Breaking barriers: A veteran’s battle with PTSD

Eric Geffert was deployed in Iraq from January to October of 2009.

Mariah Hicks

It was a cold and dreary November day in 2014 when Eric Geffert visited a Veterans Affairs (VA) psychiatrist.

As a veteran, he had been experiencing paranoia and panic attacks years before discovering the underlying problem.

Geffert walked through the doors of the VA medical center seeking treatment for depression. He walked out of his appointment diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), news he wasn’t expecting to receive.

After being diagnosed, he visited his psychiatrist about every other month for occasional checkups. His busy schedule and hesitation to get help kept him from visiting more often, he said.

“Part of the reason I didn’t seek out help after the diagnosis was because of the stigma that surrounded PTSD,” Geffert said. “I didn’t want to have that label put on me because back then, in my mind, having that meant you were weak or couldn’t handle the pressures of the military.”

A study of soldiers’ utilization of mental health care describes how concerns about stigmatization are a significant barrier to veterans seeking treatment.

“I don’t know that it (PTSD stereotypes) is as heavy now, but I know that it was after we had our big pushes into Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Joshua Rider, the director and VA certifying official of the Center for Adult and Veterans Services (CAVS). “There was this notion that all veterans had PTSD … they don’t.”

Geffert joined the Army National Guard as a high school senior.

“Both of my parents were in the military, so I kind of wanted to continue that family tradition.”

“I wanted to serve my country, too,” Geffert said.

After graduating high school, Geffert spent a year at Lakeland Community College. His education was interrupted halfway through when his unit was deployed to Iraq from January to October of 2009. He was only 20 years old.

Geffert experienced a lot during his time overseas. There were instances such as when his unit was hit by two improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and one of his friends lost part of his hand and part of the back of his leg. Geffert encountered various other experiences that changed him as a person, as well.

“There were people who took their lives over there on base, who weren’t strong enough to do it. That was tough,” Geffert said.

Being in an environment of potential dangers took its toll on Geffert, but he fought to remain positive.

“I think when you’re young like that, you feel invincible. A lot of my mindset over there was just trying to be positive, not thinking about what could possibly happen,” Geffert said. “Over there, I wasn’t thinking about all these dangers. I was just pushing them down and not aware that I was doing that.”

Geffert found out he had PTSD about four years after returning from Iraq.

“When I first came back, that was really challenging to deal with, especially because at first you don’t really notice it going on,” Geffert said.

He started seeing a veterans affairs psychiatrist in February 2012 and mentioned his paranoia and panic attacks. The psychiatrist suspected Geffert had PTSD, but he wasn’t officially diagnosed until 2014 when he returned to seek treatment for depression.

“I think it took time for the PTSD to kind of manifest itself, and the psychiatrist said that it could be because when I was over there (in Iraq) I could have suppressed all this fear, which could have played a part in it,” Geffert said.

Geffert realized a change of emotions when he started to withdraw from things he usually enjoyed.

“That was a really big thing. I always used to go out with friends on the weekends,” Geffert said.

“I just didn’t have any desire to go out or be around people at all.”

Big crowds played a huge part in his paranoia. It became an excessive habit to look at rooftops and to ensure he knew all the exits in a building. Driving also became an issue because Geffert constantly scanned the streets for roadside bombs.

“I was still in that mindset to do those things, and still to this day I think it’s something that will always be a part of me,” Geffert said.

Geffert is now in his second year at Kent State. He is a digital systems telecommunication networks major and computer forensics and security minor. His journey here at Kent so far has helped him discover his passion.

“I’m taking an interest in what I’m trying to do,” Geffert said. “School has been a really good opportunity to fill my time.”

Along with his studies at Kent, the VA medical center has been a great resource for Geffert, as well as knowing the Center for Adult and Veterans Services (CAVS) office is available to him on campus when he needs it.

CAVS refers veterans to services on or around campus and does programming based around awareness of mental health concerns, Rider said.

“There are resources on campus that educate us as professionals about what services are out there,” said Scott Crawford, the CAVS program coordinator and VA certifying official.

Geffert encourages veterans dealing with mental health issues to seek help. At the time of his diagnosis, he thought he could deal with the issue alone, but got sick of his depressive behavior and realized what he was doing wasn’t enough to fix the problem.

“Don’t feel like there’s a stigma or there’s going to be this label put on you that is going to follow you around the rest of your life. It’s definitely not like that,” Geffert said. “You can’t keep that in because keeping it in is what makes it worse and helps it build up and fester.”

Geffert’s depression decreased over time when he started to exercise more and force himself out of his comfort zone. The paranoia and panic is something he believes he’ll always have to live with, but forcing himself to get out helped him break depressive habits.

“You get comfortable not doing anything, not talking to people, not going out, so it’s like I had to break that habit and just get out of my comfort zone to go do other things,” Geffert said. “I think Kent really helped me with that too because now I have a purpose.”

Mariah Hicks is the military and veterans reporter. Contact her at [email protected].