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CARING FOR VETERANS’ MENTAL HEALTH

Local Resources Help Heal the Emotional Toll of Military Service

For a long time, Air Force veteran Kristin J. Gyford felt like an “undercover veteran.” After leaving the military, Gyford, a licensed clinical social worker, helped others heal from trauma but never talked about her own pain. “The last thing you want is judgment… people thinking you’re not stable because you have PTSD,” she says. She experienced anxiety — a crowded check-out line at the grocery store triggered panic attacks. It is only recently, twenty years after serving, that Gyford, accompanied by her service dog Wonder, now describes herself as a “disabled veteran.” Today, she works to empower fellow veterans, supporting them in managing their PTSD and reminding them that “they are not broken.” Her Central Oregon clinic, Still Serving Counseling Services, is staffed by a team of four other fellow veterans committed to serving the “brothers and sisters who also signed their names on a blank check to serve.”

There are approximately 15,000 veterans in Deschutes County. Most return from service, go back to work and take care of their families. But for many, the transition home to civilian life compounds traumatic experiences in service. “Veterans come home different people,” Gyford explains. Some struggle to “translate what they’ve done in the military to work and life at home.” Veterans frequently experience severe anxiety, depression, insomnia, or feelings of failure. Many turn to alcohol and drugs and end up losing their jobs, families and homes. This is where Central Oregon Veterans Outreach (COVO) steps in. COVO supports 300 veterans each year, working to help those who are homeless by providing mental health services and meeting veterans’ basic needs of food and supplies. “No one can be successful if they’re homeless,” Kathy Skidmore, executive officer of COVO explains. “We help address what brought them to eviction… peeling back the layers. Outwardly, it may look like they acted irresponsibly, became addicted to drugs, or were guilty of criminal behavior, but we can tie it back to the emotional toll of their service.”

The emotional toll of service varies for veterans of different wars and generations. Even those who do not see active duty and combat may experience severe mental health challenges due to the daily dangers and stresses of training for battle. Gyford outlines the four categories of PTSD: combat PTSD, MST (military sexual trauma), moral injury and other PTSD from military enlistment. J.W. Terry, a 32-year-Navy veteran of Vietnam, and the executive director of COVO is still learning about PTSD and its stigma. “I used to think, suck it up… pull yourself up by your bootstraps and go to work, and then, you realize there’s a million stories out there,” he says. “It’s hard to fathom, these young kids come home, they don’t know how to take care of their families or they’re not living up to the standards of the military–no room for failure–and instead of reaching out, they end up losing everything they’ve got.”   

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), every day, 17 veterans commit suicide. This crisis has the attention of the upper echelons of the military. Branches of the military are now educating members of active duty about mental health and how to seek help before they are discharged. But nationally, the VA system is overwhelmed and frequently difficult to navigate, particularly in remote areas like Central Oregon where fewer services are available. So COVO acts as a “gatekeeper for veterans and their families,” providing “wrap around services” for veterans who need everything from temporary housing to mental health care. A dearth of affordable housing in Deschutes county exacerbates the challenges of assisting homeless veterans. COVO advocates bring food and supplies to veterans living in homeless camps. “It’s hard to take care of them,” Kathy Skidmore adds. “We try to address their basic needs of safety.” Only when these veterans are resettled in safe places can advocates at COVO and therapists at Still Serving Counseling begin the work of supporting healing. “The more we take care of ourselves,” Kristin Gyford says, “the more we can take of others.”

Still Serving Counseling, 541.728.2018, IAmStillServing.com

Central Oregon Veterans Outreach, 541.383.2793, COVO-US.org

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