By Mike Hixenbaugh
The young Iraq War veteran knew in the back of his mind that the ball bouncing across the residential street was no threat. He knew that the boy who tossed it there was no child soldier.
This was Norfolk, after all, not Baghdad.
"I knew that," Jamar Blyther said. "But as soon as I saw that ball roll out in front of my car, I instantly slammed on the brakes, I turned around, and I flew 50 mph in the other direction."
Blyther shared the story Saturday with a few dozen veterans and psychologists gathered for the "When War Comes Home" conference at the DoubleTree Hotel. The forum was part of an effort to connect veterans with mental health assistance, event organizer Tod Ensign said.
"These wars have taken an enormous toll, not only on the Afghan and Iraqi civilian population, but a toll on our own troops," said Ensign, director of Citizen Soldier, a New York-based advocacy group for veterans.
Roughly one in three soldiers returning from war reports psychological problems, the Department of Defense estimates. Many more suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or some other mental trauma but fail to receive a proper diagnosis, Ensign said.
"These are big, big problems that are going to be with us for, probably, the rest of our lives."
Veterans aren't the only ones affected, said Fred Weston, a clinical social worker with The Up Center in Norfolk. Families also feel the sting of war, he said. Studies show multiple deployments dramatically increase the occurrence of depression, anxiety, sleep disorders and other mental health diagnoses fortroops' spouses and children.
Many of the veterans Weston has counseled in recent years complained of "constantly being on edge" during deployments in the Middle East. "If there's no downtime, where does that stress go?... The answer is, they bring it home with them," Weston said. "They bring it to their marriage, to their parenting; it impacts everyone."
It took Blyther six years to come to grips with that fact. He initially didn't recognize the mental trauma he suffered after months driving a supply truck along bomb-ridden Iraqi roads. He didn't realize he had returned from combat a changed man.
"I used to be happy-go-lucky," Blyther said, "but not anymore."
When he saw that ball bounce across the street a few months after returning from his deployment, Blyther thought of the primitive roadside explosives used to disrupt supply lines, and the former Army soldier's instincts kicked in.
"I got out of there," he said. "That's what I was trained to do."
Blyther eventually got the help he needed to manage the anxiety, he said. Today, he works as a veteran recruitment specialist with the Veteran Affairs Vet Center in Norfolk. He seeks out returning soldiers and tries to persuade them to consider submitting to a mental health screening.
"We're fighting stigma," Blyther said. "When I came home, I thought the mission was over. But the mission isn't over in your mind. You need to talk to someone about your problems."
Mike Hixenbaugh, (757) 222-5117, firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information contact Citizen Soldier at (646) 590-3058