Aurora University discussion centers around PTSD in all walks of life
Friends have asked Army veteran Mike Barbour if he ever wants to return to Vietnam for a visit after serving there 51 years ago.
His response: "No. I go there every night."
The memories from Barbour's yearlong deployment during the Vietnam War haunt him daily, he said Tuesday night during a presentation at Aurora University.
He can still remember the sights, smells and sounds of battle -- artillery fire, gunshots, helicopters flying overhead. He can recall watching one of his sergeants take a bullet that was aimed for him. He can picture a nurse at a mobile Army surgical unit holding that same sergeant in her arms the moment he died.
Barbour returned home in 1968 with no major physical injuries. But he had suffered significant mental trauma, he said, and it took him 43 years to admit that he needed help.
"Memory can be a curse," he said, "when you spend years trying to forget."
Barbour and his wife, Jan, of Naperville, were the keynote speakers during "Wounds Unseen," a presentation and panel discussion hosted by the Aurora University Veterans Association. The event aimed to highlighting the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on all walks of life, from police officers and military personnel to victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, said Jonathan Birkey, association president and an Army veteran.
"I was very taken aback by how far apart we could be, but we share a very similar condition," Birkey said. "PTSD doesn't know boundaries. It doesn't know demographics."
Triggered by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, PTSD can cause myriad symptoms including nightmares, flashbacks, severe anxiety, angry outbursts, detachment issues and thoughts of suicide. Jan Barbour said her husband experienced many of those symptoms after returning home from war, though they never discussed it until after he joined the local VFW and started seeking help.
When they hear about law enforcement officers who struggle with PTSD, most people envision gunfights and scenes of violence, said Kevin Triplett, an Army veteran and retired Aurora police sergeant. But officers are also often haunted by the car accidents, death scenes or tragedies involving children.
"The things that you dream about and that keep you up at night are the things that happen on a daily basis," he said.
For domestic violence survivors, victims of sexual exploitation and unoccupied immigrant minors, panelists specializing in those areas said PTSD often stems from a feeling of constant uncertainty and fear of being beaten, arrested, assaulted or deported.
Each demographic also faces its own barriers when it comes to seeking help, panelists said. Military personnel, for example, often fear their mental health issues will be seen as a sign of weakness in a career that trains soldiers to "suck it up," said Army veteran Sabrina Misra, who now works as a medical social worker.
For immigrants seeking asylum, the issue is often the accessibility and affordability of mental health services, said Daysi Diaz-Strong, MSW program director at Aurora University.
In each demographic, panelists said experts, volunteers and organizations are making great strides when it comes to offering more mental health resources and overcoming the stigma associated with PTSD.
Mike Barbour now receives counseling from the DuPage County Vet Center, as well as the VA, and he's made it his mission to help other veterans who find themselves in his shoes.
"It won't just go away. Dealing with PTSD is a mission, a battle you must wage every day," Jan Barbour said. "The good news is there's no need for you to do it alone, so don't think you have to."