- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

UNIONTOWN, Pa. (AP) - In 1965, Bill Pitts was an 18-year-old, growing up much too fast.

During Christmas of that year, he was a Naval officer providing gunfire support on a vessel in the South China Sea, bombing Da Nang Harbor.

When his service in the Navy came to an end in 1969, Pitts returned home withdrawn and unable to communicate as well as he would have liked. Now a 68-year-old Dunbar resident, Pitts recalls treating his first two wives badly and not wanting to socialize with anyone.

“I wasn’t the same kid I was when I first went over there,” Pitts said. “I seemed not to care who I hurt with my actions.”

Kenneth Noga was a member of both the Army’s 101st Airborne Division and 9th Division from August 1971 to April 1972 and was shot at in the Quang Tri province of North Vietnam. After retiring from Sensus following 41 years with the company in Nov. 2013, the Uniontown resident found himself with more time alone dealing with haunting memories of his time in Vietnam. The flashbacks got particularly bad from January to April of last year.

“I was afraid to go to sleep because I knew where I was going,” Noga said.

So every Thursday, Noga, Pitts and 60 to 70 other local veterans go to counseling sessions led by Joel Smith of the Veterans Affairs-run Morgantown Vet Center at the Hopwood Amvets. Smith discusses with veterans how to understand everything from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to the psychology of humor and the value of patience with their spouses and other loved ones.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Noga recalls, the group discussed that an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide in America every day, a statistic from a 2012 suicide data report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

According to the report, the good news for veterans is that even though the number of Americans who die by suicide each day increased in the previous 12 years, the percentage of people who died by suicide in America who are Veterans decreased slightly.

The report also noted that the average age of male Veterans who died from suicide between 1999 and 2010 was 59.6 years among Veterans identified on state death certificates, which is consistent with a 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that the highest suicide rate (19.1) was among people aged 45 to 64 in 2013.

Fayette County’s comparatively high percentage of senior citizens who are also veterans makes it demographically more at risk for veteran suicide. According to a 2014 report by the Appalachian Regional Commission, Fayette County is one of 93 counties out of 207 in Appalachia (ranging from eastern Mississippi to upstate New York) whose portion of senior citizens who are veterans exceeds 25 percent.

And PTSD is easily the most common struggle among local veterans, officials say.

Fayette County Veterans Affairs Office Director Madonna Nicklow estimates that her office files 20 to 40 PTSD-related medical claims per month. Both Nicklow and Greene County Veterans Affairs Office Director Dalene Watson said that the vast majority of the veterans they file claims for served during the Vietnam War.

“We see a high spike in middle-aged men who may have lost jobs, lost important relationships and have new onset serious medical conditions,” Barry Fisher, medical director of the PTSD/Behavioral Medicine Clinic in the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, wrote in an email. “Probably 80 percent or more of the veterans I have treated have expressed suicidal thinking at some point in their illness.”

Fisher allows veterans in session to discuss current difficulties in his or her relationships and difficulties with recurrent experiencing of prior trauma, and then provides them referral for consultation with psychologists who can have the patient reexamine beliefs about their past trauma (cognitive behavioral therapy) or have the patient review the experience of the trauma repeatedly until the emotional response to that memory diminishes (exposure-based therapy).

Of course, none of that healing can happen if the patient doesn’t know those therapies even exist.

Noga was diagnosed with PTSD five years ago through a four-hour, VA-administered psychological test known as the C&P; (Compensation & Pension) exam after more than 40 years of symptoms and did not previously know that resources existed within the VA system to help him fight PTSD.

“Older vets can be more isolated,” Robert Prah, director of Veteran’s Affairs at California University of Pennsylvania, said.

Pitts has diabetes and nine stents in his heart, and health issues like those have made him and many of his fellow Fayette County veterans consider suicide.

“I think it’s went through every mind of everyone that’s up there, I really do. ‘Well, why don’t I just end this?’” Pitts said about veterans at the Hopwood Amvets weekly therapy sessions. “A lot of it is our health, we don’t have a lot of time left on this earth.”

Smith’s 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. therapy sessions on Thursdays for combat veterans at the Hopwood Amvets have guarded against such thoughts for more than five years by teaching veterans, and occasionally, their families, that what they do have is each other.

“People who have a diagnosis of PTSD aren’t broken and they don’t need fixed,” Smith said. “They just need validated.”

That validation comes when veterans know that their brothers in arms still have their backs.

“It makes me feel like I’m not alone,” Vietnam Veterans of Fayette County President Glenn Nielsen said about the session group, which consists largely of Vietnam veterans but also includes vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I’ve heard guys say things at these meetings they’d never say to anybody else,” Pitts said. “How we depend on one another, lean on one another, how we’re parallel with what somebody else went through. It’s a fantastic thing.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1EHkceR

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Information from: Herald-Standard, http://www.heraldstandard.com/

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