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NH veteran moving on with PTSD

Union Leader Correspondent

January 30. 2013 7:38PM
Nashua native Joshua Mavrogeorge is seen while serving in Iraq during his 2004 deployment. Now living in Florida and pursuing a postgraduate degree in psychology, Mavrogeorge hopes to help fellow vets who, as he does, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. (COURTESY)

NASHUA - Joshua Mavrogeorge didn't expect to go to war when he enlisted in the New Hampshire National Guard in 2000, a year after dropping out of Nashua High School South, and he certainly didn't know where his service would later lead him: to pursuing a career in helping fellow veterans.

By 2003, Mavrogeorge had completed his high school graduation requirements, and was taking courses at Franklin Pierce University while serving as a guardsman at a New Hampshire air strip. The Guard had helped him do what he intended when he enlisted; get his life on track.

And then the orders came. He was going to Iraq.

He arrived in January of 2004 and was there for a year, working in convoy escorts, at radio relay stations and on personal security detachments, among other tasks. He had to fire his rifle on about 10 occasions, he estimates, and came under attack more often than that.

One morning while on radio duty, his base was bombarded by Iraqi insurgents.

"We looked at each other like, 'Dude, this is it; we're done," he recalled, "I remember not feeling scared. I was almost prepared to die."

After surviving the attack, Mavrogeorge said, he thought of the experience as something positive - even as something he could later use on his resume. What he didn't know was that he had begun experiencing PTSD - post-traumatic stress disorder.

High rate of incidence

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD afflicts 27 percent of veterans who served in Afghanistans and/or Iraq (as well as more than 30 percent of Vietnam veterans and about 10 percent of Gulf War vets).

The Veterans Administration lists four principal PTSD symptoms: reliving the traumatic event, avoiding situations that force recollections, feeling numbness, and experiencing periods of hyper-arousal - of being on constant alert, on the lookout for danger. PTSD can lead to hopelessness, shame or despair, as well as to anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and problems in relationships and employments. Myriad physical ailments also have been connected to the disorder.

Among veterans returning from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the National Institutes of Health, "PTSD and mild to moderate traumatic brain injury (TBI) are often linked and their symptoms may overlap."

Psychiatrist Craig Coldwell is the mental health director for eight VA hospitals in New England. He said though military members can experience PTSD for a number of reasons, combat exposure is the most common.

Dr. Coldwell said PTSD stems from the brain's "fight or flight" mechanism, a healthy level of anxiety that increases awareness in dangerous situations. PTSD occurs when the brain is unable to "down-regulate" from the anxious state, and is more likely to set on with repeated traumatic experience.

"We who are non-veterans can't fully embrace what it's like to experience combat, and sometimes veterans have told me that people ask questions that are difficult to answer - maybe casually asking how many people did you kill, and that's a really sensitive question for many veterans that can really lead them to want to distance themselves from others and avoid that sort of triggered memory," Dr. Coldwell said.

Enduring symptoms

Eight years after he completed his tour in Iraq, Mavrogeorge said, he's lucky to go two weeks without experiencing symptoms. Those symptoms, he said, include "moderate to severe anxiety in crowds and in situations involving trauma or violence, which cause me to avoid crowds or abuse alcohol when in a crowd. I have vivid dreams that cause sleeplessness, and I have problems with feeing socially withdrawn and numb."

Diagnosed in 2011, after he sought treatment at a VA following a "long bout of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation," Mavrageorge said he's doing much better now.

But it took a long time for him to get to this point.

After his tour in Iraq, Mavrogeorge received an honorable discharge and began an apprenticeship as an electrician. But adjusting to the civilian world was difficult, he said, and he returned to the military, enlisting in the Army Reserve in 2007.

He rose to the rank of staff sergeant and served as a drill sergeant at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri from 2008 to February of 2011, working what he describes as "outrageously long hours," often up to 100 hours a week.

The experience was intense, Mavrogeorge said, requiring him to be almost constantly alert and engaged. At times, he said, it was more stressful than his time in combat.

Dr. Loretta Bradley, a psychology professor at St. Anselm College who has worked with war vets, said that when 100 people are exposed to a traumatic event, 66 will experience nightmares, flashbacks or avoidance within the first 30 days. After a month, Bradley said, only 25 of those people will experience PTSD symptoms, and of those, 15 percent will continue to exhibit symptoms from six to nine months or more.

"The thing that is different about (Iraq and Afghanistan veterans) is the number of service tours, the number of exposures, and the age of the service members when deployed," Bradley wrote in an email. "When it comes to trauma, we know that it is cumulative, meaning more exposure increases one's chances of having long-term symptoms. We also know that the younger you are, the more vulnerable."

Healing and helping

While Mavrogeorge's time as a drill sergeant likely compounded his PTSD, it also inspired a passion for teaching.

After receiving another honorable discharge, he moved to Bonita Springs, Fla., where he began coaching in various youth sports and spending free time fishing, reading and playing guitar. He also used his GI Bill benefits to enroll at Hodges University in Naples, Fla., where he is working toward a postgraduate degree in psychology and working with fellow veterans.

Once again, his life is on track, but that wouldn't be the case, Mavrogeorge said, without the assistance of the psychologists and therapists who have prescribed medications and helped him develop coping mechanisms.

"The fact that I'm even talking about it is huge," he said. "You can't just let it ride you down to the ground."

Treatment also has enabled Mavrogeorge, now 32, to appreciate the many positive aspects of his time in the service, an attitude he hopes to help fellow vets develop.

"As deep as some of these scars go, I wouldn't trade my time in the military for anything," he said. "I made some of the best friends I ever made in my life. I had experiences that nobody else had. Without the war, I would be less of a human."

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