Veterans help veterans cope with PTSD through Headstrong Project

Two years after serving two tours in Iraq, Army veteran Dustin Shryock started feeling something was wrong — and he didn’t know how to make it right.

“Anxiety attacks that would pop up for no reason,” he recalls of the problems that surfaced out of the blue in 2010. “I’d be sitting on the couch, doing nothing. You can just imagine a normal anxiety attack, like a public speaking engagement.

“And a tiny little thing like that, over time, over and over, became debilitating.”

A fellow veteran pulled him aside with a solution: The Headstrong Project, a group founded four years ago by combat-decorated Marine Corps officer Zach Iscol to assist his fellow American fighters scarred by invisible wounds.

“If someone reaches out to us, we are in touch with them within 48 hours,” said Iscol, who saw 33 comrades killed and more than 500 wounded in the 2004 battle of Fallujah. “A lot of veterans don’t even realize why they’re suffering.”

Since its inception, the Headstrong Project has provided assistance to nearly 230 post-9/11 veterans — with 130-plus currently in treatment.

Iscol said the idea of veterans helping veterans came to him over beers with his battalion commander, Col. Willy Buhl. Talk between the two turned to the number of Fallujah fighters lost since their return to the United States.

“We were worried that it was only a matter of time until we lost more to suicide than enemy action,” Iscol recounted.

Within a few days, Iscol was in contact with Al Rabil, managing partner and CEO of Kayne Anderson Capital Advisors’ real estate private equity business, and Dr. Ann Beder, an old family friend and veteran of more than two decades of treating patients suffering from trauma.

The program started treating its first patients in fall 2012 at the Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. Headstrong has since expanded to California in San Diego and Riverside County, and Houston, with plans to add outlets in Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Iscol, an Ivy League graduate, launched his effort guided by three principles: Headstrong would be free of charge, free of bureaucracy — and free of stigma.

“Here’s why a lot of people don’t come forward: They don’t think they deserve to get help,” explained Shryock, a Bronze Star recipient. “Someone who wasn’t a Navy SEAL, you think you’re not deserving enough to get help.”

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, as many as one in five veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are afflicted annually with post-traumatic stress disorder.

An estimated 12% of Gulf War vets are diagnosed with PTSD. And the number of Vietnam veterans who suffered from PTSD during their lifetime was about 30%.

The good news, according to Iscol, is the condition remains 100% treatable. Most participants spend five or six months in the program; others stay as long as two years. The hardest part remains convincing the troubled vets there is a problem. And, more importantly, that there is a solution.

The key in that regard is word of mouth, as veterans come through Headstrong and then return to their lives.

“We find now that the number one source of referrals is vets in the program referring other vets to us,” said Iscol. “It’s largely organic, and it has to be. You can make as many public service announcements as you want. There’s nothing like somebody you’ve been to war with saying, ‘I went. And I got help.’ There’s no better way to challenge the stigma.”

Iscol said he never intended to start any kind of program before the night he sat with a beer and his old Marine leader.

“I never intended to be somebody to do anything in the veterans’ space,” he said. “But this is the best community, the best and most deserving citizens, who volunteered to serve our country in a time of war.”

Raising money is a constant effort for Headstrong. Late-night talk show host Seth Myers joined actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Adam Driver last month at the annual “War of Words” fund-raiser. A recent partnership with Humans of New York raised more than $700,000 by going public with the poignant stories of different veterans.

“In Afghanistan, I spent so much time imagining what it would be like when I came home,” one vet recounted. “I built up this perfect world. I imagined eating a big cheeseburger. And taking the longest shower. And meeting up with all my friends.

“But when my plane landed, nobody was there to meet me.”

Iscol hopes the program continues to grow along with the nation’s consciousness of the problems that linger once the shooting stops.

“This is an issue that transcends everything that divides us as a country,” he said. “We have a shared experience, and that’s rare in today’s America. We get Facebook messages and emails all the time from people in different parts of the country. We know there’s a need. Let’s fill that need, and hopefully work ourselves out of the problem.”

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