TAMPA, Fla. — Many veterans admit transitioning back to civilian life after being at war can be challenging. That's what happened to one army ranger, who suffered from PTSD for over 15 years and recently hit his breaking point.
But when a fellow ranger told him about a free program for veterans to help process that trauma, the veteran said he changed his life.
"I was having panic attacks every day, where I'd wind up on the floor, pretty much in tears, and saying 'I need to go to the hospital. Something's wrong with me. Something's in my head.' Legitimately, I thought I was dying like every day,'' explained Josh, an Army Ranger who completed four tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
After his final deployment in 2006, he returned home with severe trauma, looking for help at the VA.
"Every time I went to the VA, it's always the same question. It's 10 minutes of 'Are you going to hurt yourself? Are you going to hurt anyone else? Are you suicidal? Do you drink? Do you smoke? Do you do this or that?' And by the time you get through that, there's like three questions of 'How are you feeling now?' And it's like 'OK. I'll see you in three months,'' Josh said.
Josh's mental health continued to deteriorate for over 15 years, and recently, he fell hard into a very dark place.
"I went into this downward spiral almost where every day was just miserable. It was pure anxiety, panic attacks daily. I was just miserable. I wasn't living. I was spending minute to minute just hoping it would go away. So I could get through the next minute," Josh added.
Josh was having constant flashbacks and recurring nightmares, and just when he thought he couldn't go on, a fellow ranger called, telling him about the Warrior Wellness Program, a five-day retreat focused specifically on helping veterans with trauma from battle.
"He told me it was life-changing and how well he was doing. Obviously, I was thrilled for him, but I was skeptical," Josh admitted.
But desperate to try anything, Josh agreed to go. By day two of the Accelerated Wellness Program, he felt alive again.
"That weight that had been sitting on my chest for the past month of panic attacks and anxiety, and I'm having a heart attack, and I can't breathe? I need to go to the hospital, go to the ER? That weight that was on my chest? Gone!" he explained with relief.
So what's the secret? Accelerated Resolution Therapy or ART.
"So it's very brief, one to five sessions. People generally see some really good results. It's an alternative therapy in that it's an eye movement therapy. So it's, like I said, quite different from the traditional talk therapy," explained licensed social worker Kelly Sisco, who's the lead clinician at the Warrior Wellness program.
After 25 years of practicing talk therapy, she's now convinced ART helps trauma victims in a whole new way.
"They've had very strong images that they cannot get out of their minds. And ART is perfect for that because they can actually, you know, kind of process that out. And they find that relief so quickly that has been haunting them for so many years," Sisco said.
So how does ART work?
Sisco demonstrated with ABC Action News anchor Wendy Ryan how she waves her hand in a horizontal motion, right in front of the patient's face, while that patient tracks it with just their eyes.
Similar to REM sleep, the eyes move back and forth rapidly to process a dream. But when there's a trauma, oftentimes, your brain doesn't process that difficult memory, and it gets stuck, replaying the nightmare over and over again.
"As they visualize, they're basically watching themselves as if in a movie, watching that scene again. And we are checking in with them to help them with any emotions or sensations that are accompanying those memories. And they'll kind of process through that. And then they'll be able to take the eye movements to do some new visualizations that replace those disturbing ones," Sisco explained.
ART re-programs how the brain stores that traumatic memory.
The improvement? Almost immediate after just one session.
"I dealt with the same reoccurring dream and intrusive thoughts for 13 years. I was in Iraq in '03, and I had an experience there that I couldn't shake. It was affecting my sleep. It was affecting my relationship. And it was affecting my daily life all the time," explained Operations Director Chris Sowell, who was struggling after five combat deployments overseas and seven years of talk therapy.
"I already had suicidal thoughts. I destroyed my marriage. I destroyed my career. All those things led me to the door here, and this was literally my last thing. My last chance, and it changed my life," Sowell admitted.
Like many others, Sowell was skeptical at first, but after going through the Warrior Wellness Program, he finally found peace.
"It's been five and a half years since I went through the program, and I haven't had that dream since. And for me, that was a huge life-changing event,'' Sowell said.
The five-day retreat also includes other mindfulness practices, including iREST, or Integrated Restoration, Yoga, physical fitness, creating art and music, attending a Raptor Sanctuary, and participating in Equine Therapy.
And the evidence-based research for ART has been extremely promising.
In a study of combat-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a military medical journal reported a 65% reduction in PTSD symptoms after participants did just two to five ART sessions. The Warrior Wellness Program has similar success data, with 51% reporting improved PTSD symptoms.
But for veterans who are still skeptical or think you should just handle the pain? Your fellow combat veterans give this advice.
"Check your ego at the door. Put down the tough guy mentality for a few minutes and do something good for yourself," Josh said.
"In five days, we can help a veteran, who was ready to end it and come out of here in a place where they're ready to live again," Sowell said.
The Warrior Wellness Program provides all transportation, food, and lodging for the veteran at no cost. The nonprofit organization has already served veterans from 32 states and two foreign countries. They also have an outpatient program for active duty members who want to do ART.
The program relies 100% on donations and grants from the government.
The original name of the nonprofit group was Veterans Alternative, and it began in 2014. But in late 2021, the organization changed its name to Warrior Wellness Program to better reflect the work they do, offering mental health and wellness services to create a healthy, connected, and resilient veteran and military population.