Citizen Airman/Feb. 2017 — An Air Force Reserve couple, one a psychologist and the other a psychiatrist, along with an Army psychiatrist — all with extensive experience in helping people with post-traumatic stress disorder — have teamed up to create a nonprofit organization to help combat veterans ease back into society after returning from deployment.
Lt. Col. David Tharp, an Air Force Reserve individual mobilization augmentee psychologist assigned to the Air Force Academy who, as a civilian, is a PTSD program manager for the third largest Veterans Administration PTSD clinic in the country; Capt. Daniel Williams, who serves in the Texas Army National Guard as the 36th Infantry Division’s psychiatrist for more than 13,000 troops; and Capt. Katherine Tharp, an Air Force Reserve psychiatrist currently in her second year of residency at Baylor Scott and White Hospital in Temple, Texas, created CombatPTSD.org with the idea of providing “warrior-style” training for people leaving a combat zone and returning to civilian life.
“The armed forces do a great job of training people before they deploy to a combat zone, but I don’t think they do as good a job of training people to reintegrate back into society,” David Tharp said. “What we have tried to do with CombatPTSD.org is provide warriors with reintegration training in a way they will understand and that makes sense to them.”
He said it’s important to realize that CombatPTSD.org is not intended to replace therapy in any way.
“We strongly encourage combat veterans to reach out to mental health providers and share with them their intent to get healthy and regain their life,” Tharp said. “Our intent is to provide training, through workbooks, videos and conferences, to help warriors integrate back into life after combat.”
Tharp said he also encourages Air Force Reservists to take advantage of Air Force Reserve Command’s Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, which helps Reservists and their family members before, during and after a deployment. He said CombatPTSD.org is available at no charge to service members who might need more assistance in returning to life after combat.
Tharp said he began to see the need for an organization like CombatPTSD.org when he returned from a six-month deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan as a NATO commander and medical director in 2011. After suffering a spinal cord illness that caused him to lose most of the function below his C2T3 vertebrae and having to identify more than 100 people killed in action, including a close friend, he said he returned from his deployment very different from the person he was when he had left. Suffering from significant physical challenges and diagnosed with PTSD, Tharp went to the Air Force and the VA for help.
“What I found is that we try to force warriors into a certain mold we call trauma therapy,” he said. “I believe that combat trauma is not the same as female sexual trauma, which is what the current PTSD treatments used in many of the military services and VA are based on. After experiencing war, I realized many researchers just don’t get it, because they haven’t been there. I believe it makes sense to work from the warrior framework already etched in the minds of the warrior. We teach military concepts to face military challenges.”
One of the first things the Tharps and Williams do in their training is to help people suffering from PTSD symptoms understand that what they are going through is normal given what they have experienced in war.
“If civilians were to experience the same thing our warriors go through, they, too, would have the same reactions, responses and symptoms that combat veterans experience.” Tharp said.
“People come to our conferences thinking there is something wrong with them or that they are broken and what they are experiencing can’t be changed. We try to give them a future and a hope and let them know that what they are experiencing is often normal based on what they have been through and that it can be changed.”
He said combat veterans often feel overwhelmed and can become despondent as their symptoms, such as sleep deprivation, irritability, anger and depression, begin to manifest in their lives.
“This results in emotional withdrawal and social avoidance, which can, in turn, compound the problem,” Tharp said. “We call this resilience deficiency. In order to deal with these resiliency challenges, we created resiliency formation training.”
RFT is the backbone of CombatPTSD.org.
“Our RFT trauma themes are broader in scope than the two leading evidence-based psychotherapies in the field today: cognitive processing therapy and prolonged exposure therapy,” Tharp said. “CPT and PE have helped a lot of people, but they were both initially created to treat female rape victims, and that’s a different research population than most warriors. The standard course of CPT does not include survivor guilt, moral injury or grief work as part of therapy for veterans, yet these are three of the most common issues facing war veterans. Up until now, there has not been a program specifically created to address combat veterans using combat training. That’s why we came up with RFT.”