Local Vets of Earlier Wars Say They Know What the New Iraq and Afghanistan PTSD Sufferers Are In For

The Scars You Can't See
New cases of PTSD are flooding the VA system. Local veterans of earlier wars know what those Iraq and Afghanistan vets are in for

The Persian Gulf War only lasted a few weeks in winter 1991, but for Tom Fortney, it didn’t end until Feb. 22, 2001, when he checked himself into the Long Beach Veterans Affairs Hospital’s psychiatric-evaluation-and-treatment center. A few days earlier, Fortney, a forward observer with the U.S. Marine Corps who saw combat during Operation Desert Storm, was parking his car at work when another driver looked at him the wrong way.

“You got a problem, buddy?” the man then asked.

John Wylie Needham is accused of murdering his girlfriend just months after returning from Iraq
John Wylie Needham is accused of murdering his girlfriend just months after returning from Iraq

It was raining hard outside; Fortney had to wind down the window and lower the volume of the war ballad blasting from the car stereo to make himself heard.

“Yeah,” he responded. “I do have a problem. But it is in my head and has nothing to do with you.”

He parked and sat quietly, while the man exited his car and pounded on Fortney’s window. He calmly opened the door and informed the man that if he left quickly, Fortney wouldn’t kill him. “I was going to reach for his left eye with my right hand and pull out his eye, push my thumb into his socket and pull him to the ground, and he would have been dead,” he recalls. “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Just as Fortney’s thumb and forefinger brushed the man’s eyelashes, he spotted a co-worker walking toward them. He also noticed that the rain that moments earlier had been pouring down had suddenly stopped, and there was no wind. “I put my finger in his chest and said I’d give him until the count of three to get out of there,” he says. “I literally saw him shrink, and his eyes watered up. He said, ‘I can see you got some issues or something,’ and he put his hands up and started walking away.”

Fortney remembers screaming a basic-training battle cry for “a good minute” before jumping in his car. The rain had started up again. He went home and opened a bottle of whiskey. Then he started running around his neighborhood in the rain. His wife found him and convinced him to come back inside. He called a few friends from the Orange County Veterans Center; they came to his house and sat down with him.

“My body shut down, and I started bawling,” Fortney remembers. “I didn’t want to be a killer, but I had never left the battlefield; there was no deprogramming. I was clearly off the deep end. If I wasn’t married, I would have been the psycho vet out in the forest.”

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After years of psychiatric counseling and group therapy, Fortney, now 40, has come to terms with a condition he expects will never go away: posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He is just one of thousands of veterans in Southern California who have been diagnosed with the disorder. Known as “trench fatigue” in World War I, “shell shock” in World War II and later as “Vietnam syndrome,” PTSD mostly afflicts combat veterans, but it has also been diagnosed in victims of violent crime, rape, accidents, even natural disasters. Symptoms include sleeplessness, nightmares, hypervigilance, depression and rage.

With the United States currently at war in both Iraq and Afghanistan, PTSD is on the rise. According to a 2005 Veterans Affairs (VA) study, 20 percent of recent combat troops suffer from severe depression and PTSD. Some veterans, like Fortney, are able to keep their symptoms under control. Others aren’t so lucky: As of March 2008, 145 Iraq war veterans had committed suicide.

And then there’s the case of John Wylie Needham.

Before he went to Iraq, Needham was described by family members and friends as a laid-back surfer. But when he came home last year after being wounded by shrapnel during combat and receiving a Purple Heart, he seemed severely depressed. He wouldn’t talk about the war, but often woke up screaming from nightmares. “I’m falling apart by the seams,” he wrote on his MySpace page. “These walls are caving in; my despair wraps me in its web.”

On Sept. 1, Orange County sheriff’s deputies received a domestic-disturbance call for the veteran’s San Clemente condominium. When they knocked on his front door late that night, Needham answered the door stark naked. When he scuffled with the deputies, they subdued him with a Taser. Inside, they found Jacwelyn Villagomez, Needham’s 19-year-old girlfriend, severely beaten and unconscious. Needham, who had been drinking heavily, could provide no explanation for what he’d done. When doctors pronounced Villagomez dead the next morning, prosecutors charged him with murder; his case is scheduled to go to trial early next year. “I know he went through a lot in Iraq,” Needham’s brother Mike told the Los Angeles Times. “You can’t believe how happy he was until he came back from Iraq.”

Official policy prevents VA officials from speaking about individual cases, but officials do acknowledge that PTSD was a likely factor in Needham’s allegedly alcohol-fueled crime. “After World War II, the veterans came home, and everybody slapped them on the back and gave them a drink,” says Guy Lamunyon, who oversees the mental-health-outreach unit at the Long Beach VA Hospital. “Many of them became alcoholics and died. The same thing happened after Vietnam. We call it self-medication. The body is built to deal with a certain amount of stress, but not on a daily basis.”

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