Physically whole but mentally torn: Veteran with post traumatic stress relearns coping skills
There are certain roads Ted Lawyer won’t drive on when he’s alone. They remind him of roads in Iraq.
Driving under bridges also makes him nervous.
So do crowds. If Lawyer can’t avoid a crowd he tries to stay on its fringe.
And Lawyer has an anger problem. There have been times he’s gotten upset with other drivers so he followed them for several blocks, honking his horn and yelling at them. And he went home from work a few times because of his anger.
“I do anything I can to avoid a conflict with someone,” Lawyer said. “At the same time, if you do something to show disrespect or make me feel like I’ve got to fight, then it’s full game on. I go from flight to fight instantly.”
Lawyer, a Lawrence resident, hasn’t been the same mentally or physically since he returned from serving a year in Iraq with the Kansas Army National Guard. At age 57, Lawyer, then a 1st sergeant, arrived in Iraq in September 2005 with Headquarters and Headquarters Battery of the 1st Battalion, 127th Field Artillery. His company included 150 soldiers. Among their duties was providing security for top U.S. commanders and diplomats.
During the two years since he returned stateside, Lawyer has been diagnosed as having post traumatic stress disorder and various physical problems, including daily headaches and back, leg and neck pain. He’s had flashbacks and blackouts. A few weeks ago, a diagnosis of traumatic brain injury was added to the already-long list.
Lawyer is undergoing outpatient treatment for PTSD and taking part in physical therapy at Colmery-O’Neil Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Topeka. It all helps, he said. And he thinks he is making progress.
“I’m not yet where I want to be. I don’t think I’ll ever get to the way I was,” he said.
Although he didn’t realize it at the time, Lawyer said he thinks a blast from an improvised explosive device on the outskirts of Baghdad triggered his mental and physical downslide.
There were two 35-pound anti-tank bombs fastened to the underside of the pedestrian bridge.
One of them exploded when a column of four Humvees passed underneath. In his Humvee, Lawyer was sitting in the rear seat behind the driver. The turret machine-gunner had dropped down inside the armored vehicle before the bomb went off, standard practice when approaching a bridge.
The Humvee sustained damage but was still operable. The force of the blast, however, came through the open turret and hit Lawyer.
“I remember seeing a red cloud and then everything went white,” Lawyer said as he recalled that mid-November afternoon in 2005.
Lawyer was knocked unconscious — for only a few seconds, he thinks. When he came to, the inside of the Humvee was filled with smoke and debris. He could barely see.
“You can’t believe the violence when you are that close,” he said, describing the bomb blast. “It’s just beyond words. It’s like dropping a building on your body.”
Lawyer and the other soldiers were wearing body armor and helmets. That helped protect them from the explosion, as did the armored Humvee. The soldiers and their Humvees got away from the bridge but remained in the area while explosives experts arrived and dealt with the second, unexploded bomb. None of them, including Lawyer, sought medical attention.
“I’m the first sergeant and I don’t have a replacement” Lawyer said, recalling his attitude at the time. “I’m the only one to do the job. No matter how I felt, unless I’m dragging a bloody stump behind me, I drive on.
It didn’t take Gwen Lawyer long to notice changes in her husband’s personality when he returned home.
“Before he went to Iraq, he was a fun-loving guy, always joking around,” she said about her husband of 16 years. “Now he was so serious. He was just so different.”
Gwen Lawyer also saw firsthand her husband’s anger.
“He could get mad just that fast,” she said, snapping her finger.
Gwen finally demanded that Ted seek help. She recognized his symptoms because she and other spouses attended classes put on by the National Guard to help them detect and understand problems their spouses might face readjusting to civilian life.
“I told him we weren’t going to live this way,” she said. “I’m just as head-strong as he is, maybe more.”
Ted Lawyer also began to realize he needed to do something. His anger sometimes disrupted days at the auto parts business where he worked in Topeka. He was scaring people, he said.
“It isn’t like a normal anger,” Lawyer said. “I have to get away and disengage. I feel like I’m on a runaway train with no brakes and I can’t stop it.”
Lawyer sometimes tries to apologize to people for his anger and other antics. He knows some people think he acts strangely when he stands next to outside walls in large crowded stores while his wife shops. It’s hard for other people to understand, he said.
“Since I’m not missing an arm or a leg or any appendage they look at me as if I’m normal and acting weird,” Lawyer said. “Well, I am acting weird.”
It’s been more than a year since Lawyer began getting mental health treatment for PTSD at the VA hospital. He meets with his counselor for sometimes up to 90 minutes as needed. His counselor, Kathy Zima, a licensed clinical social worker, has helped Lawyer understand how he developed his condition. The IED explosion is only part of the picture.
“Over there strong, aggressive reactions may be needed, but in civilian situations, that’s not appropriate and you have to learn to transition,” Zima said.
Soldiers in combat zones are ramped up. They see battle casualties and deal with war 24 hours a day. Every day.
As a 1st sergeant, Lawyer worked closely with the company commander. It was Lawyer's job to see that the troops had the equipment they needed. He also checked in on wounded troops and saw some die. Although no lives were lost in Lawyer's company, there were several deaths in the battalion.
Zima is teaching Lawyer how to cope with stressful situations and recognize what triggers his anger and flashbacks. She also has met with Lawyer’s wife, Gwen. Military veterans and their families get placed in extreme circumstances but most also show a strong resiliency to dealing with them, Zima said.
“They learn so many coping skills and different ways to think and adapt to do what they need in the military,” she said. “It’s a matter of helping them use those skills and reapply them. Education is a big part in helping them understand what is going on.”
Lawyer has learned to get away and “disengage” when he feels his anger build. He’s learned to avoid roads that remind him of Iraq. If he has a problem, Lawyer knows he can call Zima or a PTSD nurse at the hospital at any time.
“I’m 61 years old and now all of a sudden I’ve got to relearn all these coping strategies,” he said. “I’ve got to relearn life. It’s tough.”