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New PTSD Treatment Saves Lives

By Laurel Morales

Prescott, AZ – For many years the Department Veterans Affairs didn't know what to do with someone who complained of war flashbacks. Only in the past year has the V-A mandated that all veterans with post traumatic stress disorder be offered a proven treatment. Here in northern Arizona the Prescott V-A is at the forefront in offering a promising PTSD therapy. A warning to listeners: the story does contain graphic descriptions of war. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales has this report.

Twenty years ago Vietnam veteran Joe Lambert tried to admit himself into the V-A hospital in Phoenix. He told the receptionist that he wanted to kill himself.

LAMBERT: The lady told me to sit down right there and somebody would be right with you. The next thing I knew two security guards took me to the curb and told me not to come back.

He was dealing with a severe back injury and had war flashbacks that wouldn't quit.

LAMBERT: I can smell the blood I can smell the stink of the garbage a real real dirty place. For years I drank everyday anywhere from a 12-pack to a case just so I could pass out go to sleep and not dream. When I came back from Vietnam nobody wanted to hear about it. So you never get it out. You have all this BLEEP inside you that just won't away. Forty years is a long time to live with something.

A few years ago Lambert's daughter finally convinced him to come back to the V-A for help. This time he went to the Northern Arizona VA in Prescott.

LAMBERT: It was a whole different ballgame over here. These people were more receptive. They started giving me help right away medical and therapy.

Lambert tried a new program called Prolonged Exposure Therapy. He was asked to recall the story that haunts him the most -- for Lambert that's watching his best friend die. Then he has to tell the horrific story several times in the present tense, eyes closed, over and over again. Then he records himself telling the story and listens to it at least once a day.

LAMBERT: I hadn't been able to say his name without breaking down. I thought I had buried him but I hadn't.

Clinical Psychologist Maura Pellowe is a national leader in administering the new therapy and heads the program at the Northern Arizona V-A.

PELLOWE: The more they tell their story the more they listen to it we can actually see that emotional processing take place. We use a word called habituation so the first few times they tell it it's extremely anxiety provoking but over time they learn through experience that their memories are in fact not dangerous.

Studies show 80 percent of the veterans who work through this therapy show a significant decrease in PTSD symptoms. As part of the treatment veterans also list all of the situations they're avoiding such as hiking, big open spaces, even certain smells can provoke a traumatic memory. And then one by one they confront their fears. For Lambert it's large crowds.

LAMBERT: I used to go to Walmart sy 11, 12 o'clock at night so there wouldn't be a crowd of people. I'm not so worried someone's going to come up me from behind. I've gotten over that.

Veteran Robert Davis says Prolonged Exposure Therapy has helped him turn the trauma into what it really is -- a distant memory. Davis better known as "Money D" was in charge of financing big projects in the Middle East. He would carry millions of dollars in cash often strapped to his body. His job was to pay contractors to build the Iraqi airport, heliports and other infrastructure.

DAVIS: I had been involved in 27 different firefights. I've had seven IEDs which is improvised explosive devices go off on me. I had one that did me in. It crushed my spine. I've spent five years in rehabilitation.

He was told he'd never walk but through perseverance now walks with a cane. In addition to his spine injury, he also suffers from a traumatic brain injury and PTSD.

DAVIS: My wife sleeps in a different room because my PTSD gets to the point where I get very violent trying to protect my guys. One of the first guys I lost I had my hand inside his insides trying to stop the bleeding. But he was hit by a mortar round that came through and gutted him out. And I couldn't handle it. And now it's just a memory it's no longer a nightmare.

Davis is one of the few recent veterans the Prescott clinic has treated for PTSD. It serves 75-thousand veterans in north central Arizona. Maura Pellowe knows there are a lot more veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan who they haven't reached.

PELLOWE: We have noticed that there's far more veterans out there in northern Arizona who have a diagnosis of PTSD compared to the number of veterans who we've seen coming to our clinic looking for treatment.

The V-A has hired a veteran who served in Iraq to encourage those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan to seek treatment. Pellowe says one of the symptoms of PTSD is avoidance. So persuading veterans with PTSD to volunteer to talk about the event they're trying so desperately to suppress is a big challenge.

But Robert Davis says it's critical the VA reach those people.

DAVIS: The vets have to come here and get help. It doesn't matter if they're there for three months or whatever they lived with bomb attacks they need to come back here now they need to come here because they can't live with this and fight it.

Davis says he's living proof. If you're willing to do the work the therapy can help. And Vietnam vet Joe Lambert says you don't have to wait 40 years to get it now.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Prescott.