A helping hand ready to hand off
For seven years Rick O'Dell has run a website for veterans and active duty troops struggling with PTSD. Now, he's ready to stand down.
From the very beginning, the emails poured in — many in the middle of the night. They came from Oregon and Ohio, from wives and mothers, from active duty troops and veterans alike.
A Florida National Guard staff sergeant described the horrors of serving in Afghanistan:
I have been shot, I have killed, I have seen the enemy blown up ... dead bodies, friendly fire deaths, carried the coffin of a friend, identified mutilated bodies, and as a medic I had to decide who lived and who died.
But now his marriage is foundering, nightmares jolt him from medication-induced sleep, and the Army wants to transfer him to another base for a psych evaluation and possible discharge, a move that will separate him from "the only reason I get up in the morning" — his three sons.
I am in a corner and the only thing I know to do is fight my way out of it.
Rick O'Dell understands. For seven years now, the retired head of the state Department of Veterans Affairs and Vietnam veteran has quietly operated a website for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder out of the basement of his split-level Roanoke County home. He's taken it all in — heart-wrenching emails, requests for therapy referrals, questions about navigating the maze that is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
He's stayed up a lot of nights himself — answering emails, worrying, thinking about his own past.
The site is so effective that O'Dell, now 64, has very effectively resurrected memories he'd like to keep buried in the Iron Triangle of Vietnam. Like the Florida staff sergeant, he has nights when the enormity of war has him feeling cornered, too.
O'Dell remembers the moment when PTSD first enveloped him: It was 1981, 11 years after his return from Vietnam. He was home suffering from a flu bug when his first wife handed him the book, "Nam: The Vietnam War in the Words of the Men and Women Who Fought There," to give him something to do.
There it was at the bottom of page 105 — the account of an attack of his armored cavalry regiment in Quan Loi.
Then a benefits claims specialist for the state's Veterans Affairs department, O'Dell spent a lot of time trying to persuade Roanoke-area POWs who had served in Korea and World War II to have psychiatric exams.
"Nothing's wrong with me," they'd tell him, then casually explain that they'd had nightmares for decades, actually, and could not stand to be in crowds. One Korean vet described being fine until he retired — and was unable to leave his home.
But reading about his own battle that day, O'Dell's heart began to race, and full-blown panic set in. He recalled his buddy, Fred, getting his eye blown out next to him. A tank gunner, O'Dell killed at least two North Vietnamese soldiers during that skirmish and remembers burying 30 the next morning with the blade of a bulldozer.
The book triggered another memory: the North Vietnamese soldier he met by surprise months later who could have easily shot him but turned and ran instead.
"I shot him in the back with an M-19 grenade launcher," O'Dell said. Rifling through the man's pockets, he found a student ID from the University of Hanoi. They were both 22.
In time, O'Dell's therapists would explain that he hadn't decided to kill the man at all. He'd acted on reflex, honed in an Army training program called Quick Kill.
O'Dell would go on to become Gov. Doug Wilder's point person on veterans affairs, oversee construction of the Virginia Veterans Care Center and co-write two groundbreaking books on veterans rights. He would retire early and run a charter fishing service at Smith Mountain Lake, only to realize he was just as type-A about fishing as he was about veterans rights — and retire again from that.
Through it all, the memory of that Vietnamese student-soldier lingered — a moral ambiguity that he'll take with him to the grave.
That experience helps explain why more than a half-million soldiers and veterans have found solace in his PTSDhelp.net, many of them people who are reluctant to reach out to official military channels for help.
Some are still in the service. Others have been out for decades and, like O'Dell, were fine at first — "until something triggers a memory, and it all comes back and bites you on the butt."
Avoiding a paper trail
Some veterans wonder, years or even decades after their discharge, how to navigate the VA maze of health care benefits and compensation. Others still in uniform want to seek treatment privately, worried that a paper trail will quash their military careers.
VA crisis hot lines and the National Center for PTSD are great outreach tools, O'Dell said, but veterans and their families seek out his site precisely because it's anonymous and off the official government books. About half who contact him are active-duty soldiers writing to him from Europe, fresh out of a deployment, and some write directly from Iraq and Afghanistan.
A PTSD worksheet he designed helps veterans prepare for psych exams by gauging combat stresses and their current mental state as well as organizing important military events. (For example: While in combat, how often did you kill or likely kill your target? If you were present when Americans were killed in action, list their names and approximate date of their deaths.)
Not long ago, a relative reached out on behalf of an Ohio Vietnam veteran who'd become a nurse after the war but now lives in a duplex without water or heat because of severe PTSD that prevents him from working. O'Dell sent the relative to the man's local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter for assistance.
He helps coach veterans so they won't become caught in a diagnosis of "personality disorder," as has happened to thousands of servicemen and women since 2001.
Many were unable to access benefits when it was deemed they had a pre-existing condition that wasn't disclosed when they signed up, when in fact many soldiers with the so-called disorder only started acting out after finishing a deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. (Last month, the Army inspector general announced a systemwide review to determine whether VA psychiatrists overturned diagnoses of PTSD to save money.)
Veterans can type their ZIP codes into O'Dell's site to access the nearest therapists specializing in PTSD, via a Boston-based therapy database called HelpNet.
"What Rick's done is to make services accessible to people who aren't going to go through the more traditional system," said HelpNet President Bill Blout, a therapist in Lexington, Mass.
"He was as surprised as anybody by how much it took off," Blout said. Every month, about 200 of the site's visitors follow up by making appointments with therapists listed on the site, Blout added.
Navigating the maze
When O'Dell went to Vietnam, he went once and stayed a year. It wasn't easy, but he didn't have to deal with the multiple deployments foisted on today's volunteer force. "These are professional soldiers, not draftees," he said. "Everything in their culture is stacked against them if they come back and have personal problems."
An example of a 2009 email from a soldier named Brian: I am an OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom] Army vet who was ruled 100 percent [disability] for PTSD this summer. Now my VA psychiatrist is talking about bipolar and even borderline personality. I have been taken aback since I never had bipolar symptoms before war.
O'Dell coached him to enlist a veterans service representative through the Virginia Department of Veterans Services or via service organizations such as the American Legion and Veterans for Foreign Wars. He also reminded him: "PTSD is something that happened to you as a result of your service to your country. It is a wound of war honestly earned," he wrote.
He counseled an Army Honor Guard soldier scarred by his search and rescue work at the Pentagon on 9/11 — "I keep re-seeing things at night ... the bodies and the wreckage from inside the Pentagon" — to share the four-page email he wrote to O'Dell with his VA doctor.
He referred the mother of an Afghanistan vet who couldn't get treatment because of a "less than honorable discharge" caused by a positive drug screen to the National Veterans Legal Services Program for help. "He has nightmares about a family he was ordered to shoot. ... He has been through drug problems, a failed marriage and cannot hold on to a job," she wrote.
O'Dell created the site in 2005 after John Kerry's failed presidential bid "because I knew then we were in for at least four more years of war." They'd been friends since O'Dell was a national officer for Vietnam Veterans of America, Kerry blurbed one of O'Dell's books, and O'Dell was Virginia coordinator of Veterans for Kerry.
O'Dell was disappointed with Kerry's support of the war in Iraq, though, and told him so. He feels his entire generation let today's soldiers down.
"I don't remember anybody in Vietnam who could give me a cogent argument about why we were there, but now I can't find one Vietnam vet today who doesn't think it was a noble thing," he said.
"We should've stood up more" against the war in Iraq, he added. "It's like we have a collective inability to learn from the past."
With veteran suicides on the rise as well as the increasing number involved in disciplinary problems and crime, "clearly what they're doing now is not working," O'Dell said.
No more stamina
At annual Vietnam veteran reunions, O'Dell has discussed launching a nationwide one-on-one mentoring program between Vietnam vets and younger vets. But the truth is, operating the site has taken a toll on O'Dell. "I don't have the stamina for it anymore."
He plans to approach the Department of Defense about starting one instead. "Nothing will help a vet more than talking to another vet," O'Dell said.
In the near future, he plans to gauge interest in the VA or DOD taking over his website, too, and has arranged for HelpNet to do it if they won't.
His wife, Dale, a retired Northside High School teacher, is hoping her husband will start sleeping better at night. "The site began to have a life of its own, and it brought back too much of his own stuff," she said.
O'Dell doesn't know what happened to most of the veterans who have emailed him in crisis. He keeps an intentional distance to protect himself from getting overly involved.
But he's proud of the support and links he's provided for thousands of soldiers and their families. As he recently wrote to the worried girlfriend of one veteran:
Just remember that he's a good guy. He has to be if he feels bad about what he's seen or done. If you go through the experience of combat and feel unmoved you have a much bigger problem than PTSD.