- Associated Press - Saturday, December 3, 2016

MILWAUKEE (AP) - A new peer-to-peer support program for combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in Wisconsin applies the 12-step framework of Alcoholics Anonymous to help heal the emotional wounds of military trauma.

PTSD Anonymous, launched a month ago, isn’t meant to replace professional counseling, but to offer a sympathetic ear from someone who understands the effects that military and combat-related trauma can have on soldiers, their families and their quality of life, said Ron Worthey, one of the organizers.

“One thing you lose when you leave the military is you lose your teamwork. Nobody has your back anymore. You’re alone. With this new program we educate you that you are not alone. You have a new team,” said Worthey, a Wausau resident who served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1968.

Worthey and others revived a concept that began in Washington state eight years ago, but fell by the wayside. In just a month, the program has grown from three or four veterans to 12 to 15 people who gather Wednesday nights at Kronenwetter town hall.

“When you’re talking to another veteran and they’re telling you their problems, you’re on the same wavelength. So you are basically pulling things out of yourself that you don’t realize sometimes until months down the road,” he said. “You might be talking to someone and think, ‘Boy I’ve really helped this guy,’ and then you think, ‘Wait a minute, this is helping me too.’”

The number of veterans diagnosed with PTSD varies by service era. Between 11 percent and 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have the disorder in a given year, according to the National Center for PTSD at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. That’s compared to about 12 of every 100 Gulf War veterans and 15 percent of Vietnam veterans.

The disorder usually occurs after a soldier on a mission is exposed to traumatic and life-threatening experiences.

“In combat situations, you bury any emotion that you may have. If you care about something or someone you could get killed pretty easy because you have to think about nothing but survival,” Worthey said.

Like Alcoholics Anonymous, PTSD Anonymous uses 12 steps, including the initial step in which the veterans admit they are powerless over their trauma and its effects and that life had become unmanageable. As the veterans move through the steps, they, among other things, admit to angry feelings and accept responsibility for harmful words and actions against others and move forward to help others facing similar circumstances.

Wiley Sparks, 69, a Vietnam veteran from Abbotsford, thought he alone could beat the rage and anger he felt upon returning home in 1969.

As a member of the Green Berets, Sparks and his unit ran covert missions in Laos and Cambodia. He was wounded three times: shrapnel in his arm, a bayonet to his left wrist and a shattered ear drum from a grenade explosion. But his deepest wounds were the emotional scars he carried home.

“Dreams were just like I was back (in Vietnam). Everything was there, the noise, the heat, being sweaty all the time,” he said.

As the years passed, Sparks sought professional help numerous times and still sees a counselor weekly. The brotherhood of the PTSD Anonymous meetings has meant a lot to him, he said.

“All the guys, we’re all the same. When you get shot at, it doesn’t matter what war you were in,” Sparks said. Married 45 years with two grown daughters, he credits his family with standing by him during difficult times.

“They had to walk on pins and needles. I would blow up for stuff being out of place, my clothes not being hung right,” he said, acknowledging he isn’t cured, but has learned to cope with his anger.

PTSD Anonymous was established in Washington state in 2008 by Stephen Kubiszewski, who hoped to develop a nationwide network of community-based, veteran-lead support group meetings. Himself a combat veteran and retired mental health counselor, he came up with the concept after finding that his PTSD patients had no follow-up help after therapy.

“Bottom line was when they walked out the door there wasn’t any support for them,” he said. But the concept never took off, he said, mainly because of a lack of volunteers to run meetings.

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Online:

PTSD Anonymous: www.ptsdanonymous.org

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Follow Gretchen Ehlke on Twitter at https://twitter.com/gehlke

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