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LGBT Veterans Stand Up to PTSD

by Robert Guthrie

On Monday, July 29, 2013, thirteen Veterans were admitted to the Specialized Inpatient PTSD Unit at the Department of Veterans Affairs Salem VA Medical Center (SVAMC) located in Salem, Virginia, for a 45-day treatment program. These Veterans, who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, are the first to participate in an inpatient posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) program specifically for them.

The SVAMC inpatient PTSD program has been providing services since 1990. While numerous Veterans from the LGBT community participated in our program, it became clear to our staff that some LGBT Veterans felt it necessary to hide who they are. Once “don’t ask, don’t tell” came to an end, we knew it was time to offer LGBT Veterans care in a setting that recognizes and celebrates a person’s right to be exactly who they are.

It’s ironic that so much of PTSD is about secrets like: I can’t let people know what I did in combat; I can’t let people know what happened to me; if people know what happened they will never look at me in the same way; I know what happened and I can barely admit it to myself. How in the world could someone who hasn’t been there understand?

It’s also ironic because so much of military life for LGBT GIs has also been about secrets: If I let others know who I really am, someone could hurt me; if I let others know who I really am, they might not have my back; if I let them know who I really am, my career will be over.

These powerful secrets can contribute to Veterans withdrawing from life and loved ones and from a world that only seems to remind them of the bad things that have happened. Eventually, some people end up living in a bunker that others refer to as a garage, a basement, or a bedroom. Life gets smaller and smaller as the grip of avoidance becomes tighter and tighter. And sometimes it gets so bad that people only feel comfortable in their body when they’re drunk or high or angry.

Maybe this isn’t exactly what the lives of the men and women who have entered our program are like, but it’s close. Veterans who take part in treatment for PTSD have frequently had a close friend die in combat, killed someone themselves, were raped, or were beaten by the very people who were supposed to have their back. On top of that, there’s a good chance that as a kid someone used them as a punching bag or to satisfy their sexual urges. And if they feel people hate them for who they are, then that’s the nasty icing on a nasty cake.

Over the next six weeks, LGBT Veterans who have come to SVAMC from all over the county seeking help for their PTSD will have a chance to find a way out of the bunker in which they’ve come to live. They will have a chance to be accepted for who they are. They will have a chance to connect with other LGBT Veterans and with straight allies who want nothing more than for each person to live their life as they wish to live it. And just possibly, this sense of respect and caring will allow them to take a look at, and give voice to, what happened to them while serving our country; enabling them to live the full, rich, and loving lives they deserve.

We will encourage them to face the things that scare them; be mindful of themselves and the world around them; to identify the values within themselves; to focus on the positive; to commit to take action - even when they don’t feel like it; to have hope for a bright future and let go of a past that can’t be changed; and to work toward regaining an emotional flexibility they thought was gone forever.

And when the 45 days of treatment are over, these Veterans will return home and begin the real work of being present in their lives.

Robert Guthrie is a U.S. Army Veteran, a psychologist, on the faculty of the University of Virginia School of Medicine, and coordinator of the Salem VA medical center’s specialized inpatient PTSD unit.

Veterans must have a diagnosis of PTSD; be eligible/enrolled for VA healthcare; and referred by their outpatient provider to be considered for the inpatient program. For additional information please call (540) 982-2463, Ext. 2550.

  2013 Gay Military Signal