Returning home: Repeat deployments build trauma

Repeated deployments to war zones build a traumatic legacy that won’t let go of soldiers returning home, prompting responses that can range from merely embarrassing to much worse, said an Army Reserve clinical psychologist who has deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

There could be nightmares, depression, flashbacks and rage, along with inability to trust civilians who cannot relate to the soldier’s experiences in war, said Col. Kathy Platoni of Beavercreek, who operates a private psychological practice in Centerville.

Last week, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was formally charged with having killed 17 Afghan civilians earlier this month at their homes near his base in southern Afghanistan. Military authorities haven’t made many details of the killings, or a possible motive, public.

Bales, who spent his early years in the Cincinnati area and more recently lived in Washington state, has had multiple deployments to war zones. He is detained in military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., to await trial.

As an Army Reserve psychology consultant, Platoni takes phone calls daily from current or former military personnel seeking help. It is easier for them to relate to someone who has had to function in a war zone, Platoni said in an interview Monday.

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“You live in constant fear and terror initially, when you get over there. But, over time, you sort of get desensitized to it,” she said of a deployment. “You have to, in order to cope. Your training kicks in. You kind of go into automatic pilot when you go out on missions.

“If you’ve deployed enough times, it’s very hard to come back home,” she said. “Your old self isn’t hanging in the closet.”

A dead animal or a can at the roadside here at home could prompt the returned soldier to fear that the object is disguising an improvised bomb aimed at American troops, Platoni said.

“You make sure, when you’re in a restaurant, that you’re facing the door and you can see who’s coming in there. Terrorism can occur anywhere,” she said.

Platoni’s latest deployment, to Afghanistan, lasted from December 2009 until the end of October 2010. She recalls angry Afghans throwing rocks that struck the military vehicles carrying her unit.

There is a constant threat of enemy attacks with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades or small arms.

Platoni remains highly sensitized to loud noises. After returning home, she was in a restaurant where someone dropped a stack of trays.

“I let out a yelp. I was so embarrassed,” she said.

Platoni was at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009 when Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hasan went on an alleged shooting spree in a crowded waiting area at the installation. Hasan is charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of premeditated attempted murder. He awaits a military trial that could begin in June.

Platoni said she had just left the Fort Hood building where the Nov. 5, 2009, shooting occurred.

She was with a friend, Capt. John Gaffaney, 56, who was bleeding from gunshot wounds, when he died. Platoni said she has gotten to know Gaffaney’s family, and looks forward to participating in a July 21 ceremony to honor Gaffaney in his hometown of San Diego. An Army Reserve building is to be named for him.

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