traumatic stress disorder sometimes surfaces in a suicide, but more often chips away at the emotional well-being of veterans trying to re-enter the society they went to war to protect.

Frances Lucas never saw a bullet fired or a bomb dropped. She was a nurse, in a military hospital in Bilat, Iraq. She did see soldiers on operating room tables. Lucas uses the phrase "mutilated bodies."

"IED blasts, and lots of brains injuries, spinal injuries, and lots of shrapnel injuries of the extremities and the body," she said. "Traumatic, really traumatic."

Lucas, 57, joined the Navy almost four decades ago, and switched to the Air Force 15 years later. In June, she returned from Iraq.

“We can happily say that we saved just about everybody who came through our operating room," Lucas said. But Lucas wonders if she suffers from PTSD.

She describes “attacks.” “Attacks when all of a sudden out of nowhere, I’m just bawling like a baby," Lucas said. "I feel like I hold it together on the outside. You can see my smile and everything. But there are moments and times when I am just so emotional."

The Pentagon estimates upwards of 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. Studies show less than half seek professional help.

Husbands and wives may see symptoms first.

“She recognized this before I did," Army veteran J.R. Browning said of his wife. "I was in that very complex state of denial.”

Browning attended a recent KPCC Crawford Family Forum event for veterans. He helped liberate Baghdad. He also experienced 20 bomb blasts. Doctors diagnosed Browning with both severe post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

“I constantly need her to remind me, ‘Babe, what did I say last Thursday?'" Browning said. "I don’t know because she knows more about me at this point than I do.”

It wasn’t always like that. Browning, 31, said his relationship with his wife suffered for several years.

“It’s been strained. Definitely been strained,” Browning said.

“At this point in our lives, we’re very good. But when he came home, it was very difficult," Nicole Browning said. "The stigma that is in the military when you’re active makes it very difficult to seek help when you’re in the military."

Nicole Browning is studying military social work at USC. She said a lot of women are not prepared to cope with the complex social and mental health issues many combat veterans faces.

“A lot of these veterans are coming home and they’re marrying people that weren’t in the military culture," she said. Some new wives miss symptoms that "maybe a military wife would have picked up on.”

Marshall Lewis, 28, served three tours in Iraq with the United States Marine Corps.

A combat injury in Haditha, Iraq sent him home. The fighting was bad enough, Lewis said. But guilt took its toll too.

“A few of my friends died, actually, while I was in a hospital," he said. "To me it’s like I was, for lack of a better word, 'being lazy' while they were doing the work.”

When Lewis came home to Southern California, he did seek out help from a Veterans Affairs therapist and was diagnosed with PTSD. But he quit going to therapy.

“I didn’t really notice it was doing anything for me except for probably making me a little more angry than I was before because it brings it back up," Lewis said. "I know it’s not the perfect scenario, but for me, the more I bury it, the easier it is to deal with.”

Lewis is a computer information systems student at Pasadena City College. He says for now, he'd rather immerse himself in his books than deal with the trauma of war.