Josh Soto lived for months with the kind of fear that most of us could not imagine. The young Marine from Sacramento was deployed on combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan six years ago.
"I was scared, the most scared I've even been," Soto recalled. "The thing that kept me sane at the time was having my buddies around me. You're wound up 24/7, thinking you're going to die, waiting to get shot at."
Soto and his Marine unit were taking so many casualties in combat, they actually talked about “being okay” if they only lost their legs. “I don't want to lose my arms, but I could lose my legs. I'll be alright with that," Soto said.
Like I said, it's a fear most of us could not imagine.
Six of his best friends were killed in action. Their names, and others from his unit who died, hang on the wall in his living room, including a buddy who committed suicide after returning home. Six years after his combat tour ended, Soto's battle now is with Post-Traumatic Stress.
"When I really noticed something was wrong, I went upstairs and I was lying next to my wife in bed, and I just started bawling," Soto said.
Post-Traumatic Stress is the reason this nation is seeing an epidemic of veterans committing suicide. Since 2001, the rate of veteran suicides in the US has jumped 32 percent. On average, every day in this country, 22 veterans take their own lives.
"Just finally one night I had enough of it," Soto said. "I took as many pain killers as I could. I just wanted to end it."
"I've got two (veterans) that I feel like are on suicide watch, even as we speak," said David Zelinsky, a volunteer service officer with El Dorado American Legion Post 119.
Zelinsky helps veterans in distress get the services they need. Housing, food, substance abuse and mental health counseling, and medical treatment. "You know, when you try to save someone's life, you reach out your hand, they have to grab your hand and let you pull them out," he said.
Isolation, violent outbursts, lack of sleep, nightmares, never feeling safe, frightened by loud noises – these are all possible signs of Post-Traumatic Stress. Not every veteran has the same symptoms. And not every treatment helps ease their suffering. There is no cure for PTS, only a variety of treatments to help cope with the symptoms.
“Even when we save lives, it's like, for how long?” Zelinsky said. Even among veterans who get counseling or medication for PTS, the suicide rate is up 9 percent since 2001. But it's up 40 percent in that same time period for veterans who go it alone.
“And that's the most important thing, getting people into treatment,” said Lance Poinsett, Director of El Dorado County Veterans Services. “PTSD isn't something that's curable. It's never going to go away. There's not a time where you say ‘You're done with your PTSD.’”
Soto sees a counselor and a psychiatrist, and takes comfort in talking to other vets and helping them cope with their PTS. More counselors are preferring to call it “PTS” or Post Traumatic Stress, leaving out the “D”, and noting that it is not a “disorder.” The symptoms can be a normal human response to the emotional trauma that veterans experience in combat.
PTS, claiming so many lives in our nation, is a tragedy that does not need to happen. El Dorado County Veterans Services and many other city, county, state and federal agencies can provide veterans more than hope. They can offer a plan for coping with PTS.
“People in the military, that's kind of their road back to getting that treatment,” said Lance Poinsett. “You give them a purpose, you say ‘I need you to do A, B, C, and D,’ and then they feel ‘Okay, I can do that A, B, C, and D.’”
“The way to really beat back the demons and thoughts of suicide and all that, is to talk to somebody about it,” Soto said. “Because keeping it inside... that's the ultimate killer.”
Someone needs to take that first step toward getting help. A veteran, a friend, loved one, or family member. One good place to start is the Veterans Affairs 'Vet Center Program.'
A hotline is available 24/7 at 877-WAR-VETS. Or check out their website at www.vetcenter.va.gov