A sergeant in the Arizona Army National Guard, Kathleen Freitas thought she could handle readjusting to civilian life after a deployment in Iraq. However, like many returning troops, the Queen Creek mother of three realized she was shutting out her family, having problems fitting in with her changed responsibilities, and having a hard time coping with everyday activities. The Iraq war began six years ago Thursday, and thousands of Valley veterans are turning to the Phoenix VA Health Care System for help.
A sergeant in the Arizona Army National Guard, Kathleen Freitas thought she could handle readjusting to civilian life after a deployment in Iraq.
However, like many returning troops, the Queen Creek mother of three realized she was shutting out her family, having problems fitting in with her changed responsibilities, and having a hard time coping with everyday activities.
"You come back to this environment, and you feel like your friends and family won't understand," said Freitas, 38, an administration sergeant working at the training site command in Phoenix and Florence. "There's a part of you that's missing. You kind of shut yourself out. I just needed to go in and get professional help."
The Iraq war began six years ago Thursday, and thousands of Valley veterans are turning to the Phoenix VA Health Care System for help.
About 30 percent of soldiers and Marines returning from deployment in Iraq have reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. Mild traumatic brain injury, often caused by repeated exposure to blasts from improvised explosive devices and other weapons, affects up to one-quarter of returning servicemen and women, according to Debbie Dominick, a social worker and program manager for the Post Deployment Health Clinic at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center in Phoenix.
"We're looking at a new normal," Dominick said. "Veterans do not experience war and come back the same person. They're always going to be different. It doesn't mean you're crazy. It doesn't mean you're sick. We provide the treatment to fill in that blank."
After serving in a conflict zone from August 2006 to October 2007, Freitas started receiving counseling and attending support groups through the VA in December 2007.
"They have taught me how to manage stress," said Freitas, who is also a former Marine. "We're at a point where we're (her family) coping with each other and we're able to communicate with each other. It (the help) shows definitely that I wasn't alone."
Freitas is speaking out because she knows many of her fellow soldiers do not feel they need, or want, to seek help. She's proof the help is working and is encouraging others to seek counseling, attend support groups and take advantage of the available services.
"After a year of treatment, my girls and I have been so much closer," said Freitas, who also suffers from nerve damage in her right shoulder from carrying heavy gear, body armor and equipment. "I just want fellow soldiers to know there is help for them, and employers should allow them time to seek professional help and get back into society."
Seeing friends die, experiencing survivor's guilt, never being able to decompress, and dealing with the loss of memory, concentration and problem solving are just some of the issues troops are learning to live with, Dominick said.
"Injuries are not always visible injuries, because you can't see inside someone's head," Dominick said. "The brain is a very, very sensitive organ, and it doesn't like to be pushed around."
Veterans who served in combat since Nov. 11, 1998, are eligible for five years of free medical care from the VA. Besides support groups and other health services, job assistance, food boxes and family counseling are also available.
Weekly support groups are offered for Operation Enduring Freedom veterans who served in Afghanistan, and Operation Iraqi Freedom vets from Iraq, as well as their friends and family.
In the East Valley, the Southeast VA Health Care Clinic offers support groups from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays at the Mesa clinic, 6950 S. Williams Field Road, Building 23. For information, call (602) 222-6568.
Veterans, family and friends are also invited to support groups from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesdays at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center Ambulatory Care Clinic on the northeast corner of Third Street and Indian School Road in Phoenix.
Veterans or families with general questions on available services can call (602) 277-5551, ext. 7499.