‘Ask for a little help’

Trauma from before military service can lay in wait for vets.

Reg McCutcheon (left) and his wife, Shana, who convinced the Air Force vet who worked as a therapist helping other vets overcome trauma that he needed to seek help for himself.

Reg McCutcheon (left) and his wife, Shana, who convinced the Air Force vet who worked as a therapist helping other vets overcome trauma that he needed to seek help for himself.

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Reg McCutcheon grew up poor in southern Indiana, his father a disabled Korean vet.

“I learned to appreciate government cheese,” said McCutcheon, who went into the Air Force in 1980, right out of high school. “Going into the military was my escape.”

He became a satellite systems operator, and was sent to Afghanistan in 2011.

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“I thought I’d be looking at a computer screen and saying, ‘There’s a bad guy behind that rock,’” recalled McCutcheon, with a chuckle. “Turns out, they didn’t need that.”

He found himself much closer to ground action than is typical for the Air Force.

“I lost a good friend my fourth day there,” he said, of an engagement that killed eight other soldiers. “Outside the wire, all the time, you see things. It hit home pretty quick.”

McCutcheon got hurt too — “pretty beat up” is how he puts it — earning the Bronze Star, a chest full of medals and 19 operations. But he put those memories away when he retired as a lieutenant-colonel in 2014, after 34 years of service. He became a therapist, working with vets struggling to readapt to civilian life.

Then last July, he recognized an unexpected patient who needed professional help: himself.

“He was struggling,” said his wife, Shana. They’d been married for two years, a second marriage for both.

“A lot had been amazing, but also difficult,” she said. “We have lots of kids.”

Eight between them.

“A very big family dynamic,” she said. “We had two family deaths and a wedding, all happening within 90 days. It was just a lot, and we were all still trying to get used to a new relationships.”

Reg began to crack under the strain.

“He was so busy trying to help everybody else, trying to be this awesome new stepdad, he just kept getting hit from all sides,” his wife remembered. “He was struggling, therefore our whole family started to struggle.”

“My solution was a little Jose Cuervo,” Reg said. “It just created a rage in me. I was pretty verbal, and it scared my wife and kids. She gave me an ultimatum.”

“He was angry, a lot,” said Shana. “We really didn’t even know why.”

Veterans Day is Friday. A time to honor vets, but part of that is recognizing both the challenges they face during their military service and the challenges that can come afterward, which can circle back to the difficulties they had before.

Hidden in the statistics about vets is something seldom mentioned — while up to 20% suffer from PTSD and other psychological difficulties after their service, only about 10% of all who serve actually see combat. Overlooked that the hard upbringings that drive some toward the military in the first place can lay dormant during their time in uniform, only to flare up afterwards.

“That’s not uncommon,” said Reg McCutcheon. “Often people go in the military to get away from their environment, to find another place, to escape. It’s a pretty big predictor of post-traumatic stress. Childhood trauma complicates post-traumatic stress.”

He sought help with Road Home, a program at Rush University Medical Center that connects vets and their families with therapy, including an intensive two-week residential treatment program.

“People come into the military with challenges — trauma issues,” said William Beiersdorf, executive director of Road Home. “The VA does so much for vets, but there are still a lot of gaps.”

Road Home helped McCutcheon get back to helping others.

“It was amazing, a godsend,” he said. “I had to change my perspective on life. They’re doing what very few programs are doing. Engaging not just me, but my wife and kids and the dog. To show the family there’s hope.”

Families are key support systems to veterans in the service, a role they continue afterward, in good and bad times.

“We celebrate veterans,” he said. “But it’s so much larger: the wives, the husbands, the kids. It’s systematic, the way trauma can affect folks.”

So what message does he have for other vets who are struggling?

“Before you destroy another relationship, before you destroy the things that matter most to you, ask for a little help,” he said, tearing up. “Don’t be afraid. They’ve got to be worth something. You’ve got to be willing to save something as well as destroy.”

To contact Road Home, call 312 942-VETS.

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