For Iraq War veteran, PTSD battle persists
By Riley Johnson, NewsNetNebraska
Dominic Biondo can feel it coming back on.
He’s tossing and turning at night, exhausted during the day. He has started finding time to nap, and scotch and vodka have found their way back into his evening routine. The 35-year-old Air Force veteran hasn’t returned to splashing Bailey’s Irish Cream into his coffee, but he bought a bottle at the store recently.
And the anger that once clouded his days as an undergraduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has crept back into his life.
“How do I not hate everything?” Biondo said of his continued fight with the post-traumatic stress brought on by his time in the interrogation rooms at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and at a defense contractor several years ago.
Dominic Biondo is one of many post-9/11 veterans who have battled post traumatic stress upon returning from their battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of annual cases of post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, has risen substantially since the early 2000s for soldiers serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation New Dawn.
The annual number of PTSD diagnoses among soldiers from all services who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan from 2000 to 2012 increased dramatically, according to a February 2013 Congressional Research Service report on U.S. military casualties.
An October 2012 report from the Department of Veterans Affairs noted that 30 percent of post-9/11 veterans treated at VA hospitals were diagnosed with PTSD.
For some soldiers, the trauma stems from being wounded by an IED or watching a friend die in battle. Biondo’s trauma came far from the battlefield.
But what’s often lost or overlooked in the expansive media coverage of PTSD, Biondo and mental health care providers say, is the reality that for many veterans like Biondo, post-traumatic stress can persist even beyond treatment.
“(Treating PTSD’s) not like surgery where you can remove something,” said Terry North, PTSD program director for the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System.
Much like an IED explosion can rob soldiers of their limbs, if not their lives, psychological trauma robs people of their safety, she said.
“With trauma, their world turns to the ‘The world is a dangerous place,’” North said.
Reactions to post traumatic stress vary among individuals, but in a report on its website, the VA said affected individuals often feel fear or anxiety, sadness, guilt and/or shame as well as experience behavioral changes such as drinking too much or avoiding situations.
For Biondo, signs of his post-traumatic stress weren’t clear to him — but were to others — when he returned to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for a second time. His transition from military service to college life in 2008 didn’t last all that long.
Biondo ran out of money to pay for school after a semester that fall, so he went back into contract work as a full motion video analyst on a Predator drone mission for BAE Systems, a defense contractor.
As the drone hovered above “bad guy” targets, Biondo would watch the camera feed and look for things like whether the target had weapons or whether there were children nearby, he said.
His job also meant watching the drone’s bombing of a target and the clearing of smoke post blast — an analysis of whether the strike had accomplished its goal.
“That kind of doesn’t settle right with you after a while,” he said.
With a year’s worth of his BAE Systems salary saved up, Biondo returned to UNL. And that’s when the “grotesque” images he had filed away in his mind in an effort to forget started to reemerge.
At UNL, he was among the oldest in his classes — surrounded by 18- and 20-somethings trolling Facebook during lecture. Their daily problems were trivial to Biondo. They’d complain about test grades, their professors or their significant others, and he’d just get frustrated, he said.
“These kids, who have no idea about life, were pissing me off,” Biondo said.
This frustration turned into rage. And though he never snapped at anyone, he imagined violently hurting his classmates, he said.
This anger followed him everywhere.
By the end of 2010, his anger had intensified so much he imagined everything burning — the annoying girls on Facebook behind him or his professor lecturing to the class.
“I hated the world so much that I wanted to watch it all burn,” he said.
But the anger was just one reaction he’d been having. He was drinking alcohol with everything, and he hadn’t really slept more than a couple of hours a night for about 3 years, he said.
That’s when his then friends told him to seek help.
First he went to UNL’s Counseling and Psychological Services where he was diagnosed with a mild case of PTSD. Later, he went to the VA’s outpatient clinic in Lincoln where he began one of two treatments for PTSD: cognitive processing therapy.
Typically, cognitive processing therapy means a patient examines his or her thoughts and beliefs and then analyzes them with a therapist, North said.
In his therapy, Biondo wrote a nearly six-page letter about one image he couldn’t get out of his mind: beheading videos. While an interrogations analyst at the prison base in Abu Ghraib, Biondo would often sift through the belongings of detainees and then watch what the detainee watched in an effort to see their perspective, he said.
These videos and their images, suppressed from his mind then, resurfaced after his second return to civilian life. And he couldn’t understand why and how someone could behead another human being, he said.
“It’s so foreign to me that this guy can saw a head off like it’s nothing … like it’s breakfast,” Biondo said.
After writing that letter, Biondo immediately felt he could move on, he said.
He stopped drinking as much and started sleeping like he had in the “100-year-old mattress” in his cell bunk bed in an old prison at Abu Ghraib. He’d started taking anti-depressants and a few sleeping pills every now and then, and his anger disappeared, he said.
Through his treatment at the VA, he had confronted his trauma and developed the coping skills to deal with it, he said.
North said those experiences are normal in PTSD treatment. Her PTSD team, comprised of more than a dozen psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers spread across Omaha, Lincoln and Grand Island see an average of 200 to 250 new patients a year, she said.
Many complete their treatment and are fully able to move on with few, if any, recurring post-traumatic stress, she said.
But others, North said, may have had preexisting anxiety or depression, which can be triggered at any time — though typically when the individual experiences a loss.
“People will always be vulnerable to reminders, but they will always have the capability to cope with them effectively,” she said.
Joining and leading UNL’s Student Veteran’s Organization in 2011 helped Biondo continue that therapy as he connected with other veterans, he said.
But after graduating with his bachelor’s degree in geography in 2012, Biondo got a contract job doing spatial analysis of maps for the Nebraska National Guard. But after Congress and the president failed to avert the sequester, Biondo found himself worrying again.
The budgetary restrictions set on by the sequester caused him to begin worrying if his contract would be renewed in September, he said. And, Biondo said, he wasn’t confident in his prospects of finding a permanent job in this economy.
Another fear: Now outside of the classroom, Biondo also worried about his isolated life. In addition to his creeping anger, drinking and sleeping problems, he said he was starting to realize he had isolated himself as a result of his anger and annoyance with many people.
He doesn’t feel like being social, so he doesn’t make new friends quickly, he said, and the cycle often perpetuates itself.
“I’m getting angry because I don’t do anything, and I‘m not doing anything because I’m angry at people,” he said. “So it’s a huge struggle … it’s very exhausting.”
Biondo’s prior treatment has given him the ability to manage his post-traumatic stress, he said, and he’s hoping exercise, relaxing with his dog, Leo, and remaining involved in the student veteran’s organization will help him move forward.
Even still, Biondo says he’s just a normal guy, despite with his condition.
“When people hear that a soldier has PTSD, I think that they’re afraid that he’s going to flip off the handle and start shooting people — which is a worst case scenario,” he said.
Biondo believes his post-traumatic stress will never fully go away. The symptoms just diminish, he said, and “you’re able to deal with it better than you could before.”
He’s still looking for stability in his job and said he hopes to one day work in government. He’s helping his veteran friends going through the same struggles he did to seek help.
Biondo said he knows it’s not what some of them want to hear, and North said she knows that self-reliant attitude isn’t uncommon of veterans and not easy to shake.
“It’s very hard for soldiers and veterans to ask for help,” North said, “but once we get them in here we do a lot of education and I’m seeing change.”