For Robert Canine, everything changed 10 years ago.
Serving as an infantryman in his second deployment in Iraq, he was riding back from a patrol on May 17, 2009, when his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb. The explosion blasted through the 500-pound steel door of the vehicle.
He was stuck in the vehicle, the door pinned up against the curb, when a couple of his men saved his life. They pulled him out and got him on a helicopter, where he was flown to a combat support hospital.
The accident caused Canine to lose both his legs.
“My Army career was effectively cut short,” he said.
Canine said he struggled with readjusting to civilian life. His story is not uncommon.
A complex problem
Canine returned home a decade ago to an enthusiastic welcome in Columbia after spending 18 months in an Army hospital. Yet, despite the warm welcome, it wasn’t easy for him to feel at home.
He continued to live in pain and denial until he finally crashed and found himself dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and the trauma of losing his legs, his marriage and his career. He felt alienated from the life he used to know.
“I felt like I didn’t fit in anymore,” he said. “The people I knew and the things I used to do, I didn’t feel like I was a part of that anymore.”
According to a national study from the Department of Veterans Affairs, 13.5 percent of recent veterans screened positive for PTSD. Depression and sleep problems are also more likely in those with PTSD, according to the department.
Some obstacles veterans experience after returning home, with or without a PTSD diagnosis, can be relatively visible. What is less apparent are the significant problems of readjusting to society and feeling disconnected and misunderstood.
“It’s like a Rip Van Winkle effect, where you come back and things have moved on without you,” Canine said.
According to Valerie Sisson, the director of the Columbia Vet Center, many problems for veterans can grow and change over time.
“It’s a ripple effect,” Sisson said. “If you don’t really know where you fit in and how to fit in, then how can you get a good job? How do you keep that job?”
Veterans must figure out how to restructure the world in a way that makes sense to them, but the world itself often makes no sense, Canine said. One symptom of PTSD, according to the VA, is a high level of arousal, which involves strong reactions to sights and sounds.
“In the States, you have to learn to chill out,” Canine said. “When someone is riding your butt in traffic, they aren’t trying to blow you up.”
Soldiers may be in combat situations where unexpected traumatic events, such as witnessing violence and death, can undermine a belief system. Guilt, then, may return to civilian life with them.
“There is no one thing,” Sisson said. “It’s like stacking Jenga. The higher you go, the more things you add on top, the more likely it is going to be a problem.”
The homeless dilemma
One of the more difficult outcomes veterans can encounter is homelessness. In recent years, a number of places in Columbia have emerged with programs and therapies to help veterans experiencing homelessness and other barriers to readjustment.
One is Welcome Home, which opened a facility two years ago to give homeless veterans transitional housing, job assistance and other tools for successful independent living.
According to the Welcome Home website, Missouri has more than 600 homeless veterans, with more than 62,000 trying to find a place to sleep every night in the United States.
In Columbia, about 1 out of 5 homeless people are veterans, according to the website.
“Their symptoms don’t occur in a vacuum,” said Randall Rogers, a clinical psychologist and local recovery coordinator at the Truman Veterans’ Hospital. “There’s a lot of situational things.”
A common assumption is that substance abuse is the tipping point for homelessness. But not every homeless veteran deals with substance abuse, and self-medication is often the outcome of bigger mental or situational problems, Rogers said.
There is also the matter of transient homelessness, Sisson said, which happens when a veteran is divorced or unemployed and can’t find or pay for dependable housing.
“It could really happen to anyone under certain circumstances,” Rogers said.
Help for veterans
Welcome Home has been engaged in finding solutions for troubled veterans for nearly 30 years. The organization was founded in 1992 after a homeless veteran died on the street and became more visible in 2017 when a complex was built on Business Loop 70 East with 32 rooms for homeless veterans and their families.
In addition to lodging, Welcome Home provides three meals a day and resources for 60 to 90 days to help veterans get back on their feet. Sisson said the social aspect of Welcome Home touches on one of the most successful treatment methods for PTSD and readjustment issues for veterans: getting them plugged back into the community.
“Their mission is to end veteran homelessness, and they do that to honor veterans by restoring their lives,” said Canine, who is on the board of directors for Welcome Home.
Veterans have the opportunity to start over at Welcome Home with the help of case workers, transportation, career advice, support groups and future housing options. The veterans also have a community of companions who understand what they are going through, which makes the housing complex a safe, caring place.
“It strengthens relationships with community and society where sometimes those relationships can be broken,” Canine said.
In 2013, Canine knew he needed to change.
“I realized that I had a serious problem that I needed to get a hold of,” he said.
He started to work out, focus on his sleep patterns, become more financially and relationally stable and seek help for his PTSD through holistic therapy called the Emotional Freedom Technique. He also found veteran resources and educational opportunities that helped him get him back on track.
A number of options are available in the city for veterans searching for treatment. Programs through the Columbia Vet Center, Truman Veterans’ Hospital and other agencies provide group therapy and peer sessions that may aid in their recovery.
Traditional therapy treatments, such as cognitive processing therapy and prolonged exposure therapy, can help veterans discuss a traumatic history with certified therapists. Recently, more contemporary types of therapy have also been developed to focus on the social aspects of healing.
The Healing Box Project, for example, is a Missouri nonprofit that gives free guitar lessons to veterans as part of the recovery process. The Healing Circle is a form of group therapy at the veterans hospital that focuses on veterans telling their stories in a structure based on Native American ritual.
Whole Health therapy takes an alternative medicine approach with treatment options that incorporate yoga and tai chi, mindfulness training, aroma therapy, acupuncture or massage chairs.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy deals directly with PTSD and psychological stress by asking a patient to talk about a traumatic experience while a therapist directs eye movement. Diverting a veteran’s attention can reduce emotional distress and allow the impact of memories to decrease over time.
“Veterans are smart, they have a lot of potential,” Canine said. “A lot of times, there is a lot of fire in them, too. And if you can unlock that, it’s great for them, it’s great for the community.”
Now, Canine is remarried with a baby and is attending Columbia College to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He describes himself as a new person who is fully rehabilitated.
“I can separate myself from the old person,” he said. “The old person was defined by the Army, and when I lost that, I lost who I was.”
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