Nurse seeks help healing hidden wounds of wars

Often, the wounds are not as obvious as a lost limb or a scar.

Of the nearly 2 million men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002, an estimated half-million have been diagnosed with brain injuries, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

One of every five suicide victims in the United States has combat experience, though only 1 percent of the country’s population is active-duty military.

About 40 percent of people currently deployed overseas are parents, and most of those are citizen soldiers in the National Guard or reserve forces. Women make up 11 percent of those serving.

“Two years ago, I knew nothing about this,” psychiatric nurse Trisha Pearce said. “Now, even with all the veterans I’ve spoken to, I still don’t fully understand what they’ve gone through. I do know that war has an effect on all veterans, their families and their communities.”

Pearce, a former peace activist, calls herself a “born-again patriot.”

The 57-year-old Stanwood woman is the founder and director of the Soldiers Project Northwest. The project provides free, confidential, therapeutic counseling to veterans of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as active-duty personnel and military families. It also offers training to the project’s volunteer licensed therapists and seeks to educate communities on the psychological effects of war.

“As a nation, our responsibility — whether we agree with the war or not — is to help our veterans and their loved ones. It’s getting better, but we’re not doing a great job as a culture,” Pearce said. “These people put their lives on the line in the name of this country, and everyone who returns is changed. We all need to recognize this and do whatever we can to help, whether it’s giving financially, volunteering or just asking our human resource managers at work to consider hiring vets.”

National guardsmen and reservists have returned and been expected to drive their kids to soccer practice or go back to work as if nothing happened, she said. Kids are having nightmares and couples may have trouble adjusting to each other again.

“Young women veterans are really having a tough time, and many have anxiety and depression. It’s really tough not seeing your kid for year,” Pearce said. “And then you come back and try to be a spouse and a mother while dealing with this thing that you’ve been through.”

The rest of us need to be supportive, encouraging and seek a greater understanding of those who have served, she said.

“Combat personnel are taught to be aggressive and walk into the fire. Don’t overreact to their anger,” Pearce said. On the road, have good driving habits: No zooming around other cars and no tailgaiting, she added.

“Overseas, our troops travel in convoys. Any other moving motor vehicle can be a dangerous threat,” Pearce said. “I have heard from veterans who became anxious because someone pulled up too close to them in the grocery store parking lot.”

After earning her nursing degree, Pearce moved from North Carolina to the West Coast and ended up in Stanwood about 15 years ago. Her 30-year career has focused on mental health and chemical dependency. She continues to serve as an on-call psychiatric nurse at Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon.

Though her brothers served in the military, one during Vietnam and another in the Gulf War, it wasn’t until she became involved with veterans that she began talking with them about their experiences.

“I learned everything I could about combat post-traumatic stress disorder and became really passionate about the work,” she said. “Having protested the war in Vietnam and then watched as many combat veterans suffered without help, I decided that we can’t lose another generation to this. I cannot control if there is a war or not, but I might be able to help with the healing of someone who comes back from that war.”

Inspired by the Los Angeles-based national Soldiers Project, Pearce began two years ago to pull together a network of professionals willing to give their time to offer free counseling.

Today, there are 57 volunteer therapists statewide involved in the Soldiers Project Northwest, which is now an affiliate of the national project.

Pearce volunteers more than 20 hours a week for the project, making sure military families don’t have to fight through a lot of rigmarole to get help. Recently she focused on finding more volunteer counselors in Snohomish County, where there is a big need, Pearce said.

Dr. Judith Broder, founder of the national Soldiers Project, calls Pearce “a miracle worker.”

“She is doing an amazing job,” Broder said. “She has more energy than anyone I know. People have no idea what it takes to get the project going.”

There are untold numbers of people who need the support of the Soldiers Project, Broder said.

“The people who need to talk about this are ordinary people. They aren’t mentally ill,” Broder said. “But they have seen horrific things, and their families have been through extraordinary times. It takes a while for people to come all the way home from the war.”

Earlier this month, Pearce received an award from the state Department of Veterans Affairs for her work connecting veterans and their loved ones with much-needed free mental health services.

Named the Outstanding Female Non-Veteran of the Year, Pearce rode in the Auburn Veterans Day parade alongside groups of veterans.

“The award is very kind,” she said. “More importantly, it brings attention to the project so we can help more people.”

Department of Veterans Affairs Director John Lee, a Vietnam veteran, said the Soldiers Project Northwest doesn’t compete with the VA, but it widens the safety net for veterans.

“Trisha Pearce is an angel. The honor we paid her is just one small way to thank her for the work she is doing,” Lee said. “I am proud to know her. We have a good partnership.”

Nobody any longer refutes the existence of combat post-traumatic stress disorder, or the psychological effects of war, he said.

“Men and women go to war and they come back different,” Lee said. “They often need help to figure out how to deal with what they were exposed to. Those who volunteer for the project have the heart to help.”

Sometimes, Pearce admits, she’s so passionate about her work that it’s hard not to wish that everybody could view veterans the way she, Broder and Lee do.

“It’s tough when I see people madly shopping at the malls. I find myself wishing they would spend a little of their money on military families,” she said. “In the meantime, the war continues and so will we.”

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