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The NPR Interview: Dr Mike Colson's Veteran Outreach Work

Colson refers to himself as the "dog catcher for trauma."
His job is to get traumatized veterans into care before it's too late.

By Joseph Shapiro

All Things Considered, June 27, 2007 · Many troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq will struggle with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some will drink too much and use drugs. They'll lose jobs. They'll drive away friends, family, spouses and children. Most of them won't ask for help.

Mike Colson is a mental health counselor for the Department of Veteran's Affairs in Washington state. He believes that with the right medications and counseling, these veterans can learn to live and function while dealing with the mental health problems common to war. His job is to get traumatized veterans into care before it's too late. He jokingly refers to himself as the "dog catcher for trauma."

Colson drives his government-issued car hundreds of miles a day, from military base to military base. He tells scores of men and women just how hard it's likely to be — mentally and emotionally — to go back to civilian life when they have just come from the brutal chaos of war.

At a Navy base near Seattle, 60 sailors and Marines wait inside an auditorium. Before leaving the military, they have to sit through three days of departure briefings filled with information. They're already slumped in their chairs when Colson enters the auditorium, walking with a shadow of a limp. A tough-looking guy, with a shaved head and a dark suit, Colson knows he has one chance to reach the young men and women in the room. He might even save somebody's life.

"To be a warrior, is to be exceptional," Colson tells the group. "But it can come at an emotional cost."

Colson knows there is a stigma attached to asking for help in the military. So he knows he can't use the words "mental illness" or "post-traumatic stress disorder" until he tells them something about himself: He has PTSD.

"Do I look like I have post-traumatic stress?" he says. "Just look at me. What do you think? Why am I able to talk to you? Medicine. That's right, I take it every day. Am I a better person because of it? Yeah. Will I be better next month? I don't know. But I'm better today."

War Experiences Come Home

The Navy sent Colson to Afghanistan twice and Iraq twice as a chaplain. He counseled soldiers who had seen friends die and who struggled with their own nightmares. Colson himself was severely injured in a helicopter crash several years ago. He broke his back and had eight surgeries. When he came home, he was anxious and distant. He put carpet down in his garage and slept there, alone, at night. He was slow to see that these were signs of his own PTSD.

One day, a Navy psychiatrist noticed Colson's "thousand-mile stare" — the distracted and distant gaze that marks those dealing with PTSD.

"He saw it in my face," Colson recalls. "He read trauma like a book… And he saved me. And he medicated me. He took the anger away, he got me to sleep for the first time in a few years."

Now, when he helps others, he is also helping himself heal. But Colson knows recovery is fragile, for himself or anyone with PTSD. And he knows that no matter how many thousands of troops hear him speak, no matter how many he gives his e-mail and phone number to, there will be some he won't reach in time. It has happened in his own family, to his nephew, a Marine who returned home from Fallujah.

His nephew lived far away. Colson called, wrote and even made therapy appointments, but they went ignored. His nephew drank and withdrew. One night, alone in his father's house, his nephew shot himself and died.

In some ways, Colson feels responsible for his death.

"I was a suicide-prevention officer for the Navy, for God's sake," he says. "Let's be honest. I didn't save him. I failed. And that failure will haunt me. When I talk to my sister, it's there. When I walk into a family gathering, it's there."

Stigma Can Cost Lives

He thinks the bravado of military service prevented his nephew from seeking help. He says that in the military, "Readjustment issues, and concerns, and PTSD and that horrible word, you know, mental illness, that's something you never tell anyone and that stigma can cost people their lives."

At another Navy base, Colson gives his speech again. He hopes he will shock more sailors and Marines into getting care. As he speaks, he scans the young faces in the room. He sees a woman with a girlish face in the third row who is blinking back tears. He watches two men who don't laugh at his jokes, but he sees that they're listening — closely. As Colson packs up, the woman in tears and the two men who didn't laugh seek him out privately. Colson will get them appointments at the Vet Center and hope they show up.

When Colson gets to his office the next day, there are four more e-mails from others. It's a handful. But for Mike Colson, it's a start.