The war at home 

Montana veterans lead the fight against post-traumatic stress disorder

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He's interrupted by the opening door, and in walk two men who sit down in the circle. "You better turn that thing off," Poloynis says, pointing to an audio recorder. And in walk a couple more.

When the meeting starts, a Vietnam vet wonders aloud about his ongoing efforts to control his temper and identify what triggers it. An Iraq vet, a medic, says a get-together for veterans at a local church he and others in the group attended two days before was exactly the kind of small, informal gathering that sets off his social anxiety, enough for him to spend the next day in bed anesthetized by muscle-relaxers and anti-anxiety medication. A Vietnam vet laughs about how a blotch on his cheek from a recent procedure won't grow hair. Poloynis, a VA-trained facilitator, steers the discussion, affirming to these men that none are alone in coping with their problems.

The conversation begins to focus on a young and brash Iraq vet, who moments after walking into the room declares to the group he's through with sex. He can't figure out if it's the new medication his doctor put him on that's taken the pleasure out of it, or if he truly doesn't have feelings for the girl he's sleeping with. He says his climaxes are void of emotion. There's no connection. Most in the group offer an understanding nod.

The young man reveals that he recently felt an urge to hit his girlfriend. Stupid things, like her freezing cold hands on his back, provoke him. He knows it's wrong, but that's what he feels. The group nods again.

Chris Poloynis, a Vietnam vet, leads a Missoula vet-to-vet counseling group called Spartans Honour. Montana, which per capita has the second-most veterans in the country--more than 100,000--is among the few states that support vet-to-vet groups like it. There are at least nine such groups around the state.
  • Anne Medley
  • Chris Poloynis, a Vietnam vet, leads a Missoula vet-to-vet counseling group called Spartans Honour. Montana, which per capita has the second-most veterans in the country--more than 100,000--is among the few states that support vet-to-vet groups like it. There are at least nine such groups around the state.

If you give in to that urge just one time, Poloynis tells him, you'll end up in Deer Lodge. He reminds him that if he's convicted of a felony he'll lose VA benefits. The whole group talks about it, helping the young man figure out whether he should break off the relationship. If you can't reciprocate the love she has for you, they suggest, then maybe it's time to end it. If your medication isn't dialed in, maybe you should end it. It's easier to do it now than later.

The young man gets up, says the relationship's over, and walks out to attend a doctor's appointment.

The veterans don't hold anything back. They can speak freely, Poloynis says, because some note-scribbling counselor, who's not a veteran, who can't understand, isn't here evaluating them. And that's the point.

Montana, which per capita has the second-most veterans in the country—more than 100,000—is among the few states that support vet-to-vet group therapy meetings like Spartans Honour. There are at least nine such groups around the state, some associated with the VA and some not, and most initiated by Vietnam veterans like Poloynis who, through years of treatment, have gotten a handle on their PTSD. Together they created the first network of vet-to-vet support groups in the country.

Tom Huddleston was among the first to start the weekly meetings. Huddleston, 65, says he was once a bully and a drunk who after seven careers, three wives and countless debilitating flashbacks over 40 years finally decided to confront his mental illness. Now, he's focused on helping veterans in Helena. In 2006, Gov. Brian Schweitzer appointed him to the Montana Board of Veterans' Affairs.

"Vet-to-vet's ultimate goal, I think, is just getting us back to being tight," says Huddleston over the phone from Helena. "Every generation and every conflict, the one thing we all have in common is that feeling of being tight with your unit, when the rest of the world did not exist. Your mission was to just take care of each other. And that's what vet-to-vet is.

"The terrible irony of being in combat," he continues, "is that for a male brought up in the American culture, it's probably the first time that we ever experienced unconditional love, and it's in an environment of killing, of dirt, of waste, of pain. But we know agape. We understand unconditional love because we will go down with each other, and we will give it up for each other. And what vet-to-vet does is it reminds us of that fact. The irony is that in a world of steaks and honey, of everything nice and all the wealth, we hate. We find parts of our neighbors to despise. But in war we learn to love. In vet-to-vet, it reminds us of that honor of unconditional sacrifice."

The talking circle

Roger Shourds founded and facilitates one of the newer vet-to-vet groups in the state, the PTSD Talking Circle on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Shourds is thick, but his imposing nature belies his big smile and soft, almost nervous tone. He says he served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1968 in Chu Lai. He didn't know he had PTSD until almost 20 years after returning home, when he went through a bad divorce and ended up in a psych ward.

"I didn't recognize what was wrong with me," he says.

The concept of vet-to-vet meetings—of honoring sacrifice, of purification, of sitting in a circle and revealing one's self—is rooted in American Indian culture. It's appropriate considering that, per capita, more American Indians go to war than any other race.

"The Native Americans—almost all of the Western tribes—have a very similar tradition," Huddleston explains, "that when warriors returned from battle, the first thing that happened was that they were called to sit before the elders, and the elders did a number of very strange but loving things. First of all they apologized to the warriors for having to do the things they had to do and see the things they saw. And then they gave them honor for putting the needs of the tribe above their own survival. And then they told them how happy they were that they returned safely. And then all the warriors would all get up and go in the sweat lodge for a purification sweat."

During purification sweats participants sit in a circle around baked stones and one-by-one speak to what troubles them, cleansing themselves of evil thoughts and spirits.

Spartans Honour helped Weston recognize his PTSD, which led to him spending a year in inpatient therapy. Spartans Honour allows veterans to speak freely, Poloynis says, because some note-scribbling counselor, whos not a veteran, who cant understand, isnt there evaluating them.
  • Anne Medley
  • Spartans Honour helped Weston recognize his PTSD, which led to him spending a year in inpatient therapy. Spartans Honour allows veterans to speak freely, Poloynis says, because some note-scribbling counselor, who's not a veteran, who can't understand, isn't there evaluating them.

"In vet-to-vet," Huddleston says, "one of the reasons for doing rounds is what happens in a sweat lodge."

Moreover, American Indians traditionally gave warriors too old to go to battle a new command, and that was to bring peace to younger warriors. When he first learned that, Huddleston says, it brought "a magic" to what facilitators like he and Poloynis are doing with their groups.

On a recent Tuesday evening, Shourds and Poloynis gather with veterans and non-veterans, American Indians and non-Indians, at Ronan's Pache Homesite Community Center, a doublewide trailer shadowed by the Mission Mountains on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The group circles a table on which an eagle feather sits and a candle flickers. The talking stick is passed around. During the first round participants introduce themselves. During the second they discuss what's on their minds. During the third they offer feedback or insight or validation. The stick will go around all night if it needs to, Shourds reminds. No one should leave if they're not feeling all right.

The stick makes it to a middle-aged veteran who just two weeks before tried to kill himself by downing a bottle of pills. He says he chose pills over the loaded gun that hangs in the corner of his bedroom, where he's spent days at a time lying in bed. When paramedics arrived, he says, they flew him in a helicopter to Missoula, where his stomach was pumped.

He's doing okay now, though, he says. He's going to "drive on," he repeats again and again, resting his hopes on a recently submitted job application to be a custodian. He thinks he's got a good chance. Still, despite his openness, he tells the group he won't likely be coming back next Tuesday, which prompts Poloynis, when the talking stick reaches him, to urge the man to please come back. To not, he says, would not only spurn the group's commitment to supporting him, but his commitment to supporting the group. The man says he'll try to make it.

Then a woman painstakingly says that her son, who served in the Marine Corps, recently informed her that he's going to again attempt suicide. And the talking stick goes around.

Suicide is an acute problem on American Indian reservations, and for veterans especially.

"Reservations haven't always been a really healthy place for them to come back to," explains Roxana Colman-Herak, the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes' Suicide Prevention Program coordinator. She points to the reservation's lack of services and jobs, as well as the rampancy of drugs and alcohol abuse.

The Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes elected not to release suicide statistics to the Independent, but those who work with veterans believe the numbers are rising.

Ralph Foster, owner of Foster Funeral Home & Crematory in St. Ignatius, one of three funeral homes on the reservation, says of the roughly 100 bodies he receives each year, about 15 are veterans, and probably one or two of them committed suicide.

Vietnam vet Roger Shourds founded and facilitates one of the newer vet-to-vet groups in the state, the PTSD Talking Circle on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The concept of vet-to-vet meetings is rooted in American Indian culture, appropriate considering that, per capita, more American Indians go to war than any other race.
  • Anne Medley
  • Vietnam vet Roger Shourds founded and facilitates one of the newer vet-to-vet groups in the state, the PTSD Talking Circle on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The concept of vet-to-vet meetings is rooted in American Indian culture, appropriate considering that, per capita, more American Indians go to war than any other race.

"But if we're considering what I would call a 'slow suicide'—those getting out of the military and whose primary purpose is to drink and do drugs and have that sort of lifestyle—I would say that almost half of the veterans that we serve fit in that category," Foster says.

Shourds, a tribal elder, says he attends every tribal funeral, reciting prayers in the tribe's native language. He says he spoke at 81 funerals last year alone. Without being specific, he says too many of the funerals were for veterans too young to die.

The tribe has roughly 7,400 enrolled members, of which about two-thirds live on or near the reservation. There are 524 veterans, 216 of whom live on the reservation, according to tribal administrator Ruth Swaney.

"The talking circle," says Colman-Herak, "is really important because it helps people to unload some of that baggage that they've been carrying around, for a lot of people, for the majority of their lives, before war and after."

At the end of the three-and-a-half-hour meeting the talking stick returns to Shrouds, who speaks of the journey he and two other tribal members will take to Vietnam in November. He'll return, he says, in hopes that the very battlefields that scarred him 40 years ago will help to heal him.

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