According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, up to 20 percent of the military personnel who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
The symptoms can vary, but PTSD is unquestionably an issue for many service men and women, some who seek assistance from a unique program based in Lafayette Parish.
The Forgiving Losses and Gaining Strength, or FLAGS, program was established in 2011 at Vermilion Behavioral Health Systems.
It was created solely for active-duty and veteran military individuals dealing with stress, substance abuse, grief, brain trauma and depression while returning to duty or adjusting to civilian life.
Many of the service men and woman who go through the FLAG program are local, but it accepts enrollment from throughout the U.S. and those stationed overseas.
“We’ve had U.S. soldiers come from as far as Japan,” said Tony Miller, FLAG’s military affair liaison.
Vermilion Behavioral Health staff worked with officials at Fort Polk to get the program started. With so many military members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, a local program was needed, said Luis Betances, regional director of Vermilion’s business development.
“The staff at Fort Polk was very willing to meet with us,” Betances said. “In the conversation, they basically they told us, ‘We send our soldiers to a facility in Florida. The downside to that is our soldiers’ family members don’t have the means to get there for family therapy or for visitation. Why don’t you guys consider doing something like that here? That way we can keep our soldiers local.’”
Three weeks ago, Louisiana National Guard behavioral health officer Capt. Angela Huval, awarded FLAG for its effort to treat National Guard members. “The therapists and staff members truly care about our soldiers,” Huval said. “As a social worker and behavioral health officer, I want to make sure our soldier receive the best quality care with positive results.”
Substance abuse is common in many FLAG cases, but it can be a sign of much deeper issue, said Vermilion director of clinical service Gynis DeRoche, said.
Some patients saw combat, some were subjected to sexual abuse; others have trouble operating day-to-day in a civilian world, she said.
FLAG’s program usually last 28 to 30 days, but in some cases patients stay longer for treatment.
“Our troops are under tremendous stress now,” DeRoche said. “They come here for treatment and the goal is to get them duty ready to go back to the job they have in the military or to help them when they are discharged.”
Soldiers’ families are also provided treatment through the program, Miller said.
There are no veteran programs like FLAG in Acadiana. The VA hospital in Alexandria only treats for acute cases, but does not provide outpatient services, Betances said.
FLAG has been working closely with the state’s VA department to ensure its program is widely made available.
And support is greatly needed by those service members who feel few can relate to their active duty experiences, retired U.S. Marine Tyler Guilbeau said.
Guilbeau recently organized Lafayette’s first Silkies Hike, an grassroots event to raise awareness about PTSD, suicide prevention and a chance for local veterans to network.
Guilbeau, a Youngsville resident, served two tours of duty in Iraq. He said he knows very well the struggle military personnel experience when they return home.
“In the beginning, it is difficult to be able to adapt to limit your reaction to things,” Guilbeau said. “With all the training and skills you’ve developed, you initially want to react to certain things. When I first came home, I caught myself driving down the street watching the curbs, waiting on something to explode — even walking around in public places and constantly looking over your shoulder. It takes a while to try to break those habits and a lot of those habits are never broken for us.”
He said Saturday’s Silkies Hike drew more than 30 veterans, many of whom met for the first time. The hike was 22 kilometers, representing the 22 military suicides that occur each day, Guilbeau said. He said similar events will be planned in the coming months.
“This was to bring veterans in the local community together and to establish a network among the veterans to help with prevention,” he said. “Basically, if you start getting down and depressed, you have a good friend that you can call for support.”
That group support from fellow “brothers in arms” has proven to be the most effective form of treatment within the FLAG program, Miller said.
Most of the program’s behavioral health specialists are civilians, but their primary focus is to work with the military. As the father of marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, his work is personal, Miller said.
“This is a passion for me in particular because I happen to have a son that served,” Miller said. “It was also a goal for other staff. In 2011, we had the opportunity to realize that dream. It’s been a passion of mine and others here to treat this population.”