Returning (all the way) home



Reaching out to veterans

Emory and the Atlanta VA Medical Center

Where the magic comes from

The key to a better recovery

Ben Johnson first came to the Atlanta VA Medical Center for help with pain that persisted three years after his humvee had hit an improvised explosive device and burst into flames, searing into his memory the sight and sounds of his best friend being killed. It was not the first death that Johnson had witnessed during two tours in Iraq.

With more than 1,000 Georgia veterans referred for treatment to the Atlanta VAMC trauma recovery program (TRP) every year, Emory physicians who practice there have seen virtually every kind of reaction to wartime trauma: veterans who patrol the perimeter of the house, drive in the center of the road, wear combat boots to bed, or keep a gun under the pillow—all symptoms reflecting a type of constant vigilance appropriate to wartime and hard to turn off after a return to civilian life.

Bekh Bradley

Emory clinical psychologist Bekh
co-leads a team that helps
veterans deal with battlefield

Clinical psychologist Bekh Bradley and psychiatrist Kelly Skelton lead the team that works with Johnson. Suicidal, often irrationally angry toward his wife and children, he agreed with the clinicians that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. But initially, he didn't want to engage in treatment that would address his traumatic memories.

The treatment team agreed instead to focus initially on psychosocial skills that would allow him to better manage his distress. When that was successful, he agreed to a treatment known as "in-vivo" exposure in which veterans take progressive steps to engage in activities that they have been avoiding. Johnson now can spend time in a crowded mall without undue anxiety. He no longer avoids traffic. He goes grocery shopping during normal hours instead of at midnight.

Following this approach, he felt as if he might be ready to begin working with his therapist on a detailed description of his traumatic combat experiences to gain perspective and learn to regard these memories as memories and not as actual events recurring again and again.

As Johnson relearns how to live outside a war zone, many of his anger problems have subsided, and he no longer contemplates taking his own life. His ongoing care includes psychiatric medications and working with a unit at the VA to address problems associated with a mild traumatic brain injury that occurred while he was in Iraq. "It's not a fast cure," says Bradley, "but we have a responsibility to help bring our veterans truly back home again."

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