By LORAINE ANDERSON
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — A local college extension class on post-traumatic stress disorder has come a long way since April.
The instructor, retired Lt. Col. Linda Fletcher, and several students are forming a non-profit to advocate for better treatment of combat veterans returning from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The group of about 20 people also hopes to turn Traverse City into a local and national education and conference center on the subject.
“PTSD has reached epidemic proportions,” Fletcher said. “Returning soldiers and their families, including parents and siblings, are not getting the support they need to effectively deal with this problem.”
Fletcher said the group — “A Matter of Honor,” or AMOH — germinated from a two-session class she taught this spring at Northwestern Michigan College. Some students in the class wanted to continue discussions that began during class on what they could do on the home front to help improve PTSD treatment for veterans and their families.
A U.S. military veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes, on average, according to the most recent Department of Veterans Affairs study. About 22 veterans committed suicide each day in 2010. Nearly 30 percent of the veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD and half of those with PTSD do not seek treatment.
“We decided public education is what needs to happen,” Fletcher said. “The question was, ‘How do you do that?’ And the answer is, ‘It’s a challenge but it has to happen across the land.’”
PTSD is triggered by terrifying and tragic events often experienced in combat, catastrophe and abuse of all kinds. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.
U.S. Marine veteran Larry Lelito served 13 months in heavy combat near the Laotian border in 1966 and 1967 and attended Fletcher’s class. He is an adviser to AMOH. He also works on PTSD-related concerns as a mentor and peer with other veterans and veterans groups.
“When it comes to AMOH, I try to help as much as I can,” he said. “It warms my heart to see all different kinds of people getting involved in trying to help our veterans and to help people grow more aware of how to help veterans. That’s a great thing.”
He said he saw “a lot of death and brutality in Vietnam.” He prefers to use the term “combat stress” instead of PTSD in his volunteer work.
“PTSD is an umbrella term for people with different kinds of stress. Combat stress is different and it has two sides. You’re both a perpetrator and a victim.”
Fletcher served as an Army nurse for 22 years. She has a master’s degree in trauma and has spent the last seven years exploring PTSD and treatments on her own.
Fletcher thinks PTSD should be diagnosed and treated as a “dissociative reaction” rather than an “anxiety disorder,” as it has been for more than 70 years since World War II.
“The problem is the definition, which in turn affects treatment,” she said. “Anxiety treatment targets living with what exists. Dissociative therapy targets reintegration of that which has been separated.”
She and other AMOH board members said their effort is not to “vilify” the Veterans Administration, which oversees PTSD treatment, but to work with it to improve treatment.
The goal of AMOH is to turn Traverse City into a national education, conference and advocacy center for better treatment of combat veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Since May, the group has developed a business plan that is centered on building a community model dedicated to raising community awareness about PTSD in Traverse City. The vision is to provide it as an exportable plan to other communities around the nation. The model will include lectures, college extension courses, conferences, extensive web presence aired interviews, news releases and documentary films.
The organization, with a $10,000 loan from Fletcher, has applied for non-profit status.
The first town hall-style public education meeting is scheduled for Veterans Day, Nov. 11. Keynote speaker is Luis Carlos Montalvan, a 17-year Army veteran and author of “Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him,” Fletcher said. Time and location of the evening event will be announced later.
The group also wants to organize at least two national conferences in Traverse City in 2014 — one in the spring and the other in the fall.
Fletcher will teach two “PTSD: The Facts and the Future” classes this fall at NMC. The first two-session class will be from 6:30-8:30 p.m. on Oct. 8 and Oct. 15. Students can enroll online at NMC until the day the class begins, she said. The second class is scheduled for the same time on Dec. 5 and 12. The classes are designed for those in helping professions, families and those with PTSD.
Fletcher said she began her PTSD studies years ago to honor her father, a World War II veteran, after realizing that he had suffered from the disorder.
“It’s a catchy name for the project,” she said. “But it is also a matter of honor that we take care of our veterans.”