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updated: 11/12/2017 12:42 PM

Veteran controls environment to ease stress of PTSD

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  • Army veteran Shaun Garry, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, moved from Wheaton to Spring Grove because it's less congested and offers a calm, patriotic setting in nature. He says controlling his environment helps him manage his mental condition and live "close to a normal life."

      Army veteran Shaun Garry, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, moved from Wheaton to Spring Grove because it's less congested and offers a calm, patriotic setting in nature. He says controlling his environment helps him manage his mental condition and live "close to a normal life."
    Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Army veteran Shaun Garry served in Iraq for 15 months, suffering mental and physical injuries from being "blown up five times."

    Army veteran Shaun Garry served in Iraq for 15 months, suffering mental and physical injuries from being "blown up five times."
    Courtesy of Shaun Garry

  • Army veteran Shaun Garry with his son Shaun Jr., his wife, Stacy, mother-in-law, Jane Bascom, and daughter, Sasha, at their Spring Grove home, where they moved to find a calmer environment for Garry to cope with his post-traumatic stress disorder. Not pictured is son Sebastian, 16.

      Army veteran Shaun Garry with his son Shaun Jr., his wife, Stacy, mother-in-law, Jane Bascom, and daughter, Sasha, at their Spring Grove home, where they moved to find a calmer environment for Garry to cope with his post-traumatic stress disorder. Not pictured is son Sebastian, 16.
    Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Spring Grove resident Shaun Garry served in the Army for nearly six years from 2005 to 2009.

    Spring Grove resident Shaun Garry served in the Army for nearly six years from 2005 to 2009.
    Courtesy of Shaun Garry

 
 

The melted body is ingrained in Shaun Garry's head, an unwelcome souvenir from his 15 months as a soldier in Iraq.

He doesn't like to describe the image. Sheltering others from the carnage of war is part of why he chose to serve, he says. But he remembers the way the explosion's force left a visible impression.

"These are things we see," Garry says.

Too often, they are things that can't be unseen.

Garry, 39, was medically discharged from the Army in 2009 and has been diagnosed with 17 disabilities, among them post-traumatic stress disorder. Since then, he's had to learn ways to cope.

"A lot of people believe it's something that can be solved, or after a certain amount of treatment, you're going to feel free and clear. That is not the case," he says. "It does not go away. Just like your memories of a situation don't go away."

But families, responsibilities, bills, mortgages don't go away, either. So Garry learned new ways to get by, starting with his environment.

It hasn't been easy.

Wheaton might not seem a bastion of urban congestion, but it was too much for Garry. "Way too many people around me," he says.

So he took those he wanted around him -- his wife, Stacy, and their children -- and moved to the edge of the suburbs in Spring Grove, population 5,000, where he can go fishing to relieve stress, where the animals are so neighborly he has befriended a "pet" chipmunk, where folks proudly fly American flags.

"I changed my environment to improve my ability to cope with PTSD," Garry says. "Learning how to adjust the way you live and use good coping mechanisms is the thing for a veteran with PTSD to get as close to a normal life as they're going to have."

Garry's life now involves his work for the Iraq War Fund, an anti-terrorism lawsuit in the works against nine foreign banks that provided money to Iran. He uses his military background to conduct outreach for the lawyers working on the suit, and he says he's connected with more than 12,000 veterans across the country since March.

One veteran told Garry a story of despair and desperation, isolation and the ravages of PTSD. The man felt comfortable opening up because he knew Garry understood his experiences in the military.

A shared understanding can be a key component of mental health treatment for veterans, which is why Garry says he's an advocate of a "for-veteran-by-veteran" approach.

It's also why a state law effective Jan. 1 will create priority hiring in the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs for combat veterans to work as veteran service officers and direct the state to establish a peer-to-peer program so one veteran's experiences can benefit another.

Army veteran Henry Tyler, 59, of Joliet works in a similar role for the National Alliance on Mental Illness branch in DuPage County as a veteran peer specialist. He says he identifies with the veterans he helps as they set goals to address the triggers that set off their anxiety or depression.

The strength of a mental illness, Tyler says, is "to get you isolated and listening to your own negative thoughts." He makes a battle analogy as he explains: "We're behind enemy lines without any support when we go up into our heads by ourselves."

Garry and Tyler say the rate of veteran suicides across the nation -- 20 a day -- is unacceptable, but more peer support could help.

"Working with veterans is where I do the most," Garry says. "I almost have a superhero complex. I can't stand people being in need and not getting help."

• If you or a loved one is in crisis, go to the nearest emergency room, visit the Veterans Crisis Line at www.veteranscrisisline.net, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. or call (800) 273-8255, the number for both services.

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