Story by NICOLE COOKE, Copy Editor—
About 11-20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom), experience Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, according to the National Center for PTSD.
However, only four out of 10 soldiers coming home from Iraq with mental health problems said they would get help.
It is very common for veterans with PTSD to not reach out for help, due to their self-sufficient nature after their military service. UCM is trying to help reduce the negative stigma of seeking help for veterans in the Warrensburg area.
The Military and Veterans Success Center, located in Elliott Union 117, is a place for veterans attending UCM to consider their “club house,” said Delilah Nichols, coordinator for Military and Veteran Services.
MVS offers many services for veterans at UCM, and in the Warrensburg community. The office focuses on three main things to help veterans when they return: education, healthcare, including mental wellness, and obtaining a job, said Lynn Lowder, director of MVS.
MVS focused on the second core area this past week by bringing in Capt. Chris Plekenpol, an author, motivational speaker and former U.S. Army tank commander, to speak about combat stress issues, otherwise known as PTSD.
Plekenpol, a graduate of West Point, spoke on Tuesday, Jan. 15 about his experiences in combat, and how he coped with what he went through.
He spoke about his time in combat from 2004-2005 just outside of Fallujah, Iraq. He and his company team, comprised of about 100 military personnel, 21 tanks, and some Humvees, patrolled a section of highway from Fallujah to Ramadi.
“On any given day, an IED would blow up and kill or maim one of my men; there were snipers, bazookas,” Plekenpol said. “So I blogged about what was happening and I would just share how I experienced crisis. As a Christian, I tried to take what was happening and look at it from a biblical perspective.
“There’s a lot of ways to look at events. If you are agnostic or atheist, it becomes hard to interpret things, why are things happening because there is no greater plan, and you can go into a spiral of despair if there is no hope.
“Especially for a lot of my men, and people who were reading the blog, they were looking for ‘What is the meaning of my friend getting blown up?’ I was trying to teach people from the perspective of someone who saw it.”
Nichols noted that anyone with a traumatic experience could develop PTSD, not just combat veterans.
PTSD can occur after someone has been through a traumatic event, such as combat, child, sexual or physical abuse, serious accidents, or natural disasters. Symptoms usually start soon after the event, but it could take months or even years for symptoms to develop, according to the National Center for PTSD.
Those with PTSD may relive the event, avoid situations that remind them of the event, feel numb, or feel “keyed up,” also known as hyperarousal.
If the symptoms continue for more than four weeks or interfere with someone’s life, they may be suffering from PTSD.
Plekenpol was brought in with the help of Nichols and Mike Cassidy, associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in Warrensburg, located at 141 E. Gay.
Cassidy knew Plekenpol from his work with the I Am Second movement, which according to its website, is meant to inspire people of all kinds to live for God and for others.
Knowing there is a large population of veterans that could benefit from the presentation in Warrensburg, Cassidy reached out to MVS to help host the event, which was followed up by a reception at The Rock at FUMC, located at 305 S. Holden St.
Plekenpol said he was happy to have the opportunity to speak on a college campus so he could reach out to not just veterans, but also students.
“The difference between a student out of high school and a student out of the military is enormous, and that’s because of the life experiences the military gives you that make you self-aware faster,” Plekenpol said. “There’s a gap sometimes between the two groups. When I come to speak on a college campus, it’s a great way to unite two worlds that don’t usually connect.”
During Tuesday’s presentation, there were a few laughs in the audience as Plekenpol shared the good memories he had with those in his company.
There were also a few tears shed that night as he shared the stories of losing men in his company while in combat.
Plekenpol talked about how his faith in God helped him through the experiences he had in combat, and how accepting God can help others in the same situation.
“People are going to walk in the door for this event broken and hurting and not know why,” he said. “I believe everything happens for a reason and this encounter with God could be what they needed. This event isn’t about a speaker or a great story. It’s about connecting with your creator.”
Bringing Plekenpol to campus supplements what the MVS is already doing to help veterans with PTSD, with services such as partnering with the Kansas City Veterans Center and bringing therapists to campus once a week for free counseling.
“We view the center as a healing center,” Nichols said. “It’s important to bring in speakers like Chris to speak about their experiences and how they have coped. When they talk about it, it gives these other combat veterans hope.”
Plekenpol said the one piece of advice he would give someone with PTSD who did not know what to do would be to simply ask for help.
“Step one is telling somebody and asking for help, which is the hardest step,” he said. But if you’re a veteran, there are people that know your issues and they want to help you.”
Plekenpol turned his blog into a published book, “Faith in the Fog of War,” which contains the stories he told during Tuesday’s presentation. For more information on his book, visit faithinthefog.com.
For more information about MVS, contact Nichols at firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting ucmo.edu/vets.