14 years after 9/11, war veterans with PTSD tout 'post-traumatic growth'

War veterans use poetry to deal with destructive emotions, trauma

Headline Goes Here COURTESY OF COMBAT HIPPIES

MIAMI - U.S. Marine Andrew Cuthbert still remembers the voices of children calling him: "Mister, Mister, Mister!" They were asking him for candy. He was in Iraq, where shooting at paper targets during training turned into aiming at men who were firing back.

After surviving the tough combat environment, the son of Nicaraguan migrants went on to guard U.S. embassies in China and West Africa, where Boko Haram Islamic extremists continue to be a threat.

When he returned to South Florida, he joined the reserve force and became a sergeant. Cuthbert said he used the noise of competitive Brazilian jiu-jitsu, alcohol and dating to avoid the lingering sounds of war. Everything changed when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in 2012. He spent about six months fading away on a couch.

"I was growing hostile, irritable, angry, antisocial," Cuthbert, of Fort Lauderdale, said. "I was back in the war zone, back in that place where I was always on edge. ... I blamed myself for allowing myself to fall into that hole." 

Cuthbert was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He got help from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He is one of the four members of a theatrical MDC Live Arts Vets' Lab program encouraging veterans to share their journeys.

On the 14th anniversary of Sept. 11, Cuthbert, 29, will perform with U.S. Marine Hipólito Arriaga, 31, and two U.S. Army veterans -- cousins Allen Minor, 26, and Anthony Torres, 34. During their performances, the four wear black T-shirts that cross out the word "stress" of post-traumatic stress and replace it with "growth."

Torres was a mental health specialist in both the U.S. Army and at the VA in Miami, where he was an intern.  He said their performance is an example of the positive effects of post-traumatic growth, a psychological term associated with overcoming adversity.

WATCH LIVE: Live stream of 'Conscience Under Fire' at 8 p.m., Friday

PTSD was listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in response to troubled Vietnam war veterans. A few years later, the University of North Carolina began research on post-traumatic growth as an effective form of PTSD treatment.

"Anyone who has been through any traumatic event is changed. This change doesn't have to be negative. Trauma can influence positive change," Torres said. "Trauma doesn't have to turn us into victims for the rest of our lives. Yes, there are people who are more resilient than others, but we can all go forward in life, not forgetting, not hiding away, but embracing the experiences and growing."

Torres, who was born in New York City, was in the U.S. Army Reserve when 9/11 happened. He later worked at Darnall Army Medical Center's inpatient psychiatry care unit in Fort Hood, Texas. He was deployed to Abu Ghraib prison, outside of Baghdad, during the war's torture scandal in 2004.

MEET THE VETERANS

The four call themselves "The Combat Hippies" and they have been presenting a series of poetic monologues with Miami playwright Teo Castellanos. They have performed at the Betsy's Hotel in Miami Beach and at Books & Books in Coral Gables. On Friday and Saturday, they will be performing "Conscience Under Fire" to a full house at Teatro Prometeo, 300 NE Fourth St., in downtown Miami.

"I was attached to a medical unit  that was there to take care of detainees. We were sent there to show the world that we were there to provide care. It was a war zone. The enemy surrounded us and tried to kill us on a regular basis. It was a very hostile environment," Torres said. "I reached a point during my deployment that I had to make peace with the idea that anyone could be killed any day."

Torres struggled with his own mental health. He said he had trouble getting help despite his knowledge of the mental health crisis.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that war veterans killed themselves at the rate of 22 per day in 2010, according to the Department of Defense.  Five years later, as the military struggles to stop the growing epidemic, the number "22" haunts Cuthbert, Torres and Arriaga.

"That is something that we need to address as a community, and one way to do that is for us, the service members, to tell our story," said Arriaga, who served two combat tours in Iraq. He is an aspiring yoga instructor and is active with The Wounded Warrior Project.

Cuthbert and Torres are aspiring social workers. Curthbert is a student at Florida Atlantic University. Torres is a student at Barry University. They believe there is an urgency to their message. September is suicide prevention month.

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The burdens of wartime are not over. The U.S. military presence continues in Afghanistan. The Saudi-led intervention in Iraq, Syria and Yemen is getting U.S. support. Veterans continue to struggle with sexual assaults, alcoholism, drug addiction, abuse of prescription medication and domestic violence. The belief that getting help is a sign of weakness or a threat to potential advancement continues.

As Cuthbert and Torres found healing, they said they want to set an example and show others that the concept of post-traumatic growth works and can save lives.

"More soldiers are killing themselves than dying in combat, and there are ways to prevent that," Cuthbert said. "Some of them are suffering in silence, hiding it and then breaking down. ... Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. There is help out there. It's there for anyone struggling with trauma, but you've got to want it."

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