LIVING WITH PTSD
(Broadcast November 23 on NPR's All Things Considered)
What's the story?
When the Iraq war began, Youth Radio launched a series, Reflections on Return, tracing the experiences of young soldiers and marines in the battlefield and coming home. The series highlights young vets: first person narratives of injury and homecoming, their responses to the prison abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib and the Iraq elections, and their reflections on the continuing conflict on the ground in Iraq. These stories are, of course, widely covered, and the major players in almost all of them are young. What’s unique about Youth Radio’s series is that the coverage is produced not by embedded reporters, but by young journalists and, in some cases, the young soldiers themselves. The series presents a range of perspectives, from soldiers opposing the war upon their return, to others eager to go back to Iraq for multiple deployments.
In this Reflections on Return installment, Jesus Bocanegra shares his story. Jesus joined the military at 18, in part to help support his family. He spent four and a half years in the Army, including one year as a cavalry scout in Iraq. He’s now out of the military and living with his family in South Texas. But the war is still with him, so much so that he’s been treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
Teach this Newsbreak!
"It’s like you’re watching a black and white TV; you’re just not there."
By Jesus Bocanegra
23-year-old Jesus Bocanegra spent four and a half years in the military, including a year as a cavalry scout in Iraq. He’s now out of the military and living with his family in the town of Elsep in South Texas. But the war is still with him, so much so that he’s been treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He shares this story. (November 23 on NPR's All Things Considered)
In a combat zone, you’re going 100 miles an hour, you’re like a little radar turning everywhere. That’s really hard coming out of a combat environment to a civilized environment. To me, when I was coming out of the military, we actually sat down in a plane and they were like fill out this sheet. And on that little paper sheet, I circled the little thing that said if you want to talk to someone else about your mental health. I thought you know what maybe this was my cry for help. Two weeks later nothing happened and now I’m out of the military, somebody else’s problem.
And back home was, you have all the BBQ, it’s you’re sort of just numbed out. You don’t have no fear and your feelings are numb. It’s like you’re watching a black and white TV; you’re just not there. My mom noticed I was all nervous and stuff. I was sweating and I couldn’t sleep I was like you know mom I need help, I need a see a counselor or something. That night it was so bad I had to go to the ER and to explain it to a doctor, like “what are you going through?” [in “doctor” voice] I can’t explain it and the guy was like, “here take this medicine anti-anxiety and go see the VA tomorrow. “
The thing there is the majority of the groups are Vietnam vet groups barely getting help. Talking in that environment, I held back because it’s just not the same to sit and talk to a twenty year old than to talk to talk to a sixty, seventy year old. That’s not to say that I don’t have respect for what they did in their Vietnam War, but it’s just not the same.
I withdrew from the PTSD program after I sat down with the counselor and said look, the program is not helping me at all. It’s making me think if for me as a 20 year old to look at a 70 year old and he says he’s had PTSD for 50 years so my PTSD is not going to go away.
I wish I would have stayed in the military because when I was with my unit it was sort of a bubble. The outside world does not even get in. The hard part is when you go home and there’s not 10 or 20 guys to talk to in the morning. That’s the difficult part, when you wake up in your own bed and you don’t have that guy and all those people you talk to everyday. Now that I do have a flashback, I sit and think and I analyze myself and think, these things are gonna be with you the rest of my life. I’ve been able to control my PTSD to the point of it’s not overtaking my life and I have it in control.
Use the script and audio of the commentary in this Newsbreak to inspire students to explore these skills and themes:
• Develop narratives based on interviews and changing environments.
• Dissect mainstream media’s coverage of the Iraq War.
• Explore US military’s “advertising campaign”.
• Define causes, symptoms, resources and treatment options for PTSD.
• Examine PTSD’s effects from personal to societal.
• Open up discussion on complexity of “asking for help”.
• Explore the US military budget.
For this month's feature, you will access to these strategies and resources:
1. Ideas and Suggestions for lesson plans
2. Toolbox handouts
3. Synthesized Standards
4. Reporter Bios
5. Resources and further research
6. Youth Radio’s media production techniques
From Interview to Story: A Youth Radio reporter, Sophie Simon-Ortiz, produced this story out of a conversation she had with Jesus Bocanegra. First, she “pre-interviewed” Jesus, without recording, to get a feel for his personality and experience. Out of that conversation, Sophie developed a full list of interview questions, and arranged to record their conversation. As they talked, she made sure to think about the key points she wanted Jesus to touch on, and also what transitions she might need so the story would make sense when she put it all together. Have your students replicate this narrative technique by identifying another young person they want to interview (you might suggest a topic or theme relevant to your classroom curriculum). Have them either tape record or take notes on the conversation, and then arrange the responses into a story. This process almost always leads to provocative discussions related to ethics (making sure editing stays true to the interviewee’s narrative) as well as aesthetics (how to create a story that flows).
Combat Zone, Comfort Zone: Jesus says, “I wish I would have stayed in the military, because when I was with my unit it was sort of a bubble. The outside world does not even get in. The hard part is when you go home and there’s not 10 or 20 guys to talk to in the morning.” Although some might find it surprising, Jesus was more comfortable in his military unit than at home. He talks about the challenges of adjusting and longs to be around people who understand what he is feeling. Students can create their own narratives that explore a situation where they were immersed in a completely new environment. This could be a different school, neighborhood, city, state, country, etc. What makes a comfort zone comfortable? What are the advantages and disadvantages of leaving one’s bubble?
Family Support: In the News Break, Jesus talks about his mother supporting him while he experienced symptoms of PTSD. In his biography, we learn that he joined the military in order to provide for his family. Students can write about a crucial time in their lives when a family member or friend offered them support. Why is it important to communicate personal trauma with someone close to you? What can family members and friends do to provide support for someone who suffers from trauma, even if they have not shared that experience?
Analyzing Research: Have students find out what percentage of soldiers returning from the Iraq war suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Students are likely to find a range of estimates, depending on the source. Have them discuss the factors that might lead to contradictory statistics. As we see in Jesus’ story, he has to take the first step in seeking help. What services does the military provide for PTSD? How are those services described by military officials? By young military personnel? As students look at statistics related to PTSD, what critical questions arise?
Media Perspective on Military: The military spends money on advertisements and marketing. Who can serve? How does the military try to attract young people? Where can you find ads and commercials for joining the military? How is war marketed to youth? What are some of the military recruitment techniques linked to the federal education policy, No Child Left Behind? What are military policies pertaining to young people who are immigrants and not U.S. citizens?
Diagnoses: Have students research Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (see DSM-IV in the resources below). What are the symptoms of PTSD? What situations can induce this condition?
Easing PTSD: How is PTSD treated? How are drugs used? What are the benefits and risks associated with anti-PTSD drugs? What are some treatments other than medication that people can seek?
Resources and Referrals: Do students have friends or family members who have struggled with PTSD? Have students share how they have responded to those struggles. Ask them to imagine that a close friend started exhibiting behaviors like the ones Jesus describes. Do some research to identify useful first steps for helping that person find support. Working individually or in small groups, students can describe local community resources for teens with PTSD and other forms of mental illness, and compile this information as a classroom resource.
Relatively speaking: Jesus talks about veterans from the Vietnam War suffering from PTSD. He feels somewhat hopeless about finding a cure since he sees older veterans still suffering, decades after their service. Speaking to people his own age, from own his unit, brought him more hope. How does Jesus’s experience relate to people wanting to get help from people who have similar backgrounds to them when they are in a vulnerable situation?
Asking for Help: Asking someone for help is not always an easy process. In the beginning of the News Break, Jesus talks about circling the option to seek mental health help. Students can assess their own feelings about asking others for help. What are some of the things that prevent one from asking for help? In what situations do students definitely ask for help? What were the messages they received growing up about asking for assistance?
War at Home: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder comes from being in an environment that threatens one’s physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing. It is often associated with war in other countries, but how can PTSD be a product of stressful environments found in our own backyards? People who live in areas of high violence, survivors of sexual abuse, and inhabitants of regions that fall prey to natural disasters are just a few examples of people who could potentially be affected by PTSD. Can students think of other situations that could traumatize people, for whom PTSD might go undetected? How does being in the military affect diagnosis and treatment of mental health struggles in our society?
Military Money: What is the budget for the U.S. military? How is the total amount sub-divided? Where does the money come from? Where are funds directed? How are decisions made about where the money goes? How much is spent on health care for soldiers? How much is spent on artillery? How does the defense budget compare to federal funding of education and health care? Do students agree with this spending agenda?
Use these to help students focus and extend understanding...Coming Soon!
Subject: LANGUAGE ARTS
Media Literacy: Comprehension
Media Literacy: Analysis
Media Literacy: Evaluation
Subject: SOCIAL SCIENCE
Course: US Democracy
Analysis: Interpretations & Debates
Health Promotion & Disease Prevention
Influence: Family, Peers, Community, Culture, Media & Technology
Decision Making & Goal Setting
Practice & Activity
Jesus Bocanegra, 23 years old (as of late 2005), is from Elsep, Texas a small rural town. He is the second youngest of 8 children and joined the military immediately after high school to help out his family financially. One of the youngest in basic training, he felt rushed into adult life. When he came back from Iraq, he started at the local community college but found it hard to focus. He looked for the mental health help he'd been promised but found it almost nowhere. He eventually found some counseling but, as he says in the piece, he could not connect to the support groups, because members had served during the Vietnam War era and no one was talking about Iraq.
•PTSD Fact Sheet
•US Dept of Veteran Affair's National Center for PTSD
•Diagnositic Criteria for PTSD
•New York Times article on PTSD
•Booklet explaining PTSD, including a self-test and resources for getting help
Guides and inspiration for creative media-making projects: conducting interviews, writing commentaries, and producing features.
For many more hands-on resources and behind-the-scenes accounts of youth media production, check out the new book, Drop That Knowledge: Youth Radio Stories. Written by Youth Radio's Research Director and Senior Producer, Elisabeth Soep, and San Francisco State Professor Vivian Chavez, it's being touted by media experts as a "landmark contribution to our understanding of media and youth movements in the US."
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