GILFORD — It was far from the recruitment-poster experience Bruce Richardson envisioned when he joined the Marine Corps in 1979. He was 17, and wanted to serve his country. Now Camp Resilience in Gilford is serving him.
Traumatic events that occurred during his year-long tour of duty, not even in combat or a war-torn region, still plague his sleep, dreams, conscious thoughts, and affect his relationships with loved ones and superiors.
“When you get out of the military, you try to stuff things inside,” said Richardson, now 59 and living in Gilford. “But then things come out.”
During one year in Italy, where Richardson was stationed and serving under NATO, a sequence of catastrophes shattered his stability and health. A U.S. military-hating mob, most likely sympathizers of the Communist Red Brigade that was active in the region, kicked Richardson through a car window, fracturing his neck and knocking him out. “When I came to, I was spitting blood. I couldn’t move and I couldn’t function. I could hear the thuds of two-by-fours hitting” the other Marines outside. Richardson spend three nights in an American naval hospital. “It was a debilitating jury,” he said, “and I’ve suffered from it ever since.”
Later the same year, a major earthquake (7.1 on the Richter scale) cracked and collapsed homes and offices in Naples, killing 5,000 people and rattling the barracks where Richardson lived. “I was standing outside. The buildings were moving. A 10-story crack went up the side” of the Marines’ housing complex. The death toll eventually rose to 7,800.
“For years I didn’t realize I was having PTSD from that,” he said. In frequent nightmares, “I was looking outside, and there was no way to climb down. I was climbing down the stairs and having the building dissolve underneath me, seeing the earth open up and swallow me.”
Also in that unforgettable year, Richardson was on high alert. He was patrolling with a machine gun instead of a pistol as part of Operation Eagle Claw, while the Iranian hostage crisis – and failed hostage rescue attempt – was taking place a continent away. In Italy, anti-American sentiments were peaking among Communist factions, and members of the military were primed for ambushes and attacks.
After Richardson was discharged from the military at the end of 1980, the enduring effects of trauma and being constantly watchful and wary began with not being able to sleep. He had recurrent dreams that he “was being chased by an enemy and running from an enemy. That went on for years and years. I’ve been going to counseling for a better part of my life,” Richardson said.
It was enough that it made work difficult. His post-traumatic stress played out in irrational behavior toward people he loved. He started to mistrust his family and was convinced a superior from boot camp was sitting in a parked car across his street.
“It interfered with my ability to interact. I didn’t want to talk to people, or get close to anyone for any reason,” Richardson said. At work “the only reason they even liked me was because I was a good worker.”
It wasn’t until he got a call from veteran leaders at Camp Resilience that he found healing help. In the past three years, through retreats at Camp Resilience, which offers peer-to-peer counseling and takes veterans and first responders on outdoor adventures, physical challenges and group bonding activities, Richard channeled his own solutions.
“It’s been really helpful to be able to talk with another Marine about what I went through and how it affected me,” he said. “I don’t think you ever get over (PTSD). It’s like recovery. It’s ongoing. You have to keep working and learning.”
Going to three Camp Resilience retreats gave him a camraderie that turned out to be therapeutic. He found unexpected fulfillment helping others, including a disabled vet who couldn’t paddler her kayak back from a river outing.
“It felt so good, the feeling of helping other people who need your help and trust you because you’re a veteran. It helps you both ways. Receiving it and giving it,” Richardson said. “The last time I went there, they put me in a room with this guy who had been in the Air Force for 20 years. Within 20 minutes he started opening up and telling me what happened to him in Iraq. He must have needed to get that out.”
Since 2014, Camp Resilience has helped close to 600 military veterans cope with stress, anger, guilt and depression from deeply disturbing events, including witnessing or being the victim of violence, military sexual assault, or grappling with guilt and recrimination for events that occurred on their watch, or actions they were ordered to carry out that ran counter to their own values – a category of trauma referred to as “moral injury.”
For veterans and first responders, the triggers of post traumatic stress disorder are as varied as the people who experience them, although many of the symptoms, and resulting debilitation, are the same.
Although post-traumatic stress disorder has been associated with Vietnam veterans, it’s more common in younger generations, especially those who served during the Iran-Iraq war, said Margaret Laneri, a retired Veterans Administration psychologist and VA hospital director, who served in the Army Corps of Engineers for 22 years.
“It has increased and I don’t think they understand why,” Laneri said. But one theory makes sense, she said: “There really is no line that demarcates friendly and enemy.”
“You’re constantly on guard when you leave the area. You don’t know if a little boy could have a grenade hidden and be a suicide bomber, or there's something under a bump in the road. It’s the uncertainty that individuals are living in – the survival zone of the nervous system,” a constant state of vigilance, fight, flight or freeze, Laneri said. “It makes a mess of your nervous system and makes it harder to calm down” if it’s a persistent state.
“In survival mode, in combat, it was a normal, natural and healthy response,” Laneri said. “When you come back to the U.S., it’s not normal, natural or healthy. It’s debilitating sometimes.”
“PTSD is a normal response to a horrific situation,” said Louise Graham, a volunteer and retired psychologist who counseled vets at the VA Hospital in Brockton, Massachusetts for 30 years. “In a normal survival setting of war, for anyone put in that situation long enough, it’s how the body and mind survives. These responses and behaviors” mean the difference between life or death. But when you bring them home to civilian life, they don’t work. They’re abnormal because the threat’s no longer there.”
At Camp Resilience, in workshops and outdoor activities, veterans learn to be present and take peaceful and focused stock of their surroundings, changing the way their bodies react. “Be it yoga, the horses, or walking up a mountain and sitting on a rock and describing what you see, what you feel, they’re concentrating on the moment,” Graham said. “It also brings them together in the environment, and that’s the most powerful piece of all.”