TRAVERSE CITY — Paddraic Lord shifted heavily in his plastic chair and took a deep breath, toes dug securely into the beach.
The third-generation Anishinaabe veteran looked up and over at the waves gently pulling into the water’s edge, and then back down at the sand before he described what post-traumatic stress disorder feels like.
“A tightness in your chest,” he said. “I had a hard time sleeping, anger issues, self-harm to ‘quiet the thoughts’, blackouts, tunnel vision, manic, rapid heart rate ... I was high on high alert.”
He still carries the weight of four years of service in the U.S. Army, one of which was spent deployed in Afghanistan. Lord, 28, said he felt his mental health deteriorate during active duty. His symptoms appeared less than a year in — he noticed them when he went home on leave.
“Even on R&R, during those 15 days, you just feel weird around large groups of people, like you’re not safe,” he said.
He first shrugged off the symptoms as anxiety, but once he realized the unsettling dreams and hypervigilance weren’t going away after his tour, he sought help from Veterans Affairs. He has been in treatment for his PTSD since 2016, and said his healing has progressed to the point that he is only triggered by unexpected noises.
“I just want people to understand how isolated you can feel because it is such a small group of people who have served,” Lord said.
According to the National Indian Council of Aging, Indigenous people serve in the U.S. armed forces at five times the national average, and have the highest per-capita service rate of any population. Decades of peer-reviewed literature show that they also carry greater burdens of PTSD and trauma than white citizens in general, with combat and interpersonal violence as the leading causes.
Still, experts say PTSD in Indigenous veterans is poorly understood, leaving many without the individualized treatment they need.
ONE SIZE DOESN’T FIT ALL
When Greg Urquhart came home from his own tour in Iraq feeling symptoms of PTSD, he recalls the services that Veterans Affairs offered didn’t “fit his worldview” as a descendant of the Eastern Band of Cherokee.
“They have a one-size-fits-all approach that may work fine for your average, middle-class white American,” Urquhart said. “But it doesn’t work for a lot of minority people.”
So Urquhart, as part of his graduate research at Washington State University, conducted a year-long survey of roughly 700 Indigenous veterans representing hundreds of tribes in the U.S. It remains the largest known survey of its kind, and caught the attention of the Indian Health Services and the VA.
The survey’s findings indicated Indigenous veterans face service providers who lack cultural awareness, and the VA’s compartmentalized way of treating PTSD keeps Indigenous veterans from getting help. According to Urquhart, 86 percent of respondents to the 2014 survey said they would not go back to the VA for treatment.
“Western society wants to break everything down into boxes,” Urquhart said. “PTSD is a spiritual condition as well as a mental and physical condition.”
Traditional healing practices like sweat lodge were integral for the resolution of Urquhart’s own symptoms, and many Indigenous vets surveyed said they’d prefer treatment programs that offered such support.
Some VA hospitals now offer sweat lodges, talking circles, and more. But the military and the VA have been relatively slow to adopt spiritual and treatment practices to serve Indigenous veterans.
Native American soldiers often describe military experiences as spiritually isolating. Indigenous veterans (and all Indigenous communities) were not legally allowed to practice their religion/spirituality until 1978, with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA). And gaps in faith services for Indigenous soldiers persist.
Anishinaabe Marine Corps Veteran David Pitawanakwat, 31, said he is a proud Marine and is proud of his service. But he felt there was a certain level of indoctrination of Western-Christian values during his training. He explained the feeling of being targeted if you didn’t attend one of the two services being offered: Protestant or Jewish.
He served 5 years in active duty and 3 years on inactive duty, and recalls it wasn’t until his second year that another Indigenous Marine came into his unit. But by that time, the idea of being Indigenous was so foreign that he had “stopped thinking about it, stopped thinking about family” despite growing up in a strong, culturally-focused community, Pitawanakwat said.
“They really hammer home the idea that the only community you have is your military brothers (and sisters),” he said. “We have no colors, that there’s no such thing as race ... you start to build on that community and you really start to buy into it, and you really start to believe in it. Even though this is not how the civilian world is, a military unit has to operate like this to maintain unit cohesion.”
But that purposeful homogenization didn’t get rid of the racist preconceptions held by some in Urquhart’s unit.
“Some people figured, well, I made a better soldier because I was Native,” he said.
The stereotype of Indigenous people as warriors, or more brave, stems from the writings of Col. James Smith. Smith was held captive by unarmed Delaware Caughnawaga in the late 1700s, and penned an account on “Indian” warfare that depicted Native Americans as uniquely “brave and immune to the effects of battle.”
Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes furthered the ideas in his writings during the World War II-era.
“The rigors of combat hold no terror for American Indians and better than all else, they have enthusiasm for fighting,” Ickes wrote.
By the end of World War II a stereotype of Native Americans as a “martial race with special propensities and desire for warfare” was entrenched in American perception.
In many Indigenous cultures, war is viewed as a disruption of the natural order. Warriors are viewed as people who are not only placed in physical danger but also spiritual danger — they sacrifice themselves, purposely exposing oneself to trauma or death on behalf of their community.
It’s a role and undertaking worthy of highest respect, but also means war is only justifiable in the most serious of circumstances.
And according to Urquhart’s research, misconceptions about their cultures makes healing all the more difficult for Indigenous vets with PTSD.
HEALING THROUGH COMMUNITY
Like many who suffer from PTSD but lack the proper care, Indigenous veterans can become trapped in a destructive cycle of self-medication.
James, an elder Anishinaabe Veteran who asked not to be identified by his full name, said he lost his wife and kids, because he turned to drinking to deal with the pain after his military service ended.
He even endured electroshock therapy, and it made him forget some parts of his life, but it didn’t help with the things he “didn’t want to remember.”
“We’ve had things happen to us that goes beyond the human limits of being able to deal with or comprehend,” he said.
James is doing better now — he eventually got help, and spends a lot of time carving wood, crafting and volunteering with his community.
For Anishinaabe people, community is key.
“Enawendiwin,” which translates to “all of my relations,” means the connection of all life, which includes community.
Feeling like part of a community again can be one of the hardest parts of coming home.
“You come back from the service, and it seems like everybody around you has progressed, four or five years, where you have gone in a completely different direction,” Pitawanakwat said. “I mean, you will look at some of your family members and you won’t even recognize them anymore. Because you don’t even know who you are anymore, you know, and it’s especially terrifying for Indigenous people.”
Urquhart’s study recorded many Indigenous veterans who received community support from other veteran-led programs, traditional practices, and the connection to their culture. These things were integral to treating their PTSD.
“I grew up as an Indigenous person, and then that was stripped from me,” Pitawanakwat said. “And then I grew up as a military person. And now I have these two different identities that have taken a long time that I’ve taken a long time for me to reconcile walking within two worlds.”
Pitawanakwat said he has been in law school since getting out of the service in 2015. He attends University of Detroit Mercy and University of Windsor for Indigenous Law. Alongside focusing his efforts in study, he plays a key leader in Detroit Indigenous Peoples Alliance, a grassroots organization that focuses on Indigenous community efforts in Waawiiyaatanong (Detroit) area.
Lord has been working hard on managing his PTSD with the help of his therapist through Veteran’s Affairs, and his fiance, Amanda Herman. He feels he is at a spot in life where most of his triggers are under control, but still wants the community to know that PTSD is something he lives with everyday, and works even harder on in order to live a good life.
Urquhart is currently completing his doctoral research at WSU, and continues to advocate for better help for Native veterans. At the end of the day, he just wants care providers to meet Indigenous patients where they’re at.
“It’s a holistic comprehensive treatment that is needed [for] PTSD, and not just one aspect.”
This reporting project was produced in partnership with the Mishigamiing Journalism Project, a grant-funded effort that grants journalism fellowships to emerging Indigenous journalists.