Strug­gling ex-Marine re­solves to help other vet­er­ans heal

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The Marine Corps was a nat­u­ral fit for Whisler, says his mother, Va­lerie Schultz, who now lives in Ok­la­homa.

She ac­knowl­edges need­ing some con­vinc­ing, how­ever.

“I re­mem­ber vividly one night, we were sit­ting down and hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion, and I said, ‘I need you to tell me, face to face, why do you want to do this?’” Schultz re­calls “And he said, ‘Mom I want to be a Marine to be part of some­thing big­ger. I want to make a dif­fer­ence.’

“How could I not sup­port him in that de­ci­sion?”

Now 30 and liv­ing in Lake­wood, Whisler strikes an im­pos­ing fig­ure. “Sem­per Fi” is promi­nently tat­tooed on his right fore­arm, and he wears a long beard that visu­ally puts him some­where be­tween a recluse lum­ber­jack and a cof­fee shop hip­ster.

Whisler is nei­ther. Dur­ing an ac­tive-duty ca­reer that spanned five years, Whisler be­came highly trained be­fore serv­ing a 7-month de­ploy­ment in Afghanistan in 2010.

“Look­ing for bad guys to

is how Whisler to­day de­scribes his ex­pe­ri­ence at war. It was ex­actly the kind of mis­sion Whisler signed up for.

The out­come was not.

A DI­AG­NO­SIS

For a year af­ter he got out of the mil­i­tary in 2011, Whisler didn’t speak to an­other vet­eran.

He iso­lated him­self, he says, in part be­cause he was ashamed of his ser­vice.

Dur­ing his de­ploy­ment in Afghanistan, the clos­est Whisler ever got to “see­ing ac­tion” was “two clicks,” or two kilo­me­ters in civil­ian terms. In that same time, Whisler’s bat­tal­ion lost 13 men.

The com­bat he longed for was all around, yet the ex­plod­ing IEDs and fierce fire­fights man­aged to elude him. At the same time, he strug­gled to con­nect with his fel­low sol­diers.

Whisler felt alone in war and in­creas­ingly os­tra­cized by the peo­ple who were sup­posed to be his broth­ers in arms.

“I felt like a fail­ure as a Marine and as a leader,” Whisler says of the ex­pe­ri­ence. “And I didn’t want to ad­mit that.

“I wanted to go to war so bad, and the fact that I didn’t re­ally eats at me. Still to this day, it’s not some­thing I’m OK with. Like, I went there. I feel like I should have ex­pe­ri­enced that stuff. I def­i­nitely carry a lit­tle bit of survivor’s guilt. And that’s part of why I had a hard time ac­cept­ing the di­ag­no­sis.”

Af­ter re­turn­ing to Washington to be close to his young son Caden — who was liv­ing with Whisler’s mom and soon-to-be exwife — Whisler strug­gled to ad­just. He had a hard time find­ing work, feel­ing rud­der­less.

At one point, he hatched a plan to walk from the Capi­tol in Olympia to Washington D.C. to raise aware­ness for vet­er­ans’ is­sues like sui­cide and ad­dic­tion.

The trek ended just two days down the road af­ter he re­ceived word that his mother was in the hospi­tal.

To Whisler, it was yet an­other fail­ure in a life that seemed to be col­lect­ing them.

Schultz de­scribes watch­ing her son strug­gle as “gut-wrench­ing.”

“It was hard times,” Schultz says. “He went through a pe­riod of time where he was pretty with­drawn. We used to speak on the phone ev­ery day, but he stopped do­ing that, and he couldn’t see why.

“I would try to help him see where he was at, but he wasn’t ready to ad­dress that. He was strug­gling to find his place in the world and his pur­pose again and ad­just to civil­ian life.”

Whisler says he also stopped dream­ing, suf­fer­ing from what he as­sumed at the time was sim­ply de­pres­sion.

He was wrong.

It would take six years be­fore Whisler of­fi­cially was di­ag­nosed with PTSD.

“I thought my soul had died. I ac­tu­ally, at one point in time, ques­tioned whether I was still alive — like if I had a soul any­more,” he re­mem­bers. “It freaked me out. I thought it was just tem­po­rary, but it wasn’t.”

MI­CRO-TRAU­MAS

For Whisler, the PTSD di­ag­no­sis was not nec­es­sar­ily a welcome one.

In­stead of pro­vid­ing re­lief or an an­swer to his mys­te­ri­ous strug­gles since re­turn­ing home, he says, it mostly in­spired con­fu­sion and the in­escapable feel­ing that he didn’t de­serve it.

“One of our dog han­dlers lost an eye. We had 13 men who never came home. And I never saw any­thing. I walked through like it was a (ex­ple­tive) Boy Scouts’ camp,” Whisally ler says.

“So why am I get­ting this di­ag­no­sis?”

Ac­cord­ing to Dr. Cas­san­dra Ni­chols, the di­rec­tor of the Univer­sity of Washington Ta­coma’s Stu­dent Coun­sel­ing Cen­ter, Whisler’s ini­tial re­ac­tion was an un­der­stand­able and fairly com­mon one. A PTSD di­ag­no­sis is not one “that most peo­ple want to earn … it’s not a pos­i­tive thing,” she says.

Coming to terms with it, Ni­chols says, can be dif­fi­cult.

The med­i­cal find­ing did re­veal a new term to Whisler: mi­cro-trauma, or the idea that re­peated ex­po­sure to stres­sors over an ex­tended pe­riod of time can have the same im­pact as a sin­gu­lar trau­matic event.

As a 2010 study pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Psy­chi­atric and Men­tal Health Nurs­ing notes, “It is be­com­ing clearer that symp­toms of PTSD can arise from mul­ti­ple less se­vere trau­mas.”

The study states that “mul­ti­ple mi­cro-trau­mas … can lead to PTSD symp­toms and may even be more de­struc­tive to psy­cho­log­i­cal health.”

Ni­chols wasn’t sur­prised that some­one like Whisler, who never ex­pe­ri­enced com­bat first­hand, still could de­velop PTSD.

“He could have been called to the front line at any time. That alone, know­ing that you could be next … it makes a lot of sense to me,” Ni­chols says. “I would be sur­prised if a per­son would not de­velop PTSD un­der those the cir­cum­stances.”

The story also was fa­mil­iar to Patti Tay­lor, a Univer­sity of Washington alum who served in the Nurse Corps in Viet­nam, the Gulf wars and Afghanistan. For more than a decade, Tay­lor has served as a vol­un­teer nurse case man­ager for Oper­a­tion Mend, a pro­gram that of­fers med­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal sup­port for wounded vet­er­ans.

“When you have these lit­tle mi­cro-trau­mas … your body is just washed with the fight-and-flight hor­mones. Your body is ac­tu­ally as­saulted, and so is your brain,” Tay­lor ex­plains.

“Ac­tu­ally the lit­tle as­saults … are more trau­matic than one big event, be­cause it ac­tu­ally changes the brain chem­istry in these in­di­vid­u­als, and we’ve seen that through re­search.”

To Whisler, the pieces even­tu­ally started to come to­gether.

“A lot of (my trauma) came from, No. 1, be­ing un­der con­stant threat. There be ac­tion. Ev­ery time we walked out­side the wire, we were ready,” Whisler says. “Then there was also the fact that I had a lot of so­cial is­sues with the peo­ple in my unit, and even­tukill,” came to feel like I couldn’t trust any of them and I didn’t feel safe around them. My ( post­trau­matic stress) is not re­lated di­rectly to com­bat, but to the so­cial en­vi­ron­ment that I was in and the ex­pe­ri­ences that I had.

“It took me a while to fig­ure out and come to terms with that.”

TEAM RED WHITE AND BLUE

Eight years af­ter re­turn­ing from Afghanistan, Whisler has found the pur­pose and the op­por­tu­nity for lead­er­ship that eluded him dur­ing ac­tive duty.

It has come through Team Red White and Blue, a non­profit vet­eran ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tion that seeks to cre­ate the com­mu­nity and ca­ma­raderie that the mil­i­tary pro­vides but of­ten dis­si­pates when peo­ple re­turn home.

For the last year and a half, Whisler has served as cap­tain for Team Red White and Blue’s Joint Base Lewis McChord chap­ter. The po­si­tion tasks Whisler will help­ing peo­ple de­velop lead­er­ship skills — fo­cus­ing on traits like em­pa­thy and com­pas­sion — and puts him in con­tact with close to 1,200 reg­is­tered mem­bers and an ac­tive mem­ber­ship of roughly 30-50 vet­er­ans.

Many, he says, are deal­ing with some of the same vex­ing is­sues that he’s ex­pe­ri­enced since leav­ing the mil­i­tary. Through or­ga­nized ac­tiv­i­ties like triathlons, strength train­ing, CrossFit, hik­ing and ruck­ing — es­sen­tially ur­ban hik­ing with weighted packs — Team Red White and Blue helps to pro­vide an im­por­tant sup­port sys­tem for vet­er­ans re­turn­ing to civil­ian life.

In it, Whisler fi­nally feels at home.

“We help them on their growth jour­ney, so they can heal and re­cover — the things that I never had,” Whisler ex­plains. “You do some­thing with some­body, and you de­velop that re­la­tion­ship, you deepen that re­la­tion­ship, and it helps to de­velop that sense of pur­pose.”

Vic­to­ria Okuly, a 31year-old for­mer in­tel­li­gence an­a­lyst in the Army, is one of the peo­ple who has been drawn to Team Red White and Blue af­ter re­tir­ing from the mil­i­tary.

It’s where she met Whisler, and it’s where she’s seen the im­pact he’s now hav­ing on vet­er­ans.

Okuly car­ries her own trauma and has ex­pe­ri­enced anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion since leav­ing the mil­i­tary.

Like Whisler, Okuly also de­ployed in Afghanistan and has also been di­ag­nosed with PTSD. She, too, re­calls her di­ag­no­sis as “a hard pill to swal­low.”

Okuly’s trauma, she says, is the re­sult of be­ing raped by a fel­low solider. Her rapist left on de­ploy­ment the next day, and she con­sid­ers the as­sault “a planned at­tack.”

“I didn’t have the knowl­edge that I needed to pur­sue him. He was gone the next day,” Okuly says.

“I didn’t press charges. I didn’t know how to,” she adds. “Be­ing new (to the Army), I didn’t want that to be my rep­u­ta­tion.”

While Okuly says she’s in­cred­i­bly proud of her mil­i­tary ser­vice and “would do it again,” the ex­pe­ri­ence has un­der­stand­ably had a last­ing im­pact — one she’s still deal­ing with to­day.

Most acutely, she’s still fear­ful of crowded places and — even more — of be­ing alone with men

When her therapist rec­om­mended “ex­po­sure therapy” — or find­ing a male friend to spend time with in an ef­fort to over­come some of her is­sues with anx­i­ety — Whisler im­me­di­ately came to mind.

The friends started meet­ing reg­u­larly at Barnes & No­ble in Lake­wood, hav­ing cof­fee be­fore pe­rus­ing the books.

“Scott was the only per­son I could think of that would be will­ing to do that,” Okuly re­calls. “I said, ‘This is go­ing to sound weird, but I need you to help me not be afraid of you and stress out around you.

“Scott has been there for me, and he con­tin­ues

More than any­thing in the world, Scott Whisler wanted to be a Marine.

He wanted to help peo­ple, he wanted to be a leader, and he wanted make the world a bet­ter place.

For var­i­ous rea­sons, it didn’t work out like he hoped it would. He still har­bors regret.

But in life af­ter the mil­i­tary, Whisler says, he’s found the pur­pose and the im­pact he’s been striv­ing for since he was a high school se­nior hang­ing around the re­cruiter’s of­fice.

You can see it in his eyes, and you can see it in re­la­tion­ships like the one he shares with Okuly.

“I’m not proud of what has hap­pened to me, and my story. And I know I’m go­ing to catch flak from peo­ple who are go­ing to say I don’t de­serve it, be­cause in the vet­eran world there are peo­ple who think if you haven’t seen com­bat, you’re not wor­thy of this stuff,” Whisler ac­knowl­edges.

“But at the end of the day there are more peo­ple who have sto­ries sim­i­lar to mine.”

The path hasn’t been easy — far from it, he ad­mits. But if shar­ing his story can help other vet­er­ans in his sit­u­a­tion, Whisler says, it will be worth it.

“When I got out of the mil­i­tary I was bro­ken, spirit and mind and body,” he says.

“And here I am stand­ing stronger than ever be­fore. My sole goal, ev­ery­thing I do, is be­cause if I can help peo­ple, if I can help them grow and get out of the pain and tor­ture that they ex­pe­ri­enced, then all of my pain and ev­ery­thing I went through was worth some­thing.”

‘‘

Scott Whisler

BRIT­TANY PETER­SON McClatchy

Scott Whisler was di­ag­nosed with post-trau­matic stress disor­der af­ter be­ing de­ployed in Afghanistan for seven months in 2010. He now helps vet­er­ans deal with the same is­sues he faced in life af­ter the mil­i­tary.

Cour­tesy of Scott Whisler

It was six years be­fore Whisler of­fi­cially was di­ag­nosed with PTSD.

Cour­tesy of Scott Whisler

Scott Whisler says his post-trau­matic stress disor­der di­ag­no­sis was a re­sult of re­peated mi­cro-trau­mas as well as so­cial is­sues he ex­pe­ri­enced with his fel­low sol­diers.

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