Jerry Davich: Highland resident trying to reclaim his life from PTSD
JERRY DAVICH May 25, 2014 11:18PM
Updated: June 27, 2014 6:08AM
When David Cox greeted me at his door, I wasn’t sure if he would remember me or why I was standing on his front porch.
The last time we spoke, a couple years back on the phone, the next day he didn’t recall talking with me. That’s one of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which Cox has been combatting since forced retirement from the military seven years ago.
The 63-year-old Highland grandfather served six tours of duty in the Iraq War as a critical care nurse for the Indiana Air National Guard. As Air Force Maj. Cox, he transported hundreds of critical patients from the front lines to far-away hospitals over 156 combat missions. Soldier after soldier, injury after injury, flight after flight — he’s seen it all and now it’s all coming back to him, like a field of emotional landmines.
“How you doing, Jerry?” asked Cox, prompting a sigh of relief from me.
I’ve known Cox for several years, even before he suffered a life-threatening meltdown on a flight back home after first losing 57 pounds in one month’s time. That nervous breakdown at 30,000 feet was one of the first red flags of his PTSD, which he’s been battling ever since.
He fights it while driving his car around litter in the streets, scared it could be an improvised explosive device, or IED, which have killed so many soldiers. He fights it in grocery stores, where he first finds escape routes. He fights it at family gatherings, where he can last only 15 minutes before fleeing to perceived safety.
“Too many vets are walking around with this very same injury,” his wife, Kim, told me at their kitchen table. “And make no mistake, it is an injury even though people can’t see it like with other seriously injured vets.”
There are different levels of PTSD, rated from 10 percent to 100 percent. Cox is 100 percent.
Like many injured vets suffering from PTSD, Cox has felt suicidal at times but he’s convinced he would never act on it. Kim, his wife of 37 years, isn’t as convinced. She keeps his many medications in a safe.
A Pentagon report says thousands of military vets commit suicide each year, not counting failed suicide attempts and other self-harm due to combat-related PTSD and other triggers.
“David has been home for almost seven years and he has only gotten worse,” Kim said, looking over at her husband.
Cox doesn’t disagree but he’s feeling better these days. Possibly it’s that Old Man Winter has finally retreated. Possibly it’s because he can walk his beloved dogs again. Or possibly it’s the new treatment he recently began at the Adam Benjamin VA clinic in Crown Point.
It’s called Prolonged Exposure therapy, with one component prompting him to recall every combat-related trauma he witnessed during all those deployments. He talks into a recorder and then later listens to his own recollections. Which way is more painful — remembering or listening?
“Remembering them, speaking about them,” Cox replied quickly.
“There are so many traumas and tragedies to talk about,” Kim added. “And he has to say them twice. The second retelling always has more haunting details.”
“But not all my memories are bad ones,” Cox quickly noted.
He remembers joking with his flight crew and fellow nurses in 130-degree heat. He remembers being told about a wounded soldier who didn’t make it after arriving at a hospital. He remembers smelling the “burn pits,” where trash, medical waste, toxic fuel and other nasty remnants of war got burned together, not too far from his barracks.
“David also has a blood disorder and that may be the cause,” Kim said. “There are so many local vets with PTSD. Education is the key in our society.”
One group of local vets is pushing for healthcare reform regarding PTSD and traumatic brain injuries through proposed federal legislation, citing an estimated 77,000 Hoosier vets with PTSD or TBI. (I’ll explore this issue more in depth in a future column.)
Indiana was recently ranked 49th in the country for military retirees in terms of key metrics, ranging from taxes on military benefits and veteran job opportunities to health care services and overall quality of life, according to a study by WalletHub.
Despite the alarming news regarding other VAs across the country and secret waiting lists, Cox and his wife have no complaints about the local VA, only praise.
“They are doing absolutely everything they can for David,” Kim said.
Cox is only three weeks into his new therapy yet he’s hopeful through all the painful memories, traumatic imagery and live-wire flashbacks.
“He understands it may be hell on earth at first,” Kim said, echoing the therapist’s warning. “It’s really emotional to listen to, for both of us.”
“This is not a cure and he most definitely will still have PTSD. I have been told he may need hospitalization at some point.”
Cox said, “I’ve never thought of many of these scenarios but they’re all coming out now. It’s hard to get through it but it’s helping so far. It’s worth a shot.”
His mind still races, especially in social settings. He still gets turned around while driving, joking that he knows the Baghdad region better than this region. And he still hovers between the combat zone in his mind and the comfort zone of his fenced-in home.
“He looks normal,” Kim said while showing off his “military man cave” of war honors, flight flags and random souvenirs. “Until he checks the perimeter at the Meier store.”
“I can’t remember what normal is,” Cox said softly.
He simply hopes his symptoms will lessen a little, at least enough to stay at his grandchildren’s birthday parties for more than 15 minutes.
Kim said, “That doesn’t seem like too much to ask for.”
Listen to David Cox in his own words. Watch the video at http://posttrib.suntimes.com/news/davich/index.html.)