Staff Sgt. Scott Snyder and his wife, Angela, were sitting down in their Moline, Ill., living room to watch a war movie and eat some hot wings. A few minutes later, Snyder was screaming and begging Angela to admit to him something he knew for certain: that he was dead.
Snyder was having a flashback. Not only did he believe he was dead; his senses told him he was in Iraq, at the Balad airbase on his 17-month tour of duty with the Illinois National Guard. He was clutching his M-16, and he saw missiles and mortars exploding in the distance.
“I can feel the heat, I can smell the air, I can hear the sounds,” Snyder, 41, told FOXNews.com. “While that’s happening, I am here, in the Quad cities, running on auto pilot.”
Physically, Snyder was safe at home in Illinois. But, because of his post-traumatic stress disorder, he can be thrown back into the heat of battle without warning, at any time.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused by a traumatic event in which someone’s life is put in danger.
Common signs of PTSD include sleep and memory problems, anger, nightmares, anxiety, frightening thoughts and trouble concentrating. A soldier suffering with one or more of these signs may have seen a fellow soldier get injured or die in combat, interacted with gunfire and explosions or encountered other trauma.
A report last June by the Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health found that the military falls “significantly short” of providing a support system for psychological health, services, resources and leaders to assist those in need.
“Against the backdrop of the Global War on Terror, the psychological health needs of America’s military service members, their families, and their survivors pose a daunting and growing challenge to the Department of Defense,” according to the report.
Snyder couldn't find many resources for help when he came home from combat in July 2004. But now a hotline — Illinois Warrior Assistance Program — has been put into place to help soldiers who return from Iraq and Afghanistan with mental health issues.
In January, the nation's first program to help returning Illinois vets began providing traumatic brain-injury screening and a confidential, toll-free, 24-hour hotline to allow veterans to call in for support. Some callers receive additional help, such as counseling and treatment.
Experts predict cases of PTSD will continue to multiply as thousands of military service members return from deployments to war zones.
Una McCann, an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said PTSD will continue to affect soldiers returning from combat because of the types of injuries they experience, and the threat of roadside bombs.
McCann called PTSD an "invisible illness" because it causes internal torment that others often can't observe.
"People look normal from the outside," McCann said. "But like most mental illnesses, it's not apparent, the torment they are experiencing internally."
Americans need to respond to the problem and help veterans struggling with challenges as they transition back to life after combat, said Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq veteran who is director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We, as a nation, have an obligation to take care of all the brave men and women who have answered the call of duty and that includes taking the best care of them when they return home,” Duckworth said in a statement.
Studies show veterans returning from tours of duty show signs of PTSD, depression and anxiety, said Duckworth, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2006 and who is currently a major with the Illinois National Guard. She helped coordinate the Illinois program with Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
From the War Zone to Home
Snyder — a Chinook helicopter door gunner and diesel mechanic — once became so convinced he needed a weapon during a flashback, he ran through his house searching for his guns, even though he doesn't have any there.
In his mind, he was back in his tent in Iraq, yelling at comrades to get out of their bunks and get into fighting position. His wife became so frightened, she called 911, and he was arrested.
Following a 30-day evaluation at Fort Knox, Snyder returned to Illinois with a diagnosis of PTSD. Now he attends weekly counseling sessions at a veterans center.
“I think that they lose sight that they are not in that moment anymore,” said Dawn Gantz, a coach for the Illinois Warrior Program and a licensed professional counselor. “They just wake up, they don’t know where they are. They feel like they are re-living that experience.”
Married and the father of three kids, Snyder says he is proud of his service. Now a federal technician for the Illinois National Guard, he looks forward to returning to combat. He spent 10 years in active duty, took an 8-year reprieve from the military and returned in 2001 to serve in Iraq.
“We’re hoping that we’re doing some kind of good, even if it’s in small steps,” Snyder said.
Illinois residents who think they are suffering from PTSD or need psychological help can call 1-866-554-IWAP (4927).
The program requires veterans to be a resident of the state of Illinois, be no more than 64-years-old, have served for at least 180 days of duty after training and other qualifications. Check out the Illinois Warrior Web site for more information.
The 2008, $4 million program is funded through the state of Illinois and is not affiliated with any branch of the military or the Department of Veterans Affairs. Magellan Health Services, Inc., provides employees to field the calls.