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Marines confront stigma of post-traumatic stress

Marines recovering from PTS say vets can get help to turn their lives around

Mar. 2, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Sgt. Carter Calvert
Sgt. Carter Calvert (Courtesy of Sgt. Carter Calvert)
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Briana and Ryan Culberson attend a Hollywood event in Beverly Hills in September 2012. With a second child on the way, Staff Sgt. Culberson, a joint terminal attack controller, said he realized he needed to get help for his post-traumatic stress. (Jordan Strauss / AP)

A staff noncommissioned officer whose angry tirade on a reality TV show made gossip site headlines around the country is reaching out for help with his post-traumatic stress. Now he is encouraging other Marines who are struggling to do the same.

Staff Sgt. Ryan Culberson, a joint terminal attack controller with 11th Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., returned from Afghanistan in October — his fifth combat deployment.

Since marrying his wife, Briana, in 2012, Culberson has made several appearances on Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Orange County” where his mother-in-law, Vicki Gunvalson, is one of the featured stars. In an episode he taped prior to leaving for Afghanistan, he directed a profanity-laced outburst at another woman on the show. When it aired halfway through his deployment, it brought Culberson instant notoriety.

With the unwanted attention and a second baby on the way, Culberson realized he needed help. Now he wants to set an example for other Marines who have resisted getting the treatment they need, often because they fear being stigmatized, even within the Marine Corps, as “damaged goods.” He’ll spend the first week of March in Malibu Canyon, Calif., participating in Save A Warrior, a five-day-long resiliency program aimed at helping veterans who have returned from the war zones. A production company will be filming the event for a documentary, which is expected to air on CNN.

“I’ve had issues for years that I have left unresolved,” he said. “I just really want other Marines to be aware of programs like Save A Warrior and know that it’s OK to seek help."

Save A Warrior is led by former Army Capt. Jake Clark. Troubled by the extraordinarily high military suicide rates after 9/11, Clark wanted to offer struggling veterans an alternative to taking their own lives or popping pills.

“It just struck me as a national shame that some fully fledged Marine could survive five tours and then come home and die by his own hand,” he said.

Since starting Save A Warrior in 2012, about 100 vets have been through the program, he said. Most have been men, but Clark is looking to expand into women-only events aimed at helping those who are struggling with the trauma of sexual assault.

Culberson said he is hoping for a life-changing experience after years of steady deployments. While he didn’t decide to get help because of the reaction people had to his outburst on the show, having his life on display certainly contributed to the stress he was feeling, he said.

“This is something I choose to do 100 percent on my own — I didn’t even feel the show needed to know anything about it,” he said. “But ... the scrutiny of being in the public eye hasn’t made dealing with [the issues] any easier.”

Culberson is the second Marine in his shop to attend Save A Warrior. Sgt. Carter Calvert, another JTAC in Culberson’s section, attended in January, after his third deployment to Afghanistan. The two were out on the rifle range recently when Calvert shared with Culberson how much his life has changed since going through the program.

“I don’t drink anymore,” Calvert said, who noted that he was putting back about about three beers each night to get to sleep. “I also stopped taking the anti-depressant that worked as a sleeping pill for me, and I meditate two times a day.”

Infantry units depend on JTACs like Culberson and Calvert to act as force multipliers, calling in helicopters and fixed wing aircraft to rain bombs and bullets down on enemy positions. JTACs are often in the midst of the most intense fighting, helping grunts out of scrapes or dominating larger enemy elements. Their specialty is precision, sometimes bringing in munitions danger close — just dozens of yards from Marine positions.

But now Calvert said all the stress and weight he has felt since he began deploying in 2009 is gone. He learned to meditate correctly and identified ways he was shutting down when gripped with anxiety. He now knows how to work through it, he said.

Contrary to what many Marines might expect, there’s very little sitting around and talking about feelings at a Save A Warrior event, Clark said. Instead, the veterans work with horses, climb rocks, take a high ropes course and engage in other activities, all the while identifying the myriad ways in which they’re affected by PTS, Calvert said. They also go through ceremonial practices, like walking through stone mazes while envisioning leaving their warzone selves behind.

“My PTS is not gone — it’s not going to leave,” Calvert said. “We’re constantly healing. It’s just something we’re going to live with. It just kind of helped me realize that.”

Calvert said he hopes his transformation since returning from Save A Warrior helps break down the stigma that Marines seeking outside help for PTS can’t turn things around and be successful.

“The stigma is real,” he said. “I hope it changes. It’s pretty evident that you can get through this without it ruining your career, but until people acknowledge that the stigma exists and that cycle is broken, it won’t change.”

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