A patient follows the movement of light across a bar during an Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing session with psychologist David Hagedorn. EMDR is designed to stimulate the brain through eye movements, auditory cues and vibrations and reduce the symptoms associated with stress-related events such as combat trauma, post-traumatic stress, anxiety and insomnia. (ANNA HANCOCK / NAVY)
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Master Sgt. Christopher Stowe knows the smell of death, and he knows what it feels like to have the weight of a fellow Marine's severed limb in his hands.
The explosive ordnance disposal technician, attached to EOD Company, 8th Engineer Support Battalion, at Camp Lejeune, N.C., said he began to struggle with the realities of war after a particularly difficult deployment to Iraq in 2006.
"It was the first time I had to shoot somebody," Stowe said. "It ended up being a 15-year-old boy that had placed an improvised explosive device and he had a grenade in his hand. My oldest son at the time was 13."
After the deployment, Stowe was diagnosed with moderate to severe post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2008, he was also diagnosed with traumatic brain injury. But against his doctor's advice, Stowe continued to deploy.
By 2012, after six deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, he was in a very dark place.
"A pencil would roll off the table and I would jump into a tirade," Stowe said.
Fearful that his symptoms might drive him to make a career-ending mistake, Stowe talked things over with his wife and then sought professional treatment this year.
Now he credits the innovative therapy he received at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune, called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, for saving his marriage and his career.
EMDR helps stimulate the brain through eye movement, vibrations and tones. Since 2008, the Lejeune hospital has used the technique to treat 200 patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and officials there said they expect even more medical providers to receive EMDR certification in the coming months.
But despite its rise in popularity within the medical community, Stowe said many Marines are still unaware of the treatment, which he believes provides a better alternative to the antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications commonly prescribed.
Before arriving for treatment, Stowe had a different way of coping.
"I self-medicated by deployment," he said. "I just rolled back into a deployment cycle and kept doing that through 2011," he said.
Stowe said he managed to keep it together for a while but entered a downward spiral following the death of his close friend, http://www.militarytimes.com/valor/marine-master-sgt-adam-f-benjamin/4243925">Master Sgt. Adam Benjamin.
They were stationed at Lejeune in 2009. When their forward-deployed company in Afghanistan needed a combat replacement, Benjamin went.
He was killed during that deployment.
Despite the emotional and mental anguish, Stowe decided to redeploy to Afghanistan in 2011 and served as a regimental platoon sergeant.
"I had six guys lose their legs and two guys get killed. That's probably when my mental health fell off the table," he said.
Once he returned home this year, his quality of life was "horrible," he said. In addition to panic attacks, insomnia and loss of appetite, he was extremely irritable around his wife and four children.
When Stowe finally arrived at the hospital, he was treated by David Hagedorn, a psychologist and neuroscientist with a doctorate in clinical psychology, who credits the therapy for helping to eliminate the stigma associated with psychotherapy.
"A lot of service members are not crazy about going to see a shrink," he said. "This looks more like you went to see an engineer because of the neuroscience technology."
EMDR therapy, recognized by the Defense Department as an evidence-based treatment for PTSD, includes image exposure, desensitization, cognitive processing, assessment, psychoeducation and coping strategies, according to the Naval Center for Combat & Operational Stress Control.
During each session, patients are asked to recall a traumatic event and identify the positive and negative feelings associated with the event. Repetitive exercises including bilateral eye movements, with simultaneous bilateral sounds through headphones and tapping sensations in the palms, are provided to stimulate both hemispheres of the brain.
The most common task is side-to-side eye movements, allowing the patient to focus on the provider's moving finger or a light bar. The exercises are conducted for each traumatic event until the patient reassesses or recalibrates his level of emotional distress.
Therapy is ‘a mystery'
According to the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, there is no definitive evidence to explain how EMDR therapy works.
EMDR's founder, Francine Shapiro, who has a doctorate in psychology, argues that "unprocessed experiences become the basis of current dysfunctional reactions and are the cause of many mental disorders. … EMDR successfully alleviates mental disorders by processing the components of the distressing memory," according to the EMDR Institute's website.
"Even as a neuroscientist, some of the reasons it works are a mystery, but it's quite clear it's been effective," Hagedorn said.
Recalling difficult memories, though emotionally and mentally painful, is worth it, Stowe said.
"It's extremely stressful. I can remember being in those sessions and smelling blood, smelling explosives and the weight of a person's body part. All of those things [felt] like they had happened right then and there," Stowe said.
His treatment plan included meditative breathing techniques and biofeedback, and Stowe said he liked being able to see the patterns of his brain waves during some of the sessions because he felt like the results were tangible and under his control.
"I could see on a screen that my [brain] waves had changed from a spiked nonpattern to a wavelength pattern, which is where it's supposed to be. I felt calm and I felt at peace," he said. Practitioners "use brain wave mapping and an active [electroencephalogram] to see where your brain wave patterns are. They use breathing therapy to bring your stress levels down."
After five months of treatment, Stowe completed his EMDR therapy sessions in early November, and he was recently selected for master gunnery sergeant. The therapy process has helped him identify and learn to deal with triggers that used to set him off, he said, adding that he's become a better husband, father and Marine because of EMDR.
"It was [about] learning how to get resolution with all those events, to move past them — not forget about them or make them any less impactful in my mind or in my life — but learning how, in a healthy way, I can deal with that loss and pain," Stowe said. "I have a healthier response to adversity. I have what I consider a very healthy, productive outlook on life, and it's directly because of EMDR [therapy]."
Though Stowe said he actively sought out EMDR once he realized he needed help, Hagedorn said it's not unusual for patients to walk into his office with a sense of skepticism. He encourages service members to approach their mental health the same way they would approach physical fitness.
"If you want a 300 on your [physical training] test and your triceps are weak, you work on your triceps," he said. "If you have a slow run time, you work on your run. If you have trouble with insomnia and lack of focus, we can help that. If it's PTSD that's holding you back, then we focus on reducing the symptoms of PTSD."