Army veteran, with help, fights through effects of war

URBANA — As he was being honorably discharged from the Army in 2010, Phillip Scott Moore along with 700 other soldiers went through standard readiness procedure: a quick, group physical in a huge gymnasium.

Army physicians checked his eyes, blood pressure and other vitals. At the last of a dozen stations they asked about his mental health.

"I'm good. Just get me out of here," Moore told them.

After nearly eight years in the Army and three harrowing deployments in Iraq, he was ready to leave. He had achieved the rank of sergeant and once thought of having a career in the Army.

But he wanted to see his children, Corbin and Adisyn, grow up.

He returned to Champaign County — he'd grown up in Mahomet — and before settling down did what he wanted to do. He traveled, hiked, camped.

"It definitely helped. I had to get it out of my system," he said.

But he couldn't get Iraq out of his system.

He couldn't sleep. He had nightmares. He was short-tempered. When he went out, he sat in a corner, his back to the walls. He wanted to be aware of everything going on around him.

He also felt detached socially. He had trouble talking with people. He didn't care about what they had to say unless it directly affected him.

"When I got out I was just another sheep in the flock," he said. "It was disheartening to realize I'd never have relationships as close as some of the guys I served with."

In spring 2011, he enrolled at Parkland College, where he tried to connect with a student veterans group. He couldn't relate to the few vets who showed up for meetings.

They were National Guard.

They hadn't seen what he'd seen in Iraq.

"I had generated questions about how we could reintegrate into society, how we could be good with other people and feel OK in crowds," Moore said.

He didn't get any answers.

Eight or nine months after he had left the military, friends and relatives told Moore he had issues.

"Buddy, you need help," they would tell him.

Moore finally drove himself to the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System in Danville. There, he watched a video about prolonged exposure therapy, a form of behavior and cognitive behavioral therapy designed to treat victims with post-traumatic stress disorder.

He signed up.

He worked with Joanne King, a psychologist at the VA. She declined to discuss Moore's case but did talk about prolonged exposure therapy.

Through it, veterans re-experience in a systematic way traumatic events by remembering them repeatedly. The idea is that the repetition ends up reducing their anxiety, King said.

She compared it to watching a horror movie.

"The first time you watch it your anxiety spikes. If you watch it 20 times, you barely get a blip in your anxiety level."

The VA began using the therapy mainly with veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan war. Vietnam War vets are benefiting from it as well.

"They're returning now after 40 years of struggling and then doing this treatment," King said. "And they're getting well, after having suffered far too long."

There are two basic parts to prolonged exposure therapy: in vivo exposure and imagined exposure.

In in vivo, or real life, veterans confront situations they avoid due to the anxiety they feel in those circumstances: being in a crowd, going to restaurants, putting on their military uniforms.

"They put themselves in an anxiety-evoking situation for 45 minutes until their brain recognizes that they can tolerate this," King said. "Doing it multiple times brings down the anxiety over time."

In imagined exposure, veterans tell — in first person and present tense and while recording themselves — of their most traumatic experiences. Back home they listen daily, without distractions, to the recordings.

"It's anxiety-evoking. But it's just a memory, and that helps them confront that and over time wear out that memory," King said.

Some patients, while first engaged in prolonged exposure therapy, experience an exacerbation of their symptoms. Most see their symptoms drop dramatically after three or four sessions, King said.

Eighty percent of veterans who finish the therapy become significantly better; the other 20 percent say they don't get better but don't get worse, she said. And some veterans drop out after just a few sessions.

"It's not for the faint of heart," King said. "It is a very daunting task for them to confront their fears because every bone in their body will warn them against going back and thinking about this."

Moore called the therapy "mental work, mental strain."

He was committed, though, and finished after nine sessions rather than the 12 prescribed.

When he talked in the sessions about his most horrifying experiences in Iraq, his heart would race. His mind would see everything. He could even remember the smells.

"She would ask, 'What are you feeling? What did you do next?' She also knew I would be on edge and would ease up a little bit," he said. "The sessions were emotional but definitely worth it.

"There was a lot of crying in there."

Back home in Urbana, where he lives with his parents, Moore listened to himself on recordings.

"It's really nerve-racking, and you're on the edge of your seat listening to these tapes of your worst memories, the really, really bad stuff."

He wanted, though, "to hit it head on." He took the same approach to his "homework" — engaging in situations outside his comfort zone. Examples: talking to 10 people at Parkland he had never met before; going to the mall and chatting with someone, usually a clerk, in every store he entered; and asking five people random questions that didn't pertain to him.

Moore kept a log and soon noticed progress. He even considered every week he worked with King a milestone.

He also liked King, which helped. She didn't sugarcoat things and could fly with the Army lingo he used. He could tell her all the gory details he couldn't tell others who hadn't seen action.

For his last session, Moore wore his "Class A's," or Army dress uniform — the one with ribbons and medals, among them four commendations. He did that to surprise King and to put closure on everything.

As a result of finishing prolonged exposure therapy, Moore also quit smoking cigarettes and using marijuana. Veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress often self-medicate to reduce their anxiety and quit once they finish the therapy, King said.

The bad memories, though, don't go completely away. Veterans continue to have some anxiety. But they know they can confront and push through it, King said.

Moore no longer has nightmares, though he sometimes dreams of someone who was hurt in Iraq. The dreams no longer frazzle him.

He admits he still carries emotional baggage.

"Sometimes I need to be a little choosy about what I say," he said. "I need to dial it down while working with issues. I do need to be less assertive. But I'm not hesitant about talking to people any more."

He feels the therapy also helped him in his relationships with his family, including his children, now 10 and 6 years old.

"Everything is progressing for the better," he said.

Moore had joined the Army in 2002, mainly to support a family. He married his girlfriend the day after he finished basic training. At the time she was pregnant. Before he left in March 2004 for this first deployment to Iraq she and their son began living with him on base.

Three months after he returned, in March 2005, she left him. She and Moore had grown apart. He blames the deployment. Five years later, they divorced. She has custody of their children, who live with her in Tuscola. Moore enjoys seeing his kids every other week.

During his three deployments to Iraq, Moore and his platoon spent time in the urban areas of Baghdad and Mosul as well as the countryside. In the cities they carried out door-to-door raids, and often saw ambushes or Army vehicles hit by improvised explosive devices.

In the rural areas, where IEDs were buried in roads and under canals, Moore saw U.S. Army Humvees blown up three or four times a week. The force would flip over the heavy vehicles; in one case in which a Humvee was hit while crossing a canal, Moore found upon arrival that all on board had drowned.

His platoon's job was to recover the bodies and the equipment. That would take an hour, during which he and his troops worried about the vehicle being hit again.

"I had a lot of narrow escapes," he said. "When you put your life on the line like that every single day there's no way to process emotions, no time to be soft or see each other cry."

Even back on base, he couldn't relax.

He slept only three or four hours a night.

"You pull out of an eight-hour mission outside the wire just to get back on the base and think you're safe and then mortar and rockets are landing a few feet away from you," he said.

Moore's looking ahead, though. At Parkland he's maintaining a 3.7 grade-point average. After he graduates he will attend Southern Illinois University to study forestry.

He has a job, stocking shelves overnight at Toys R Us. It doesn't make use of the leadership, counseling and organizational skills he acquired in the Army. But he's thankful for it, realizing many people, not only veterans, are looking for work.

"A lot of the inspiration I get nowadays is from the fact I have all my appendages," he said. "A lot of times when I'm too shy to do something or don't have the courage, I think about the guys who never came home. What would they think of me if I didn't go the extra effort to get something done?"

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rsp wrote on November 11, 2012 at 10:11 am

He has a job, stocking shelves overnight at Toys R Us. It doesn't make use of the leadership, counseling and organizational skills he acquired in the Army. But he's thankful for it, realizing many people, not only veterans, are looking for work.

Leadership comes in many forms. It shows in the example you give to others in how to overcome extreme adversity, in public and in private. I strongly suspect Moore will only increase his leadership role as time goes on.