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Naval combat chaplain battles PTSD

After tours of duty, Colorado man finds solace in sports, academics
During his service in Iraq, military chaplain Rickey Bennett suffered a traumatic brain injury. When he returned to Colorado, he had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. To cope with his PTSD, he now plays sports with people who have disabilities.

AURORA – After Lt. Rickey Bennett came back from Iraq in 2005, friends and colleagues told him he had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, but he denied it. As a military chaplain, he was trained to detect it in others, but he just didn’t see it in himself.

But in 2010, he was bombarded with flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks and paranoia. Once responsible for boosting the morale of 3,000 military members in Iraq, he was afraid to leave his bedroom.

“I was going five to seven days without sleep,” said the 52-year-old, who lives with his wife in Aurora, his home base since 1990. “In the daytime, I had flashbacks, and nights were horrible nightmares. I got to the point it was commit suicide or get help.”

The diagnosis was PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Since then, he’s been hospitalized many times, tried a cornucopia of medications and treatments. He couldn’t work, so he retired from his career as a Navy chaplain, which he’d continued after Iraq at places such as the Naval Chaplains School in Rhode Island.

“He’s still having a hard time with the transition,” said his daughter, Emily Joy. “It still seems like he’s overseas half the time.”

PTSD treatments rising

Combat chaplains follow uniformed personnel into battle, facing the same risks of hitting IEDs or getting caught in gunfights – except they carry no weapons.

Bennett is among the 8 percent of current and former service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan who suffer from post-traumatic stress, and his experience is mirrored in the findings of a new report from the Institute of Medicine, commissioned by Congress to assess PTSD services and programs.

The 300-page report released in June found demand for PTSD treatment is at unprecedented levels, but the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration are not prepared to deal effectively with a caseload expected to dramatically increase as more service members return home.

Both agencies have spent billions of dollars on PTSD, but they “often do not know what treatments patients receive or whether treatments are evidence-based, delivered by trained providers, cost-effective or successful in improving PTSD symptoms,” the report said.

Between 2004 and 2012, the percentage of all active-duty service members with PTSD increased from 1 percent to 5 percent, the report said. In 2012, 13.5 percent of Army service members had PTSD, as did 10 percent of Marines, 4.5 percent of Navy members and 4 percent of Air Force personnel.

‘No miracle cure’

For veterans such as Bennett, struggling through the system has been a long process, including hospitalizations and experimenting with at least 40 PTSD treatments.

“There is no miracle cure,” he said. “For me, it took a combination of things.”

He discovered two things helped most – sports and academics.

He’s become passionate about adaptive sports and participates on many athletic teams formed of people with physical disabilities and emotional challenges. Last year, he participated on the Navy Wounded Warrior Team at the 2013 Warrior Games at the U.S. Olympic Training Center and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

Equally important, he said, was writing his dissertation for a doctorate of ministry from Regent University. This May, he finished the 400-page project that details a program he believes will help combat chaplains better transition to life after war.

“Writing it out helped me confront the trauma and deal with it,” he said.

Dealing with combat deaths

Combat chaplains who return home with invisible wounds, such as PTSD, are increasingly common, said Lyman Smith, deputy executive director of the Military Chaplains Association in Arlington, Virginia.

“We have probably the highest percentage of chaplains deployed to combat areas in the history of the nation,” Smith said. “Some come back and suffer what is commonly known as PTSD.”

Bennett started his military career in the Colorado Air National Guard at Buckley Air Force Base as an aircraft weapons specialist. After earning a Master of Divinity degree from Denver Seminary, he became a Navy chaplain in 2002.

Two years later, he deployed to Iraq as command chaplain for the 1st Battalion 7th Marine Regiment. On the second day, a number of Marines – including the company commander – were killed by an IED.

“I knew everyone in our unit that was hit,” he said. “So that was a rude awakening.”

For seven months, he dealt with death constantly, working 20-hour shifts in the casualty collection point.

“It was graphic,” he said, “and hard to deal with.”

He held the hands of the wounded as they died, counseled grief-stricken Marines and dodged bullets. When a gunship hit a weapons cache, the explosion slammed him headfirst into a wall, which resulted in his traumatic brain injury.

“I just shoved everything down and never really dealt with it,” he said.

Helping others with PTSD

Recovery meant processing even the darkest memories, and now he wants to speak out and help those who may be afraid to admit to PTSD. Members of his family, who’ve been supportive, are also outspoken.

“It’s just been a heartache for all of us to help him, and we hate seeing what he’s going through,” Joy said. “Before (Iraq), he was always very happy and full of life. When he came back, he was not the same person.”

Right now, what really boosts his spirit is playing sports with people with disabilities. Last week, he trained with Team Semper Fi to run the Marine Corps Marathon in October. He also practiced with the Wounded Warrior Dragon Boat Team and with the Denver Rolling Nuggets, a wheelchair basketball team.

“I’m around other people with disabilities, and their stories and my stories jibe,” he said. “We encourage each other.”

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