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Keeler: Peer-to-peer is a great model for treating PTSD

"PTSD is a disorder that won't go away

"PTSD is a disorder that won't go away by itself. It needs understanding and care. Who better to understand than vets who bear the same wound?" writes Bob Keeler. Credit: Mark Weber / Tribune Media Services

Once, they called it shell shock. In Vietnam, they called it combat stress. Then, a few years after the war in Vietnam ended, it entered the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, with the dry, sterile name of post-traumatic stress disorder.

It has many manifestations: the thousand-yard stare, the panicked reaction to sudden loud sounds, the vivid nightmares. Too often, it drives its victims to take their own lives.

"A lot of the families of these veterans, they hate it when it's called suicide," said State Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley).

Zeldin talks about PTSD with a gentle passion, a palpable authenticity. He's an Iraq veteran who does not suffer from the disorder, but knows people who do. And he has done something real to help PTSD sufferers in three upstate counties and Suffolk, home to more veterans than any other county in the state.

After taking office in January 2011, Zeldin created the John P. Jennings Veterans' Advisory Panel, named for a Suffolk veteran of Iraq and a PTSD sufferer, who died on Jan. 10, 2011. After months of hearings, its members testified before Zeldin and the Senate Mental Health Committee, led by Sen. Roy McDonald (R-Saratoga), a Vietnam vet.

The result was inclusion of $800,000 in the 2012-13 state budget for the PFC Joseph Dwyer Program, named for an Iraq vet raised in Mount Sinai who suffered from PTSD and died in 2008. It's a four-county pilot of peer-to-peer PTSD counseling.

The Suffolk groups are just getting started, and the director of the county's agency for vets, Tom Ronayne, wants it understood -- especially for vets who shy away from contact with the Department of Veterans Affairs -- that they'll be confidential. "It is not going to find its way into your VA service records or your medical history," he said. "We are happy to welcome a veteran into a group on a first-name basis." It's a bit like a 12-step program: Vets who suffer from the disorder share experiences with others -- helped by facilitators who are also vets.

One facilitator is Denis Demers of Bohemia. He worked at a Da Nang hospital that was a model for the "China Beach" TV series on Vietnam, and he treated combat stress. He later earned a doctorate in social welfare and had a long career in mental health, finishing as director of mental health outpatient services for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. He's spectacularly qualified for this.

His primary role will be to lead, as one among equals. But there's another aim. "I am research-oriented," Demers said, and the groups will be part of a study by the University at Albany -- with no records kept, no names written down. "The research will be done primarily on outcomes, what works and doesn't work," he said. "I think part of it, at least from my perspective, will be to come up with a replicable model."

For Zeldin, the ultimate goal is to have groups spring up without government help. But the problem is urgent. There's no time to wait around for that spontaneous emergence. So government is getting it rolling.

There's a certain justice in that. It was government, after all, that caused the PTSD by throwing these young men and women into the intolerable stress of combat. As a nation, we have a profound obligation to help them find a way out of the never-ending nightmares that our wars created for them.

Not every vet will embrace peer-to-peer groups. "We have a whole lot of people who tough it out," said Mike Stoltz, the executive director of Suffolk County United Veterans. Their attitude: "These are my wounds, and I'm supposed to tough it out."

But it's a disorder that won't go away by itself. It needs understanding and care. Who better to understand than vets who bear the same wound?

Bob Keeler has been a Suffolk County reporter, Albany bureau chief, Sunday magazine editor, and editorial board member during nearly 42 years at Newsday. Keeler is the author of three books, including one about this newspaper: "Newsday: A Candid History of the Respectable Tabloid," and he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for his series of articles about life in St. Brigid's Parish in Westbury. He retires Friday, Dec. 21.

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