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PTSD counselor provides 'safe place' for veterans

David Seifert counsels Hubbard County veterans dealing with PTSD. (Jean Ruzicka/Enterprise)

Five years ago Hubbard County Veterans Service officer Greg Remus placed a call to the Veterans Center in Fargo.  “I have a few vets I’d like a counselor to talk to,” he said of combat veterans dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  He was seeing people coming in who were “mad at life.”  “Could this be PTSD?” he asked them.  “No,” was the immediate, terse reply. Many had never heard of the condition that wasn’t formally recognized until after the Vietnam War.  But family members were nodding “yes.”  The veterans were dealing with a continuum of symptoms - anger issues, sleep disorders, terrifying dreams. PTSD creates occupational and social impairment ranging from minimal to significant to total, Remus explained.  Some are suicidal.   “I’ve seen the whole gamut,” Remus said of Hubbard County area vets’ symptoms.  “For some, it’s all the time. For another person, it was just green rooms,” he said of a “tunnel rat.” The former soldier who’d performed underground search and destroy missions during the Vietnam War cannot venture into a room painted green.  Veterans’ interaction with others can send up a red flag, such as multiple divorces or frequently changing jobs, he said. PTSD can be considered a disability, for which compensation may be available.  “PTSD never goes away,” Remus said. But counseling provides a coping mechanism.

Safe place to process events Counselor David Seifert from the Veterans Center in Fargo arrived on the scene in September 2010, initially meeting with just two vets having experienced warfare trauma.  “It was their first opportunity to get together as veterans and process what had happened,” said Seifert, who’s a Vietnam vet himself.  Mayo Clinic defines PTSD as a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event – either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety.  The condition was referred to as battle fatigue or shell shock during the World War II era.  “Get back out there,” the soldiers were told.   “When vets are educated as to what it is, things get better,” Remus said. “Initially, it may get worse. But when they learn about it, come to terms with the symptoms, they deal with it better.”  “We talk about how PTSD affects lives and how to manage behaviors,” Seifert explains of sessions, now with 18 veterans - all but two Vietnam vets. A second gathering is held with the vets’ “significant others.”  “As a counselor, I provide a safe place to get together and process events most haven’t come to terms with,” Seifert said.  “In an ideal situation, they do well enough to function in a work situation,” he said.  Many self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. “They do whatever they can to forget what happened in 1967,” Seifert said of tours in Vietnam. They resort to “avoidance, isolation” to prevent triggering memories.  For many, who are now retired, they don’t have the daily routines that kept them focused on the present, not the past.  People with PTSD describe feeling unsafe and confused; anger is very common.  “They’re coming to this group finding comfort in knowing ‘I’m not crazy.’ They have found a group of guys who understand, who care,” Seifert said.  The Vet Centers are not part of the Veterans Administration hospital system, Remus explained. They were established by Congress in 1979 out of the recognition that a significant number of Vietnam era vets were experiencing readjustment problems.  Prior to this, very little mental health care was available, Seifert said. “PTSD wasn’t on the radar.”  The Vets Center is a part of “readjustment counseling services,” Seifert explained. “The only vets we see are combat vets and those who’ve experienced military sexual trauma (typically females who’ve been raped or sexually harassed). The center also addresses bereavement.  Veterans Centers maintain sets of records separate from the Veterans Administration health care system.  Seifert facilitates groups in Fergus Falls, Detroit Lakes, Perham and Jamestown and Grand Forks in North Dakota.  “Each group has its own personality and routine,” he said. The sessions start with asking, “Who’s not here?” Members are usually on somebody’s radar, he said of the camaraderie that forms.  He presents information on a topic and then it’s time for talk. Group members discuss medication, how they are sleeping, stressors and more.  “People come to process how things are going,” he said.

Soon to retire  But the sessions with Seifert are coming to an end; he will retire later this month.  Tuesday, Remus came before the Hubbard County board to request a resolution recognizing Seifert’s impact on area veterans.  “He is the best PTSD counselor I’ve ever met,” Remus told commissioners. “I believe there may have been a couple of suicides if it wasn’t for him. He reduces stress level and enhances quality of life.”  “This is an exceptional case because we are supposed to receive Vet Center support from the Duluth Vet Center and they have refused to send a counselor, citing their work load within the immediate Duluth area,” Remus wrote in a memo to commissioners.  “I went to the Fargo Vet Center with hat in hand asking for support. They agreed to send David.”  The commissioners unanimously approved the resolution recognizing Seifert for “outstanding performance of duty.”  Remus said he’s fairly confident the Fargo Vet Center will continue to send another counselor.  As for Seifert’s future plans: “woodworking, volunteering for the American Cancer Society, reading, golfing, fishing and napping.  “Wait. Napping should be second on that list,” he joked.