Veterans of Violence

t had been more than 30 years since U.S. Air Force veteran Ulysses Spencer left the wild jungles of the Vietnam War, last smelled the warm monsoon rains that would blanket the green lands facing the South China Sea and tasted the unnatural stench of smoldering war.

As an 18-year-old soldier drafted against his will – “A lot of us were,” explains Spencer – he was assigned “loadmaster” aboard a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter, a military aircraft used to carry supplies and able-bodied men into the hot zones of combat. Under his command, he defended the aircraft from hijacks, guided landings, takeoffs, and triaged the lives that he could save. He was an exceptional soldier to have served and survived four years (1970-1974) in the war. And even more exceptional to survive without bodily harm.

Or so he thought.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when two planes hijacked by terrorists flew into New York City’s World Trade Center, Spencer watched in a whirlwind of familiar confusion from his home in Detroit as the life he thought he’d left behind returned in suffocating memories of napalm, scorched earth and flesh. He was experiencing a post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD – episode, and it would send his life spiraling out of control in drugs and drinking.

“I lost all contact with reality,” remembers Spencer, 64, now a peer support specialist at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Midtown Detroit helping other veterans with PTSD. His hair, trimmed to an orderly military buzz cut, is ashen white with age. His eyes are dilated with medication, like two black canteens filled with the tales of a traumatic past. “I was the veteran you see out there on the street.”


The National Center for PTSD reports that about 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime, and about 8 percent of the U.S. population will develop PTSD at some point in their lives. But recent trauma studies are finding that the 8 percent of the U.S. population that will develop PTSD is concentrated and growing in poor largely African-American cities like Atlanta, Chicago and Philadelphia, where communities can be hotbeds for violent crime, or “urban trauma,” and often compared to warzones. The studies add fuel to a rapidly growing body of research that shows populations with traumatic injuries develop PTSD at rates comparable to veterans of war. And as a majority black city that is often ranked as the one of the most dangerous cities in the country, Detroit could be headed toward a PTSD crisis.

Understanding trauma’s effect

When Chicago’s Cook County Hospital started to screen its patients for PTSD in 2011, they found an astonishing 43 percent, including more than half of gunshot victims showed signs of PTSD. Initial findings of a preliminary study conducted by the Grady Memorial Hospital Trauma project in Atlanta showed 80 percent of the population has suffered from significant trauma and 30 percent suffer from PTSD.

“Other data from sources would indicate (PTSD) would be higher (in poor majority black cities). Therefore, the rates of exposure to trauma would be higher in Detroit. It’s just logical.” says Dr. Moriah Thomason, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine and its Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute for Child and Family Development.

A large part of Thomason’s area of research is to determine why some children develop PTSD from trauma and others do not.

“People can be exposed to numerous traumatic events in their lifetime, but that doesn’t mean they will develop PTSD,” says Thomason, explaining her studies deal with metro Detroit children, ages 7 to 16, of which around 80 percent are black. “Unfortunately, many of the children we see have experienced a significant amount of trauma by age 7. And they also live in an environment that continues to be stressful.”

Early findings suggest the development of PTSD might be a simple matter of brain function.

“Individuals who are less excited by rewards (and) less engaged in their environments are more susceptible to negative symptoms of trauma,” she says. “To experience the things that you and I would find very engaging and exciting, they would experience less of that positive experience. It wouldn’t imprint on them the way it would imprint on you and I.”

She explains the science. “We have certain parts of our brains that are the reward centers. We see individuals engaging those areas differently more or less. Less activity in a reward system means the brain is not lighting up the way it would typically in a reward.”

Although premature, the findings are still notable for the efforts to greater understand the brain’s grasp of PTSD. But they are still far from being able to determine on an individual basis if someone will have a problem with PTSD, Thomason says.

“We are not at a point where we can put someone in an MRI machine and say, ‘Ah yes, you are going to have a problem,’” she explains. “We know that many people can endure very great stress and have a very resilient outcome. But how do we give those tools to the ones that don’t have that outcome? Before we can put it in a bottle, we have to figure out what it is.” 

Examples at home

Glen Bloodsaw, Jr., considered himself an athlete at peak resilience as a star high school football player in the Southfield school district. The best of schools all wanted to recruit him – Big 10, 12 and Ivy League schools – you name it. But then one night that all changed. He was robbed outside the then-popular Grand Quarters nightclub in Detroit and took a bullet in the head that would change his life forever.

“We ended up leaving the place a little early before the club closed, and some guys were waiting outside,” he remembers. As he talked amongst his friends, one of the men waiting outside interjected into the conversation. “And (he) was like ‘yeah, now you all have to check in those coats.’”

Bloodsaw’s friends started running and the men fired shots after them. He would have ran, but he was held at gunpoint. “I’m like, if I turn my back, he’s going to shoot me. If I run, he’s going to shoot me,” he says. “I wanted to fight him. I was angry. I wanted to beat his ass.” He handed over his coat, turned around, and started to walk away. His next memory is waking up in the hospital.

Bloodsaw was familiar with injuries as a football player and treated the gunshot the same as any other injury, until he noticed changes in his cognitive abilities, which affected his performance in school.  

“Prior to that, I had AP classes across the board,” he says. “I went from getting A’s and B’s to just not getting pass or fail. That’s when I actually realized something was wrong.”

From trauma, Bloodsaw, 38, found a calling as counselor, now working with kids in Chicago who struggle with delayed development and cognitive disabilities. In addition to the loss of some of his learning abilities, Bloodsaw also lost hearing in his right ear, which caused depression and withdrawal for a time. “I would always alienate myself from people because I wouldn’t be able to understand people when I got into an environment with a lot of ambient noise.”

An injury from a traumatic event that results in a limp, scar, loss of ability or chronic pain can be a rallying point for the development of PTSD, giving trauma victims a constant reminder of the traumatic event, explains Dr. Theadia Carey, medical director of the Development Centers in Detroit.

One patient, she recalls, still has nightmares from being shot 20 years ago. 

The person who shot him is out of prison now after serving 13 years. “So that is an area of significant stress and frustration for him,” she says. “And he still has significant pain as a result of those injuries and the fact that some of those bullet fragments are still in his body.”

Located on the deltoid of his left arm, a protruding stab wound reminds Perry Holmes, an Iraq war veteran from Detroit, to always be vigilant – even outside of a war zone. He received the scar after a mentally ill man attacked him, unprovoked, with a butcher knife as he walked the streets of Harlem in New York City. 

“There’s definitely a sense of heightened alertness now. If I walk past someone, I watch them in my periphery,” he says. “I’m like that now. I get worried about people passing me on the street.”

Holmes, 32, joined the army in 2003, left active duty in 2007 and was honorably discharged in 2010. Serving as a trauma nurse, he was trained to deal with stressful situations while in combat war zones. But after being attacked at home, the cause of his trauma was that he no longer felt safe anywhere.

“PTSD is a lot about feeling like you don’t have control. It’s where you’ve been through something so traumatic that it throws you off kilter,” he says, explaining he turned to drinking first as way of taking back control of his life because he couldn’t get the treatment he needed. Then he channeled his pain into his first love: Music. “For me, I found music, I found theater. But I think if you find something you love and latch on to that, it centers you.”

A Better Understanding

“The adult literature would suggest that PTSD is associated with a failure to ‘unlearn’ a danger cue, once that danger has passed,” says Dean Aikins, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences of the Wayne State University School of Medicine and adjunct faculty at the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute.

He’s spent the past 16 years conducting investigations into stress risk and resilience for PTSD in active duty and combat veteran populations and how their families can be affected.

“We are working on a family study with the U.S. Marine Corps to better understand how families handle combat deployments,” Aikins says. “We hope to offer spouses better services as they shoulder more family responsibilities during a service member’s deployment.”

Just as the trauma of deployment and sometimes death can affect the spouses of the soldiers, trauma when witnessed by a spouse or loved one can have a profound affect in triggering PTSD in people.

Carey remembers one notable PTSD case caused by urban trauma: a mother who had spent hours lying in the street with her dead son until the coroner arrived. “She shows up at the scene to see her son laying there in the street for three of four hours waiting on the coroner to come and pick up the body.” The police or the ambulance wouldn’t move the body because he was already dead when they arrived. “So she basically stood there weeping, watching her dead son’s body lay in the street for hours.”

Crystal Jolly, a children’s librarian from Detroit, suffered a similar traumatic experience when she had to drive her boyfriend to the hospital after he had been stabbed. He was later pronounced dead.

“It’s still a shock really,” she says with a pained smile, keeping a kind face when talking about her PTSD symptoms. “But you know something has happened. It’s like you’re watching a movie. Part of me felt it was a dream and I am going to wake up. It’s not real. And then it’s real.” Jolly’s boyfriend was stabbed to death in the evening of Sept. 11, 2011 by her mother’s boyfriend after an argument.

A student at Wayne State University at the time, Jolly says her initial reaction was to throw herself into her schoolwork. “But then reality started to settle in: How can I go back to school when my car is impounded and smells like blood?”

The more she tried to go back to life as normal, the more she realized things would never be normal again. She had triggers that gave her flashbacks of her boyfriend’s murder, and she turned to drinking and antidepressants to dull panic attacks, nightmares, anger spells and anxiety that her life is in danger. Soon, she avoided anything that reminder her of the incident altogether.  

“That’s when I realized that something has happened and I have changed, and if I want to continue to have a healthy life and maintain my sanity, I have to work for it,” she says.

Treating the trauma

There is no cure for PTSD, but symptoms can be managed with medication.

“The SSRI (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) anti-depressants, such as Lexapro and Celexa, have all been found effective in reducing those symptoms. Because PTSD is considered a mental illness, most insurances will cover the treatment of PTSD as they would other mental illnesses,” Carey says.

But for many impoverished people affected by PTSD, money and lack of health insurance stands in the way of treatment. “Most community-based programs are not equipped to use exposure therapy, which is one of the more effective therapeutic modalities for PTSD,” explains Carey. Exposure
therapy is a form of behavioral therapy in which a therapist “exposes” the patient to the object or incident they fear in a controlled and safe environment to help them overcome or better manage their fear. The treatment method is a long process, one that insurance companies aren’t always willing to pay for.

“People have found there are struggles in getting insurance to pay for exposure therapy, giving them a cap on the number of sessions when it usually takes more than 20 sessions in a year to treat them using that therapy.”

Screening veterans for PTSD is a fairly new practice, so screening trauma victims in general communities for PTSD will probably take even more time to catch on. But the biggest barrier that stops veterans and the general population from being treated for PTSD, Carey says, is an unwillingness to realize they have a mental illness.

“If we are very honest, of all the things people can get in the entire world, nobody wants a mental illness just because all the stigma associated with having a mental illness. So if you can get away with not talking to your doctor about any mood symptoms, any depression, any nightmares, then most people just don’t talk to their doctors about it,” says Carey. “And I think that is so unfortunate when mental illness is a brain disorder. It’s a medical problem just like everything else, whether it is diabetes or high blood pressure. And it can be treated.”

Carey explains that many patients are misdiagnosed as bipolar when they have PTSD because the two illnesses share common symptoms.

“And it’s not until you start seeing a timeline of the symptoms, what triggers that anger and irritability, do you find out that it’s related to their trauma and they actually have PTSD instead,” she explains.

Finding strength – and help

When Renee Beavers got a call from her grandfather close to the Easter holiday, she knew that something was wrong. “He never called,” she says.

Beavers, then 24, was in Germany with her husband, a military police officer. Beaver’s grandfather had called to tell her that her mother, Vicki Beasley-Brown, had been raped and murdered by Highland Park serial killer Benjamin Atkins, known as the “The Woodward Corridor Killer.”

But upon learning about the grizzly circumstances that surrounded her mother’s death, Beavers had no time to grieve because she had new responsibilities: Her two younger sisters.

“It wasn’t a new thing for (my mom) to be in and out. That was her m.o. as a parent,” she says. “I knew that she was consistently irresponsible. And I could not ignore the responsibility of my siblings.”

As mom to her two sisters, Beavers saw all of her siblings (her brother lived with her grandmother) struggle with the loss of their mothers for years, turning to alcohol and withdrawal to cope with the pain.

“I think a part of it was because they never really had the closure of dealing with the fact she was murdered,” she says. “I told them she was murdered. But I never got them the help they probably needed … I was young, I didn’t know that was something that I should have done. So looking back, I think that they did not really have the tools to cope with the trauma of losing a parent.”

What kept Beavers strong was church.

“For me, I just understood that you can’t change the past.” she says. “I did not want to spend my life being angry, bitter or resentful.”

Yet still, Beavers, 48, now living in San Antonio, Texas, says it was hard not to break under the sting of what happened to her mother. “And even now, over 20 years later, it’s almost surreal,” she explains. “Cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure – sure, but murdered by a serial killer? For the longest time, I couldn’t even drive through Highland Park. Even when I would come back to visit, I couldn’t go back to that part of Detroit.”

Beavers says she understands why people turn to substance abuse to numb the pain, but she thinks the pain can be misplaced. 

“Something traumatic happened. If you carry it around and never unpack it, it’s not just going to magically unpack itself. It’s not just going to go away,” she says. “I think there are things running in the background in our mind and until we clear it out, those things are going to be taking up all of our energy.”


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