Tag Archives: drugs

A New Day Arisen

June 7, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kelly Hill stands on the corner of 30th and Lake streets admiring Salem Baptist Church’s towering cross, which looms over the landscape. A member of the church for more than 15 years, Kelly grew up in the now-demolished Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects not far from the area. He can remember a time before Salem sat atop the hill, when the Hilltop Homes housing projects occupied the area.

“I left Omaha to join the military in 1975, and I didn’t return until 1995. I missed all of the gangs and bad stuff in Hilltop,” Hill remembers. “When I was a kid, it wasn’t a bad area at all. Me and my sister would play around there all the time.”

Within those 20 years, Hill was fortunate to have missed Hilltop’s downfall, as it would eventually become one of Omaha’s most notorious housing projects.

A major blight on North Omaha’s image in the 1980s to mid-1990s, Hilltop Homes would eventually be the second major housing project demolished in the metro area after Logan Fontenelle.

Before Hilltop Home’s razing in 1995—which had the unfortunate consequence of displacing many lower-income minority residents—the plague of drugs, murders, and gang activity had turned the area’s housing projects into a localized war zone.

It was a far cry from their humble beginnings as proud housing tenements for Omaha’s burgeoning minority population that exploded in the 1940s.

Edwin Benson

Built around Omaha’s oldest pioneer resting place, the neighborhood takes its name from Prospect Hill Cemetery on 32nd and Parker streets. Prospect Place was repurposed by the U.S. government to house a large influx of minority and low-income residents, mostly African-Americans, who migrated to Omaha seeking opportunities outside the oppressive South during the mid-20th century. Some 700 units of public housing emerged across the city in the 1940s, including Hilltop Homes and the nearby Pleasantview Apartments.

The projects were conveniently situated. Hilltop’s 225 units were positioned in a centralized location along 30th and Lake streets, near the factory and meatpacking plants on 16th Street to the east, with Omaha Technical High School to the south (the largest high school west of Chicago at the time).

Multiple generations of families would come to call Hilltop and Pleasantview their first homes; however, the collapse of the job structure on the north side of Omaha in the late 1960s would be a major catalyst in Prospect Place’s eventual downfall.

Successful factories and stores that kept the area afloat—such as The Storz Brewery and Safeway Grocery Store—closed their doors. At the same time, new civil rights laws prohibiting job discrimination were being passed. Some believe that fear of change, and fear of civil rights era legislations, motivated major employers in the community to move from northeast Omaha westward. A disappointing trend of joblessness and poverty would eventually devolve the community into a powder keg ready to blow.

Multiple riots at the tail end of the 1960s would take an additional toll on North Omaha. Four instances of civil unrest would erupt from 1966 to 1969, decimating the community.

“Too many kids were getting shot, killed, it was pretty bad in Hilltop.” Benson says.

The last North Omaha riot would happen a day after Vivian Strong was shot and killed by Omaha police in the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects not far from Prospect Place. Rioters would go on to fire-bomb and destroy a multitude of businesses and storefronts in the neighborhood.

The local chapter of the Omaha Black Panthers would stand guard outside of black-owned businesses like the Omaha Star building at 24th and Lake streets in order to prevent its destruction. Many businesses would never recover from the millions of dollars in damages caused by the riots.

These disturbances would mark an important time-frame for Hilltop and Pleasantview’s gradual downfall. The turbulence within the community, spearheaded by systematic racism and poverty would take its toll on the area.

The Prospect Place projects would devolve into a dilapidated ghetto, with even harsher times awaiting the neighborhood as gangs and crack-cocaine would hit the city hard in the 1980s.

Omaha wasn’t a place people would have thought the gangs of Los Angeles, California, would make a strong showing. Quite the contrary,  gang members from the West Coast would eventually discover Omaha’s smaller urban landscape to be an untouched and lucrative territory.

Ex-gang member Edwin Benson can remember the switch taking hold in his later teenage years.

“The Crips came first, I’d say around the mid-to-late 1980s. They took over areas like 40th Avenue and Hilltop,” Benson says. “The Bloods’ territory was further east, big in the Logan Fontenelle projects and up and down 16th Street. So, gang-banging kind of took over the city for a long while.”

The isolated, maze-like structure of Hilltop and Pleasantview, along with the high-rise apartments added in the 1960s by the Omaha Housing Authority, would make them ideal locations for the burgeoning Hilltop Crips and other smaller street gangs.

“I can remember kids from Hilltop coming over to Pleasantview and starting trouble.” Benson recalls. “We would fight about who had the better projects! We fought with our fists, rocks, sticks…whatever was close you got hit with!”

A refuge for illicit activity had sprung to life within Prospect Place in the 1980s. Members of the community, as well as police officers, grew hesitant to venture into the area. Hilltop became a forgotten segment of the city, lost to the surrounding metro’s progress, marred by a decade of violent crime and drug offenses.

Hilltop would see an unfortunate trend of senseless homicides and gun violence that would peak in the early ’90s.

In 1990, two young men from Sioux City were shot outside of Hilltop when they stopped to ask for directions to the Omaha Civic Auditorium on their way to an MC Hammer concert.

In 1991, a 14-year-old boy was arrested for stabbing a 13-year-old boy during a fight. That same year, a local Crip gang member was gunned down at the 7-Eleven on 30th and Lake across the street from Hilltop.

In 1993, the pointless murder of another teenager may have finally spelled Hilltop’s doom. 14-year-old Charezetta Swiney—known as “Chucky” to friends and family—was shot in the head from point-blank range over a parking space dispute on Oct. 22. A sad occasion at the beginning of the school year, Benson High School was gracious enough to host the high school freshman’s funeral with more than 700 people in attendance. She was the 31st person slain in Omaha that year.

Jay W. Green, 27, would eventually be found guilty of Swiney’s homicide, charged with second-degree murder and use of a firearm to commit a felony in the summer of 1994. At the end of that same year, Omaha’s City Council would begin laying the groundwork for Hilltop Homes’ eventual razing in 1995.

Benson, the former gang member, believes Swiney’s murder and the rampant gang activity within Prospect Place were the main reasons for Hilltop Homes’ demolition.

“Too many kids were getting shot, killed, it was pretty bad in Hilltop.” Benson says. “Once the projects were gone, I think the Hilltop Crips just kind of faded out. We would joke and call them the ‘Scatter-site Crips’ since everyone was being moved to the scatter-site housing out west! If you hear someone claiming Hilltop these days they are living in the past.”

The demolition would leave a desolate space in its wake. Fortunately, the barren eyesore would not last long, as Salem Baptist Church would make their ambitious proposal for the site in 1996.

“I can remember me and my sister marching from the old church grounds on 3336 Lake St. to the new site on the hilltop,” Hill says, reminiscing with vivid recollection of April 19, 1998, the church’s groundbreaking. It was a glorious Sunday for church members, led by then-senior pastor Maurice Watson, a culmination of Salem’s proposed “Vision to Victory.”

Salem’s groundbreaking ceremony was heralded, marking the once-troubled land of Prospect Place as an “oasis of hope.” The community witnessed the progress as the newly razed 18 acres of land transformed from a vestige of poverty into a church sanctuary seating 1,300 people, in addition to classrooms, a multi-purpose fellowship hall, a nursery, and ample parking. Prospect Place was undergoing a new renaissance which would continue well into the new millennium.

Othello Meadows is the newest pioneer at the head of changing the image of Prospect Place. Having grown up on Omaha’s north side, Meadows remembers the projects as “a place not to linger if you weren’t from there.” After years away from his hometown, seeing the remnants of Hilltop Homes and Pleasantview Apartments was eye-opening.

“When I came back to Omaha, I was surprised by the disinvestment in the area after the projects were gone,” he says. “It went from housing thousands of people, to a sense of abandonment; like, only two houses were occupied on the entire block.”

Meadows’ words ring true. Other than Salem’s deal with Walgreens, which acquired acres of land for around $450,000, no additional development had taken place for years within Prospect Place. Fortunately, Meadows and the 75 North Revitalization Corp. are looking to reinvigorate the area.

As the executive director of 75 North, Meadows refers to Prospect Place as the “Highlander” area, which helps to separate the land from its troubled past. His goal is to bring life back to the area.

The development company now owns the land where the Pleasantview apartments resided before being demolished in 2008. A plan for a new neighborhood with continued growth is the main focus for the area, and he expects tangible progress in the coming months.

“If you drive down 30th Street between Parker and Blondo, you’ll see real work happening and real things going on.” Meadows says. “We have about 12 buildings under construction that are 50-70 percent complete [as of early February 2017], including a community enrichment center called the Accelerator that is 65,000 square feet, a very beautiful building. By late April to early May 2017 we should have some apartments up, and we already have people putting down deposits and signing leases. People are excited to be moving into the neighborhood.”

When asked about the targeted clientele for the new apartments and retail space, Meadows provides a broad answer: “The motto that we follow is—trying to create a mixed-income community. We’re not trying to recreate the projects, of course, but we also don’t want to create a neighborhood where longtime residents can’t afford to live. We have to balance the prospects of affordability and aspirational thinking.”

Indeed, when looking at the seventyfivenorth.org website, the ambitious vision for the Highlander Apartments is a far cry from the projects. Photo galleries and floor plans envision a renewed community akin to Midtown Crossing and Aksarben Village. The images are cheerful, depicting people riding bikes and walking dogs, even an imagined coffee shop.

In a way, the renewed development, optimism, and potential for economic growth in the Highlander area can trace its roots back to the members of Salem and their desire to build a signal of hope where it once was lost.

But Hill (the former Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects resident who left Omaha in 1975 and returned in 1995) doesn’t think the church is given adequate recognition for its contributions.

“If a person didn’t know this place’s history of violence and poverty before Salem was built, they would only see the progress in this area as simple land development,” Hill says. “Salem doesn’t tend to broadcast the things they do for the area other than to its members, so those on the outside don’t necessarily recognize its lasting influence.”

It’s undeniable that the soaring church spire on the hill is a spectacle to behold on a bright, sunny day. It stands as a symbol of hope and belief. Benson still looks at the former site of Prospect Place with a hint of longing.

“I know it might sound crazy, but I was a little sad when Hilltop was torn down.” he admits. “A lot of good memories were made in those projects. But I love seeing the church up there. I hope whatever comes next is good for the community.”

Visit salembc.org for more information about Salem Baptist Church. Visit seventyfivenorth.org for more information about 75 North.

Salem Baptist Church

Horse Play

May 1, 2017 by
Photography by Scott Drickey

It’s unusual for a band to provide its live audiences with a complimentary Filipino buffet during a show, but on a Sunday in late February at O’Leaver’s Bar, Omaha natives See Through Dresses enlisted the aid of friends and family to do just that for the band’s “Sunday Social,” just before heading to Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest Music Festival.

The four-piece ensemble, comprised of (vocalist and guitarist) Matt Carroll, (guitarist, keyboardist, and vocalist) Sara Bertuldo, (drummer) Nate Van Fleet, and (bassist) Alex Kirts, evolved from Carroll and Bertuldo’s previous band Honey and Darling in 2012. Carroll and Bertuldo share principal songwriting duties, but the dynamic between all four members fits the true definition of a band. “Alex and I kind of act like arrangers,” Van Fleet says. “Sara might come to us with a song that’s 70 percent complete, and we’re there to hash it out and turn it into something our band could play.”

Van Fleet, who is also the drummer for Omaha locals Little Brazil, elaborated further on what makes playing with See Through Dresses fruitful for him: “I played with a lot of bands before. In fact, Matt and Sara found me in a bar the night my last band was breaking up, and it was like finding these people who were just as obsessed with doing the same things I wanted to. There are lots of bands out there where somebody’s character flaws or poor priorities keep them from reaching their potential. There’s never been that ‘intervention’ moment with this band.” They pride themselves on their work ethic, Van Fleet says. Since forming, they’ve played more than 200 shows.

Despite this commitment to craft, they are hardly pretentious. “I applied for band sponsorship from Taco Bell,” Bertuldo says, laughing. The revelation devolves into jokes: “What if somebody wrote See Through Dresses/Taco Bell fan-fiction?” Bertuldo asks. “I’m not saying I want to see it,” Van Fleet chimes in, “but I’m also not saying I don’t want to see it!”

In fact, catching Bertuldo’s banter with the audience when she’s on stage is a major reason to see the band live.  At their “Sunday Social,” for example, she sported a new short hairdo, along with some vocal regrets. “That last song was called ‘Haircut,’ but it’s not about my hair. It’s actually about Macaulay Culkin,” she cryptically explains to the audience. Bertuldo is the chief conduit for the band’s energy during shows—shredding and kicking her way through the heaviest songs, and even jumping off equipment and nearby furniture.

This spring, See Through Dresses finally releases their second full-length album, after a self-titled debut in 2013 and 2015’s End of Days EP. The band describes the new release, The Horse of the Other World (written mostly while touring their previous EP), as their “synth” album, a love letter to the ’80s. “There’s always been a little ’80s influence in our music—that new wave, post-punk stuff we all love,” Carroll says, repeatedly citing The Cure, New Order, and Depeche Mode as primary influences. “Our EP was a little more rock-flavored, but this album sounds like a natural progression from our self-titled record.”

“It’s a very indulgent record,” Van Fleet quips. “It satisfies a lot of the urges we had while we were touring the EP. The sound is a little harsher and more dissonant here, too.” The band describes this evolution as something akin to “dream punk,” combining the energy of classic punk rock with a polychromatic sound recalling sunny afternoon daydreams.

Yet lurking deeper on The Horse of the Other World are more thoughtful ruminations on mental health and keeping control of one’s mind. Carroll, who is also a manager at Ted and Wally’s Ice Cream, explains the title comes from a surreal experience with an unknown vagrant last year. “It was this strange and beautiful moment of connecting with someone on their own terms,” Carroll says. He sat with the man in the store and listened to his story, and his allegations that the “Great Mother and Father” would soon visit us riding on “the horse of the other world.” The man grabbed a box of markers from his bag, and wrote down the phrase on a napkin for him in bright red.

The event had a big influence on Carroll during the songwriting process, which was already circling around themes of addiction and hitting bottom. “A lot of these things converged that hit me hard. Both my own experiences and those of friends,” he explains. “The lyrics on our opening track speak to this and mean a lot to me: Sometimes you’re trying to reach out at people, but they can’t open up. I wanted to address that barrier and feeling of helplessness.”

Carroll adds he doesn’t like to “dance around the subject and speak in hushed tones when we talk about mental health.” Together the band shared anecdotes about loved ones and friends losing their grip on reality, either through drugs, depression, or diseases like Alzheimer’s. Bertuldo’s contributions to the album face these issues, as well, using touch points like loneliness and bad relationships to explore them. “I think this is a big deal about what’s inspiring us: The great fear of your mind or your body turning on you,” Carroll says. “We’re not OK with people walking the streets dying of cancer. But when we encounter someone in public with serious mental health needs, it’s our impulse to flee. That’s upsetting.”

As for the namesake’s creator, Carroll laments: “I wish I could track him down again.”

Visit seethroughdresses.bandcamp.com for more information about The Horse of the Other World and the band’s previous releases.

This article is in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Dying for Opiates in Omaha

October 11, 2016 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Kristen Hoffman

Getting high on injected heroin—or one of the several synthetic equivalents—does not feel like an orgasm or a dozen orgasms. That is a mythical description the average non-user appreciates, so it gets repeated. The truth is more sinister. Whether you spike a vein with melted oxy in a back alley or get your Dilaudid prescribed in-hospital, getting high on injected opiates feels like being 4 years old, falling asleep in your mother’s lap while watching your favorite movie. You feel safe, warm, satisfied, and content to do nothing. Your nervous system melts like butter with a warm tingling sensation. Emotional and physical pain dissipate. Trauma becomes meaningless. You nod off. Occasionally, you approach consciousness long enough to melt into it again. And on it goes over and over. The first time is always the best, and no matter how long you chase that first high, you will never see it again.

According to Nebraska’s Vital Statistics Department, at least 54 people died from overdosing on opiates in the state during 2015.

Anything above and beyond pain relief is experienced as a rush of dopamine to the pleasure center of the brain. Addicts will escalate the amount of opioids they consume until coming across a bad batch mixed with other drugs—such as large-animal tranquilizers—or they stumble onto an unusually pure source, take too much, and overdose. Some users accidentally consume a fatal cocktail of prescriptions with alcohol or other drugs. In recent years, overdoses involving opiates have claimed the lives of several celebrities: the musician Prince, actors Philip Seymour Hoffman, Heath Ledger, Cory Monteith, and the list goes on.

In the state of Nebraska, deaths from opiate overdoses are on the rise. According to Nebraska’s Vital Statistics Department, at least 54 people died from overdosing on opiates in the state during 2015. Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that six out of every 10 drug overdoses involve opiates of some kind. From 1999 to 2014, roughly 165,000 Americans died from opiate-related overdoses, quadrupling the numbers from previous years, according to the Center for Disease Control. The death toll is climbing. The most recent CDC estimates suggest 78 Americans overdose on opiates every day.

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The Local Frontline

Russell Janssen is a case manager at the Open Door Mission, located between Carter Lake and the Missouri River. At age 20, he was introduced to heroin and was an intravenous user until the age of 39. Off heroin now for nearly two decades, Janssen spends his days treating people with the very addiction problems he has faced and continues to battle.

“I’ve been clean for 19 and a half years and I’ll still have ‘using’ dreams,” Janssen says. “They don’t affect me the way they used to. When I first cleaned up, I would wake up in cold sweats. I’d try to go back to sleep and just couldn’t. I still wake up to this day, but now I can lay down and go back to sleep. The thought is always there, though, and never leaves us.”

Heroin addiction is powerful, Janssen says, too powerful for anyone to be completely beyond it, especially if they think they are “too smart to get hooked.” And while most drugs will provide some high with diminishing returns, heroin burns out the brain’s pleasure center and forces users to do more and more in order to “stay even” and barely functional. Serious daily side effects include nausea, abdominal pain, high agitation, muscle cramps and spasms, as well as depression and cravings leading to relapse.

“The problem with heroin is you have to have it just to maintain,” Janssen says. “It’s not just about getting high. I’d go through $150 a day just to maintain for the 12 to 14 hours that I was up. If I wanted to get high I had to go above that amount because you gotta have it.”

And “it,” per Janssen, is never the same twice. Prescription opioids are a known quality, but black market drugs are unregulated and full of pitfalls. Drugs are cut with useless fillers and other substances to increase profits for dealers: “People die because they’re doing so many weird things with it. People died in Cincinnati, Ohio, because they were mixing elephant tranquilizer in with the heroin. And even though heroin addicts know that it’s out there—and they know it’s killing people—they go looking, thinking ‘I’ve got to have it just to maintain,’ so they’re willing to take that chance.”

Janssen says the access to opioids through prescriptions has changed the face of heroin addiction, making it easier and less stigmatic to start, the biggest mistake anyone can make.

“In the `70s, heroin addicts were the lowest of the low. Even other drug users didn’t want anything to do with heroin users. That’s changed a lot today because people get prescribed opiates, and they think that if a doctor prescribes it that it can’t be harmful for them. But that’s a way that people get addicted. We’re gonna see a lot more people out (in West Omaha) getting addicted.”

Chris Eynon is an eight-year recovering meth addict, a graduate of the Miracles Treatment Program at the Siena/Francis House, and, for the last two years, its treatment coordinator. He is seeing an increase in the number of people seeking help for heroin and opioid addiction.

“We are certainly seeing an increase in the amount of applicants wanting recovery here (in Omaha),” says Eynon, who has also witnessed the dire circumstances facing East Coast communities. He spent several weeks during March in Cumberland, Maryland, a town of roughly 20,000 where he was helping a friend to start a prayer service for heroin addicts. “Out on the East Coast, (heroin addiction) is really significant there. Just in the small community of Cumberland, they have been devastated. Last year in their county they experienced 14 deaths due to overdose, and as of this year already they have experienced over 30. Most of them are high school kids, and most of them are heroin overdoses.”

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From Vietnam Vets to Millennials

The current heroin/opioid epidemic is reminiscent of the Vietnam War era when access to plentiful and pure China White heroin combined with the stress of combat, and roughly 15 percent of all enlisted men had fallen into addiction. In 1971, Operation Golden Flow (the unofficial name of widespread military drug testing campaign) was designed by the Department of Defense to “clean up” American GIs before sending them home. While many came home and never used again because the circumstances of their drug use changed drastically, others relapsed at home as black market heroin followed the demand back from Vietnam to the U.S.

A New York Times article from May 1986 reported the number of U.S. addicts at roughly 500,000 (with 200,000 in New York alone). That heroin epidemic began subsiding as popularity for crack cocaine took over the streets. Studies from the Golden Flow era laid the groundwork for much of what we know about opioid addiction in 2016.

With the widespread prevalence of opiate prescriptions, a 2011 study by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that today’s veterans are at an even greater risk than their earlier counterparts for heroin addiction, as the VA was treating chronic pain with prescriptions for opioids “almost exclusively.” The 2011 study reported that veterans are twice as likely to suffer accidentally fatal opioid overdoses than non-veteran civilians. Since the 2012 height of the VA’s opioid prescriptions to veterans, the federal department has made an effort to decrease opiate prescriptions in favor of more comprehensive approaches to pain management.

Over the past 10 years, the CDC has observed that heroin use among 18-25 year olds has more than doubled in the general population. According to the CDC, 90 percent of people who try heroin have tried at least one other drug first, and, an astonishing 45 percent of heroin users were addicted to prescription opioid painkillers such as Vicodin, oxycodone, oxycontin, fentanyl, Dilaudid, and morphine before switching to heroin. In 2014, prescription opioids killed more than 28,000 of the 2,000,000 Americans dependent on them. From 1999 to 2013, the amount of prescription opioids dispensed in the U.S. nearly quadrupled.

With the widespread prevalence of opiate prescriptions, a 2011 study by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that today’s veterans are at an even greater risk than their earlier counterparts for heroin addiction, as the VA was treating chronic pain with prescriptions for opioids “almost exclusively.”

A May 2014 report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains: “It is estimated that between 26.4 million and 36 million people abuse opioids worldwide with an estimated 2.1 million people in the United States suffering from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers in 2012 and an estimated 467,000 addicted to heroin. The consequences of this abuse have been devastating and are on the rise.”

Across Socioeconomic Divisions

While the Midwest currently sees fewer opiate overdoses than the coasts, that danger is growing across all socioeconomic segments of the population.

Janssen, Eynon, and several recovering addicts who spoke with Omaha Magazine on the condition of anonymity agreed that teens, the affluent, insured and educated are at risk—because when experimenting with opioid pills, youths often hold the false assumption that nothing bad can happen with drugs prescribed by a doctor, even if those pills were obtained without permission.

“They might steal them from a medicine cabinet or have their own prescription at some point,” Eynon says, echoing similar points made by the other counselors that middle-class white people with many relatives, each with several doctors, might find themselves practically surrounded by easily obtained and occasionally leftover prescriptions. “In my opinion, we will see a lot of West Omaha-type addicts. Prescription medication is usually attained through insurance coverage. In order to have insurance, you would need a job, which falls more into the ‘rich kid’ category.”

Sara B. comes from the less affluent segment of recovering addicts. A fast-talking 32-year-old with attention deficit disorder, also a mother of seven, she signed over the rights to her children to her counselor for their protection while she sought help. She is working hard in order to maintain a relationship with her children.

“I started because people around me, family members were doing it,” says Sara, who has been clean now for the better part of a decade. She still has to guard against relapse, maintaining sobriety for her children as well as her health. She is wary of family who are still actively using. “Which is hard because you have to stay away from users when you get clean if you want to stay clean,” she says. “It’s too easy to fall back.”

Justin Schwope is a 26-year-old recovering addict with four years of sobriety under Russell Janssen’s wing at Open Door. His habit of choice was a speedball, heroin and meth, though other stimulants can be substituted.

“I’d been messing with drugs since I was 16 and my grandparents died,” Schwope says. “I wasn’t able to get clean until I tried kill myself with Lipitor and woke up in Creighton three days later and then transferred to Lasting Hope.”

All sources interviewed by Omaha Magazine agreed that the transition from pure opiates to street junk is the greatest threat to the health and welfare of addicts. When the easy access to opiates runs out, addicts look elsewhere risking everything just to stay even, and even to get that high.

“In Maryland apparently, there was a mass supply of prescription drugs or ‘pill farms’ that were seized and, as a result, (users) turned to heroin, which is cheaper and easily available,” Eynon says. “They have an addiction to feed and, unfortunately, the heroin is not like prescription drugs which are regulated…and the pills are always consistent in strength and dose amounts. When they switch to heroin, they have no idea of the potency or what it might be laced with.”

Increased Regulatory Oversight

Tragic stories of opiate overdoses and abuse have become too commonplace.

After Omaha resident Carrie Howard suffered a severe car accident, she began taking prescription painkillers. The pills led to an addiction that culminated in a fatal overdose in 2009. The legacy of her untimely death made waves through Nebraska’s legislature. Carrie’s mother is former senator Gwen Howard; her sister is Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha.

The elder Howard championed legislation that created a prescription painkiller monitoring program in 2011. But the program fell short in many respects. Sara Howard continued the family’s fight for improved regulatory oversight of prescribed opiates when she introduced LB 471 to the state’s unicameral.

Upon receiving first-round approval in January 2016, several senators recounted their own families’ close encounters with opiate addiction. Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha revealed that one of his own relatives had suffered from a prescription painkiller addiction, an addiction sustained by shopping around different doctors and pharmacies. When the prescriptions dried up, Lindstrom’s relative turned to heroin.

The unicameral finally approved LB 471 in February 2016. It comes into effect in the new year. LB 471 will require pharmacies to report when prescriptions are filled, and would allow pharmacists to check records of past prescriptions to avoid abuse. There are two phases to this. Beginning January 1, 2017, all prescriptions of controlled substances will be reported to the prescription drug monitoring program. Beginning January 2018, all prescriptions will be reported.

A few weeks prior to Nebraska approving LB 471, President Barack Obama had announced that $1.1 billion would be made available for expanded opiate-related treatment opportunities across the country. According to a statement from the White House, “More Americans now die every year from drug overdoses than they do in motor vehicle crashes.”

Already in the previous year, Nebraska received two significant grants to combat statewide opioid-related abuse: one for more than $3 million over four years from the CDC for prescription drug overdose prevention, the other for $500,000 over two years from the Department of Justice.

The funding comes at a pivotal moment. America is experiencing a perfect storm for an opioid epidemic. War, health care in crisis, addiction, easy access, and low employment are among the many factors forcing opioids into the drug user’s spotlight. Once, only the lowest drug users shot junk. Today, if not tomorrow, someone you love might be the next junkie you meet.

To get help for substance abuse problems, call: 1-800-662-HELP.

Additional reporting contributed by Doug Meigs.

For more information about the epidemic, as told by a recovering addict from suburban West Omaha, read: http://omahamagazine.com/2016/10/my-battle-with-opiates/ 

Russell Janssen, case manager at Open Door Mission.

Russell Janssen, case manager at Open Door Mission.

Beauty & the Cyborg Beast

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Less than three years ago, it dawned on scientist Jorge Zuniga why a childhood friend wanted nothing more than to play baseball.

It was odd. Growing up in Santiago, Chile, there were not many baseball fans. Just the one, as far as Zuniga knew (after all, soccer reigns supreme in Chile). Even more curious, Zuniga’s friend had just one hand.

Why baseball?

“There’s not one baseball field in the whole country,” Zuniga says, laughing at the exaggeration, “but this one kid without a hand wants to be a baseball player.”

Then, 20-odd years later, Zuniga and his 7-year-old son are playing catch in the long shadows of the front yard. Zuniga remembers his one-armed friend and his inexplicable love of baseball. Then it hits him.

“Oh,” Zuniga says, “I bet this kid that didn’t have a hand just wanted to do what every kid wants to do.” He yearned to play catch.

Biomedical2Earlier that same day, he had listened to a radio news report about “Robohand,” a project in South Africa that creates 3D-printed prosthetics for children. Zuniga—with a doctorate in exercise physiology and a lab at Creighton University—wanted to know more about the Robohand. But he had difficulty connecting with the researchers involved.

After several attempts to reach the people in South Africa, he relied on his own knowledge, resources, and expertise to make a prosthetic on his own. It took several months to perfect his prototype, but Zuniga’s journey highlights how the health care industry is utilizing new breakthroughs in 3D printing technology.

Nothing is more personal than health care. And few things are more customizable than the 3D-printed object. The field of prosthetics represents just one obvious medical application for the technology, one with many advantages: to provide a custom-fitted solution for an amputee; to shave thousands off the cost of traditional prosthetic limbs; to negate the financial burden if insurance doesn’t cover the device; and especially for children, to provide a fast solution to wear, tear, and outgrowing the artificial body part. 

But prosthetics only scratch the surface of possibilities awaiting biomedical 3D printing. The FDA, for example, recently approved the first 3D printed drug—an incredibly fast-acting seizure medication that dissolves in seconds thanks to a structure only possible through 3D printing.

Improvements to medical devices that were once too expensive to contemplate can be prototyped on the cheap. Zuniga, who now (as of August 15) works out of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Biomechanics Research Building, says he has printed the model of a fetus for a blind mother who wanted to “see” her unborn baby. He has also worked with physicians at Omaha Children’s Hospital to print three-dimensional models of patient hearts so surgeons can study the organ long before they pick up a scalpel.

Zuniga’s use of 3D printing carries immediate significance and practicality. A glance at the more fantastic applications, however, can be found at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. There, biomedical engineer Bin Duan is heading up a new bioprinting unit that is printing and growing bone and cartilage for regenerative purposes. Later this year, Duan and his team will implant small plugs of printed bone into animals that should eventually integrate with the animal’s existing tissue.

Bioprinting works by printing with at least two different materials. First, a biocompatible polymer creates a scaffold or lattice in the desired shape of the tissue, such as an ear or a piece of bone. The second material, living cells, are printed onto the scaffold. The cells cling to the structure, and over the course of several weeks they live and multiply as the scaffold slowly degrades and disappears. Eventually, the scaffold material is gone, but the tissue remains.

One potential application of UNMC’s bone tests could be used to help future children born with certain defects. A printed bone implant made from the child’s stem cells would then grow with the child, eliminating the need for multiple surgeries.

In a more distant future, an organ transplant might not be from a random donor, but from the patient’s own stem cells: a new, perfect organ printed when it is needed, and far less prone to rejection. Skin grafts and bone regeneration, all of it made with a patient’s personal cells.

UNMC’s bioprinting program is still in its infancy, so a breakthrough with more complex systems will likely come from a place like Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Widely regarded as the national leader for 3D bioprinting, researchers there have already printed skin, blood vessels, bladders, and muscle—some of them implanted in humans. But complex organs like the heart, kidneys, and liver remain unsolved puzzles…for now.

In the here and now, researchers like Zuniga can make accessible what was once out of reach for many.

When he finished his first 3D-printed prosthetic arm, he showed it to his young son. The elder Zuniga expected to impress his son with the level of realism it held. The boy was not impressed.

“He said, ‘If that’s for children, that’s not gonna work,’” Zuniga says. “’Daddy, that hand is too real. You need something cooler than that.’”

Inspired by his son’s insight, Zuniga created “Cyborg Beast,” a brightly colored, prosthetic, cybernetic hand that more closely resembles something out of a science fiction movie than a human limb. The plans and instructions on how to use them are open and free to anyone with access to a 3D printer.

“You’d be surprised at how many people around the world have access to (3D printing) machines,” Zuniga says. “…It’s like the start of a revolution.”

An artificial limb that once cost $4,000, can now be had for about $50—about the cost of a trip to the ballpark.

Visit cyborgbeast.org to learn more. B2B

Poetic Healing

June 1, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The poet Longfellow famously wrote, “Into each life some rain must fall.” By that logic, Omaha poet Traci Schacht has survived a series of torrential downpours.

At age 12, Schacht’s mentally ill mother left her negligent father, forcing Schacht to care for herself. That same year, she would turn her first trick and enter her first foster home.

“It was an easy way to make money, but I was too young to know what it all meant,” she says. “To me, it just meant food—chicken versus corn flakes. The cops picked me up and that’s when ‘home’ changed from home to group homes to foster homes.”

Though they’ve since reconciled, Schacht vividly recalls being rejected by her mother, who swiftly remarried and took in her siblings but told a troubled 13-year-old Schacht that she wasn’t welcome.

“My family didn’t want me. That’s when I changed, stopped caring, became violent,” says Schacht, who also escalated her experimentation with drugs. “I so badly wanted my mom to rescue me, to come hug me, tell me everything would be okay. I was so scared and alone.”

TraciSchacht1She was headed to lockup when Boys Town accepted her, moving Schacht in a better direction. After graduating she attended Nebraska Wesleyan, earning a theater degree.   

Next, Schacht moved around a lot—Chicago, Houston, San Francisco—but the places she’s been emotionally and intellectually are the most compelling parts of her story. For example, she traveled vast distances politically, from serving as V.P. of the college Young Republicans in Nebraska to fighting against the death penalty with “a bunch of Marxists” in San Francisco.

In 2007, back in Omaha, the storm continued. Schacht survived a horrible car wreck that crushed her legs, arm, and part of her neck. Her legs were saved but she had trouble walking. In 2010, Schacht requested and received a right leg below-knee amputation, hoping to resume some favorite activities like kayaking as a result. After a subsequent total knee replacement went wrong and infection set in, the leg was amputated above-knee.

“I just bawled. I didn’t want to be an above-knee amputee because it’s harder to walk and you can’t do everything. But eventually I got this cool, computerized leg,” Schacht says, hiking up a pant leg to proudly display the high-tech limb she got in 2013. “Now I’m walking, after years in a wheelchair. I’m
so thankful.”

Schacht’s also grateful for a fateful meeting with a medical van driver who, in the course of transporting her home from the hospital, changed her life.

“He offered to read me a poem he’d written,” says Schacht. “I thought, ‘Oh no, this is gonna be some cheesy poetry.’ But it was this awesome, political slam poetry I hadn’t heard before, and I loved it.”

Schacht befriended the driver, who convinced her to try writing poetry. He saw skill in her work and encouraged her to perform the piece at Verbal Gumbo, a monthly open mic welcoming “various artistic expressions.”

“[My poem] was met with such wonderful warmth, and they said I should do another,” says Schacht. “So I did another, and then another, and another, and have continued since.”

Schacht’s discovery of her talent at performing rhythmic, defiant, evocative slam poetry added great joy to her life, but she still wrestled with personal demons. Schacht, a Gemini, says she has two sides, one wanting to perform and another bent on withdrawal. She plotted suicide and eventually had a PTSD break—a bottom from which to rise.

“It all hit me at once and I just broke, and actually, that was a wonderful thing. I took the chance to finally stop and assess everything I’d experienced,” says Schacht, who credits good friends for crucial support.     

“Omaha saved my life. Literally. The community here saved my life,” she says.

That life-saving support inspired Schacht to help others. She coaches Bryan and Northwest High Schools’ teams for the youth poetry festival “Louder Than a Bomb” and has worked with Poetry Out Loud Nebraska and Project Everlast, a group for former foster youth. She’s training to be an amputee peer support counselor and mental health first responder. Schacht is also finishing a book of poetry, tentatively titled Tequila, Twerking, and Other Things a One-legged Poet Should Never Do, and establishing a healing through poetry group.

“I’m blessed to use poetry for healing and to share that with others,” says Schacht. “I needed to heal myself from everything I’ve experienced in my life.”

Routinely taunted in childhood as “ugly girl,” Schacht performs lots of body-positive poetry.

“I worked really hard for this body and so did a lot of other people, so I want to be really proud of it,” she says.

Through her poetry and service to others, Schacht has found confidence and value in her accomplishments. She’s finally discovered that, as Longfellow also wrote, “Behind the clouds is the sun still shining.”

“It’s meaningful when people come up in tears telling me my words helped them. It’s a gift. When that healing happens and you can share that with others it’s amazing, and that’s what I’m about now,” she says. “I’m learning to let that help center myself and to realize that is success.”

The Road Home

October 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A loaf of bread. A tank of gas. Pick up the dry cleaning. There are myriad detours one may take in the drive home on any 
given evening.

But the road home for David Hayes almost never varies. On most nights, he drives his car in a trance-like state, methodically wending his way through the streets of Omaha. The vehicle comes to rest after ascending what starts out as an almost imperceptible hill. The scenery never changes. The vehicle once again deposits its driver at his final destination—Evergreen Cemetery.

That’s where he goes to visit his son, Dillon.

A toxicology report listed the cause of Dillon’s 2010 death as due to a mix of cold medication and oxycodone. The medicine was an innocuous, over-the-counter purchase, a $6.99 solution to a case of the sniffles. The oxycodone was a much less innocent acquisition, a $40 score the then 15-year-old sophomore made in the halls of Millard North High School.

Hayes is now a member of the saddest of fraternities—fathers who have lost their sons to prescription drug abuse. “It’s a crappy club I belong to,” says Hayes, who has since dedicated his life to serving Dillon’s memory by talking about the dangers of a problem that will claim nearly 15,000 lives in America this year. And he’ll talk to anyone who will listen.

“If I can stop one kid from going down the wrong road, if I can help one parent, it will be worth all the pain. It would be…priceless.” —David Hayes

Hayes has spoken before over 7,500 school kids in the second half of 2013 alone, along with hundreds of adults at service clubs, churches, and other settings. “It’s hard for me to speak. Really hard,” Hayes says. “But seeing the results is worth it. If I can stop one kid from going down the wrong road, if I can help one parent, it will be worth all the pain. It would be…priceless.”

Oxycodone, most often available under the trade name of OxyContin, is a semi-synthetic opioid made from poppy-derived thebaine. It is a narcotic analgesic generally prescribed for relief of severe pain. Its connection to the poppy has earned it the street handle of “hillbilly heroin,” just one entry in a lexicon that includes such slang as 80s (as in 80 mg), kickers, killers, blues, and most commonly, oxy.

Alcohol, along with many cold medications, shares the opiate affect of suppressing breathing, which is why mixing it with OxyContin is so dangerous. A person who takes a swig of cough syrup or a single drink before ingesting oxy will likely notice no adverse affects. Later during sleep, however, the combined effect of the continuous-release oxy (thus the “Contin” half of OxyContin name) may cause the lungs to simply shut down and cease functioning.

That’s what happened to Dillon.

Hayes, perhaps most widely known as owner of the acclaimed V. Mertz and other popular restaurants, turned to counseling and clergy after Dillon’s death, but an abyss of sorrow still haunted him. To borrow from the lingo of 12 Step programs, he got better when he got busy.

20131011_bs_6193

So Hayes and longtime family friend Carey Pomykata launched Dillon’s House, a nonprofit that operates under the auspices of Youth for Christ. A basement playhouse that was the scene of many of Dillon’s greatest childhood adventures inspired the name. In his playhouse, the young boy could take the guise of astronaut, spy, or action hero, lost in all manner of valiant reveries. They were roles that Dillon would never have a chance to play in real, adult life. A reimagined though much grander version of the playhouse, a gift from Hayes to the children of Sonshine Christian Preschool, now stands on the grounds of Harvey Oaks Baptist Church, where he is a member.

“The kids here are, of course, too young to understand,” says Mollie Logan, director of the preschool, “but one day they will come to learn the full meaning of 
Dillon’s House.”

Hayes’ speaking gigs are aimed at the older siblings of the tykes who romp in Dillon’s House, as was the case during his presentation at Millard Public Schools’ Andersen Middle School.

Some motions—like riding a bike or the graceful swing of a professional golfer—are unthinking ones. They are acts of all but unconscious muscle memory. Hayes has his own. Not one minute into his school chat, he was reaching for a tissue. It is a gesture that defines the gentle, soft-spoken man. He first demonstrated it over coffee in an initial interview. He repeated it at the school and then again in a photo session. Even at an otherwise festive social function, talk of Dillon soon had Hayes fumbling through his pockets.

“Remember that old, old American Express travelers checks commercial with Karl Malden?” Hayes asks as an index finger darts to a cheek to intercept a salty intruder. “That’s me, but with Kleenex. I never leave home without them.”

“My dad didn’t want to wake after that, after Dillon died,” adds Hayes’ other son, Noah, now a 17-year-old junior at Elkhorn South High School. “Every morning was the same. He’d wake up, and it would take a moment or two for things to sink in, even months later. Was that real? Did that really happen? Then the pain would come again.”

“Kids my age think they’re invincible. Nothing can stop them. It’s an ego thing…But what kids don’t understand is not only that drugs can take control; they can take your life. That’s what happened to my brother.” —Noah Hayes

His struggle is different. While Hayes is bewitched by the specter of one lone oxy, Noah must witness firsthand the ongoing ravages of prescription drug abuse among his teens.

“Kids my age think they’re invincible,” Noah explains. “Nothing can stop them. It’s an ego thing. Drugs can’t possibly have negative consequences, they think. They could see this story and not even blink. They just don’t think that way. But what kids don’t understand is not only that drugs can take control, they can take your life. That’s what happened to my brother. He went to bed one night and never woke up.” Close your eyes, Noah says, and Monday morning locker chatter can be indistinguishable from that of the scholarly banter found in a lecture hall for third-year pharmacy students. “It’s really prevalent in our school and must be in others. It’s like a dirty little secret.”

Omaha Magazine invited three different area school districts to participate in a variety of ways in compiling this story. Some of those media requests were decidedly weighty and challenging. None accepted the invitation.

Pomykata, who acts as the director of Dillon’s House, has also had the soul-crushing experience of facing the persistence of dirty little secrets. She once happened to bump into thirteen of Dillon’s friends on a pilgrimage to Evergreen Cemetery. “It was the sweetest scene,” she says, “crying and laughing and then crying some more as we remembered Dillon.” But the conversation took a grim, darker turn as time wore on and the teens opened up about life after Dillon. “Twelve of the 13 admitted to using prescription drugs again since Dillon’s death.”

When it comes to the volatile power of a narcotic like oxy, there is no such thing as innocent, youthful experimentation, and repeated use can easily lead to addiction.

“I stole money from my mom,” says Jason (not his real name) on how he funded an insidious oxy addiction. “I stole a TV from my grandma, even though it was a lame piece of junk that I sold for only $30.” Jason dropped out of school at 16 before hitting bottom and landing in rehab under court-ordered supervision. Now 19, Jason is in recovery and back in school, studying computer programming while working a steady job, both ideas that were once entirely foreign to him. “Recovery has been a long road to travel. My family expected to get the old Jason back, but the new Jason is still pretty okay with them. The first thing I did when I had any money was to buy grandma a new TV, nicer than the one I took. She had already replaced the TV and laughed about it, but it was something I had to do for myself as much as for her.”

“Recovery has been a long road to travel. My family expected to get the old Jason back, but the new Jason is still pretty okay with them.” —”Jason,” a recovering addict

All addictions are family diseases. Often beginning as the elephant in the room, addiction acts like a malicious virus, infecting those closest to the user.

“I went to Al-Anon because I thought those people could tell me how to get my daughter to stop [prescription drugs],” says Sarah, who also requested anonymity for this story. “I was wrong about that but in a good way. What I found there really surprised me. Al-Anon helps me answer questions about me. I learned how to live again. It’s about sharing experience, strength, and hope. My daughter ended up getting better even before I did,” Sarah adds with a chuckle. “She still goes to NA [Narcotics Anonymous], I go to Al-Anon, and sometimes we go to each others’ meetings together.”

Reed Campbell, Clinical Director of NOVA Treatment Community in Omaha, has worked with scores of “Jasons” and “Sarahs” on what can be shared roads to recovery between parent and child. “In the stage between late childhood and early adulthood, curiosity runs rampant,” he says. “Anything that can get youth out of a place that is uncomfortable by providing some sense of security is a thing that kids might easily cling to. The grip of drugs like oxycodone and other heavy-duty pharmaceuticals is powerful but teens don’t think of the consequences.”

Pomykata agrees. “Kids see this stuff in their parents’ medicine cabinet and think ‘A doctor says this is good for my mom’s back. This must be safe or a doctor wouldn’t have given it to her.’”

Hayes reached for a tissue when Pomykata painted the picture of Dillon’s friends at the cemetery but prefers to point to happier, more encouraging brushes with those touched by prescription drug abuse. “A young man stopped me in the grocery store recently. He started crying as he introduced himself, saying that he had heard me talk at Millard South High School and had struggled with a drug problem, including prescription drug abuse. Then, he said something that reminds me of why I get out of bed in the morning. ‘That could be me,’ he said, ‘I could have been Dillon.’”

“What I found there really surprised me. Al-Anon helps me answer questions about me. I learned how to live again. It’s about sharing experience, strength and hope.” —”Sarah,” Al-Anon member

The tireless advocate has recently broadened the reach of Dillon’s House, taking its message on tour to five school districts in New York, where he says officials use the word “epidemic” to describe their prescription drug problem. Never one to rest, he loaded the evenings of his itinerary fulfilling invitations from universities and church groups.

Back in Omaha, Hayes dashes off to another school and then another and then another. He consults maps in planning his next national road trip. On many days, he is in danger of forgetting what’s next on his dizzying calendar.

But there will always be Evergreen Cemetery. And there will always be the shadow cast by a little blue pill. Hayes’ road home is always the same.

Iraq War Vet Jacob Hausman Battles PTSD and Finds Peace

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Scott Drickey

Growing up in Beatrice, Neb., Jacob “Jake” Hausman harbored a childhood dream of serving in the U.S. military. Both his grandfathers and an uncle served. He volunteered for the Army in 2002 and upon completing the rite of passage known as basic training, he finally realized his long-held dream. He made it as an infantryman, too, meaning he’d joined the “hardcore” ranks of the all-guts-and-no-glory grunts who do the dirty work of war on the ground.

By the time his enlistment ended three years later, Hausman earned a combat service badge during a year’s deployment in Iraq. He participated in scores of successful missions targeting enemy forces. He saw comrades in arms, some of them close friends, die or incur life-threatening wounds. He survived, but there were things he saw and did he couldn’t get out of his mind. Physical and emotional battle scars began negatively impacting his quality of life back home.

Headaches. Ringing in the ears. Dizziness. Nightmares. Panic attacks. Irritability. Depression. Anxiety. Certain sounds bothered him. He felt perpetually on edge and on high alert, as if still patrolling the hostile streets of Mosul or Fallujah. With his fight-or-flight response system stuck in overdrive, he slept only fitfully.

A relationship he started with a woman ended badly. He lived in his parents’ basement, unemployed, isolating himself except for beer-soaked nights out that saw him drink to oblivion in order to escape or numb the anguish he felt inside. No one but his fellow vets knew the full extent of his misery.

With things careening out of control, Hausman sought professional help. Hardly to his own surprise, he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Anyone who’s endured trauma is prone to develop it. Sustained exposure to combat makes soldiers particularly vulnerable. Not all combat veterans are diagnosed with PTSD, but nearly one-third are.

What did surprise Hausman was learning he’d suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). In retrospect, it made sense because the Stryker combat vehicle he was in absorbed an IED (improvised explosive device) blast that knocked him unconscious. Studies confirm ever-stronger charges like that one caused many more such injuries as the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts wore on. Injuries of this type often went undetected or unreported in the past.

“In combat and war, no one’s playing music in the background. It’s not passionate; it’s pure survival instincts.” – Jacob Hausman

It was because of these diagnoses that Hausman became a casualty among returning veterans. Some estimates put their numbers with PTSD and/or TBI at a quarter of a million. Statistics alone don’t tell the story. In each case, an individual experiences disruptive symptoms that make adjusting to civilian life difficult. The suicide rate among this group is high.

The scope of this health care crisis has strained U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ resources. In some locales, benefit claims are months behind schedule. Nebraska’s VA system has largely kept pace with demand. Hausman’s own claim was expedited quickly. He was found to be 90 percent disabled.

Six years after starting a VA treatment regimen of counseling and medication to address his PTSD issues, along with physical therapy to mitigate his TBI symptoms, his life has turned around. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Bellevue University. He’s gainfully employed today as a veterans service representative at the Lincoln VA. He also does outreach work with vets. He recently married the former Kendra Koch of Beatrice, and the couple reside in a home in Papillion.

They adopted a Lab-Golden Retriever mix dog, Lucy, from a rescue animal shelter. Kendra’s an animal lover like Jacob, who with his mother, Gayla Hausman, and his friend, Matthew Brase, own and operate the foundation Voice for Companion Animals.

Throughout his active duty Army tenure, Jake carried inside his Kevlar helmet a photo of his favorite adolescent companion, a Chihuahua named Pepe. Not long after Jake’s return from Iraq, the dog took sick and had to be put down.

Jacob and Kendra are seriously considering starting a family.

Emotional and physical challenges persist for him, but he now has tools to manage them. No longer stuck in the past, he lives one day at a time to the fullest and looks ahead to realizing some dreams. Contentment seemed impossible when he was in the depths of his malaise. His is only one man’s story, but his recovery illustrates PTSD and TBI need not permanently debilitate someone.

He’s certainly not the same Jake Hausman who joined the Army a decade ago. “I came back a completely different person. I had so much life experience,” he says. Good and bad. If nothing else, it matured him. His views on the military and war have changed. He’s not bitter, but he is wizened beyond his 28 years, and he wants people to know just how personal and final the cost of waging war is. He also wants fellow vets to know the VA is their friend.

Jacob, age 7, playing soldier at his childhood home in Beatrice, Neb. Photo provided by Jacob Hausman.

Jacob, age 7, playing soldier at his childhood home in Beatrice, Neb. Photo provided by Jacob Hausman.

Soldier Boy

Like a lot of young people, Hausman had a romantic view of soldiering. He saw it as a ticket out of his small town to find thrills and see the world.

“People live in Beatrice for a 100 years. It’s like my grandpa lived here, my mom lived here, and I’m going to live here, and I didn’t want that for myself. I struggled at school, I didn’t succeed, I was in trouble with the law, I didn’t have a bright future. And the Army at least promised adventure, intrigue. I just thought, Gosh, I want to be part of a story that can be told from generation to generation. I want to be part of something greater than myself.

“I didn’t feel connected [before]. I mean, I was social, I had friends and so forth, but I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere and I really craved that. I craved being a part of something bigger than what I was, and [the infantry] really gave it to me.”

You might assume the catalyst for his enlistment was the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but you’d be wrong. Long before then he’d made up his mind, he would enlist as soon as he could. He wanted it so badly that he was only 17 when the Army took him with his parents’ written consent. He completed high school early.

“I craved being a part of something bigger than what I was, and [the infantry] really gave it to me.” – Hausman

“Since I was like 5 years old, I wanted to be a part of the infantry. My mom’s father was in the infantry during the Korean War, and that’s why I ultimately joined. So I was always allured by the infantry because they’re the hardest, the best, the whole thing. I was beyond motivated.

“The struggle, the fight, well, that’s all true. You actually get to experience those things, and it’s not pretty and glorified. What I always tell people is that in combat and war, no one’s playing music in the background. It’s not passionate; it’s pure survival instincts. And when you’re in those situations, you’re not doing it for the flag. You’re doing it for your friend to the left and right of you.”

He couldn’t know the hard realities of war before experiencing it. He only thought about the excitement, the camaraderie, the tradition.

“Well, I got all those things, and I got a little bit more than I bargained for.”

Jacob, age 20, ready for action in Fallujah, Iraq, 2004. Photo provided by Jacob Hausman.

Jacob, age 20, ready for action in Fallujah, Iraq, 2004. Photo provided by Jacob Hausman.

You’re in the Army Now

His service almost got shelved before getting started. Weeks before leaving for basic training, he and some friends were out cruising Beatrice in his car. Open alcohol containers were within plain view when they got pulled over by local police. Jake was behind the wheel. Already on probation for underage-drinking violations, Hausman “freaked out” and fled the scene. He later turned himself in. Authorities could have used the pending charges to prevent him from going into the Army. A probation officer became his advocate.

“She went above and beyond for me,” he says. “She saw something in me and just really pushed for me and got it dropped. Two weeks later, I left [for basic]. About three years later when I came back, I told her what that meant to me and who I am now because of it. If it wasn’t for her, this story would have never happened.”

So off he went for the adventure of his life. Rude awakenings came early and often at Fort Benning, Ga., for this “spoiled only-child” who’d never done his own laundry.

“You grow into a man really fast. It kicked my ass.” Mental and physical toughness are required of infantrymen, and he had no choice but to steel himself for its rigors.

“You adapt fast or you suffer,” he says, “and I was one who adapted fast. The infantry is so hard. There’s a lot of hazing. It’s survival of the fittest.”

Hazing and all, he says, “I thought basic training was the best thing I’ve ever done. The reason why it was powerful for me is that it was all about the mission. There was no individualism; we were all a team. I really loved that.

“You grow into a man really fast. It kicked my ass.” – Hausman

“My master’s is in leadership, where the focus is on what can you do for the team, and that’s what the infantry is. No matter if you show up with a shaved head or dreadlocks, you get your head shaved. No matter if you’re clean-shaven or you have a beard, you get your face shaved. It’s just part of it. They strip you down to your very bare minimum, and it’s all about coming together as a team, being a man, learning how to get along with others, and learning different cultures.

“You’re talking about someone who, as a kid, had one black person in his class and now I had blacks, Hispanics, [and] Jamaicans in my barracks. I’d never dealt with that. I learned so much from other people; it was fantastic. They treated me like everyone else, I treated them like everyone else.”

Infantry training is largely about endurance. “The whole infantry thing is walking and running while carrying a 50- to 75-pound rucksack,” he says. “Can you walk a long ways with all that weight?”

Before making it into the infantry, one must pass a final crucible. Hausman recalls it this way: “They have this legendary walk that’s like 25 miles of water, hills, and so forth. It’s like your final capstone test at the very end. You know you’re an infantryman if you pass this thing. It’s hell on earth. I had to duct tape my thighs so they wouldn’t rub together. You walk through a river, and your feet are wet. One entire foot was rubbed raw. I mean, it was the most painful thing I’ve ever done.

“It’s just a whole mental thing—Can you get through the pain? It was so great getting that done. I was so proud.”

He then joined his unit in Fort Lewis, Wash., to await deployment. He says everything there was even more intense than at Fort Benning—the training, the hazing, the brotherhood, the partying. He felt he’d truly found his calling. “I became very good at being an infantryman. You really felt a part of the team; you bonded. I mean, you just had a lot of brothers.”

He says the drills he and his mates did in the field, including playing realistic war games, made them into a cohesive fighting force.

“We were a killing machine.”

Jacob, right, receiving his Combat Infantry Badge from Lieutenant Blanton in Mosul, Iraq, 2004. Photo provided by Jacob Hausman.

Jacob, right, receiving his Combat Infantry Badge from Lieutenant Blanton in Mosul, Iraq, 2004. Photo provided by Jacob Hausman.

Desert War

A downside to barracks life, he says, is all the alcohol consumption. “Drinking is the culture—I’m talking excessively. In the military, you’re drinking hard liquor, and you’re just drinking till you curl up. That’s the path that started going bad for me there.” But a substance abuse problem was the least of his worries once in Iraq in 2003.

His company was assigned to the new Stryker Brigade, which took its name from the 8-wheel Stryker combat vehicle. “Something in-between a Humvee and a tank,” Hausman describes it. “After Somalia, our brass decided we needed a vehicle that could put infantry in the city, let us do our thing, and get us out fast.”

It carried a crew of six.

“We built cages [of slat armor] on the outside to stop RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades).” The cages proved quite effective. However, Strykers had a problem with rollovers, a defect Hausman would soon experience to his horror.

“We had a lot of good intelligence from special forces initially. Every day, we would kick someone’s door down and take out a terrorist. We’d either arrest him, kill him, do whatever. We killed a lot of bad guys.

“Once the intelligence stopped, we kind of ran out of operations to do.” Then his squad’s duty consisted of doing presence patrols. “It basically was to show the Iraqis we were around, but in all reality, it was walk around until we got shot at so we could kill [the shooters].”

Draw fire, identify target, engage.

“You’re still seeing a human being face-to-face; you’re still pulling a trigger on someone; you still have that you’re-dead-or-I’m-dead reality. You cannot shake that experience.” – Hausman

Hausman was a specialist as the squad’s designated marksman. “I had an extra weapon—a snipe rifle. I’d go out with the snipers, and we’d do recon on special missions,” he explains. “We’d take fire here and there, but we’d maybe only get in a firefight every three weeks.”

He was part of a Quick Reaction Force unit that responded within minutes to crises in the field. That sometimes meant coming back from a long operation only to have to go right back out without any sleep.

“Once, we got into an 18-hour firefight when we were called to secure two HET (Heavy Equipment Transporters) vehicles hit by RPGs and abandoned by their transportation team. It was a residential district in Mosul. We got there and RPGs start blasting and IEDs started popping. It was just an ambush. The enemy had us surrounded 360 degrees. We were pinned down taking gunfire. This was life or death. At a certain point, you’re not thinking; it’s pure survival animal instinct.

“I turned the corner at a T-intersection, and there were muzzle flashes from windows. There were four of us versus about six muzzle flashes. It was just who could kill who fastest. A guy came across the roof, and I fired my 203 grenade launcher, BOOM, dead. A squad member got shot and paralyzed. Another got wounded by an RPG, his intestines spilling out. He was EVAC’d out.”

He says in situations like these you confront the question: “Are you really committed to killing another human being? And I have killed another person.” Despite today’s automatic weapons, he says, “You’re still seeing a human being face-to-face; you’re still pulling a trigger on someone; you still have that you’re-dead-or-I’m-dead reality. You cannot shake that experience.”

In the aftermath of such intense action, he says, “You’re hiked up; you can’t sleep.” Indeed, he “couldn’t let down” for his entire nine months in Iraq. “You just can’t let your guard down.” Even on leave back home, he was so conditioned by threats that “driving back from the airport,” he recalls, “I was looking for IEDs on the road, scanning the roofs for snipers.” When he could finally release the pent-up stress, he slept three straight days.

From left: Specialist Mower, Specialist Crumpacker, and Specialist Hausman, 19, in Samarra, Iraq, 2003. The photo was taken the day after the horrific Stryker accident that killed three soldiers. Photo provided by Jacob Hausman.

From left: Specialist Mower, Specialist Crumpacker, and Specialist Hausman, 19, in Samarra, Iraq, 2003. The photo was taken the day after the horrific Stryker accident. Photo provided by Jacob Hausman.

A Tragic Accident

As bad as firefights got, Hausman says, “The worst thing I’ve experienced in my life occurred about a month after I got to Iraq.” It didn’t involve a single gunshot or explosion either. It was his turn operating the Stryker. His team, followed by another in a second Stryker, were on a muddy backroad near Samarra heading to do recon. A ravine on their side of the road led to a canal. Suddenly, the road gave way and both Strykers overturned into the canal. The ensuing struggle haunts him still.

“We’re upside down, water starts running in, it’s miserable cold. I’m thinking, ‘Oh no, it’s over.’”

He recalls hearing his father’s voice telling him not to panic.

“I don’t know how I got the hatch open, I just muscled it, and the water rushed in. I took a deep breath and went down in it. My body got pinned between the ground and the vehicle. I’m struggling, I’m drowning. I thought, ‘Is this how I’m going to die?’ I escaped from the bottom somehow and got on the side,”…only to find himself trapped again. He began swallowing water.

“My body got pinned between the ground and the vehicle. I’m struggling, I’m drowning. I thought, ‘Is this how I’m going to die?’” – Hausman

“I looked up and I could kind of see the moon. I started clawing, clawing, clawing, and gasping for air. I made it. I gathered my thoughts, climbed on the vehicle, and saw one of my buddies had gotten flung out. We went to the back,” where they found their mates trapped below, desperate for escape. “We were all fighting to get the hatch open. It was just terrible. We get the hatch open, and everyone’s there.”

A roll call accounted for all hands. Except in the rush to get out, a team member got “trampled over” and drowned. “We got his body out and did CPR, but it was five minutes too late.”

Hausman was “really good friends” with the lost squad member, Joseph Blickenstaff.

The driver and the squad leader in the second vehicle also died. Hausman was friends with the driver, J. Riverea Wesley. Staff Sergeant Steven H. Bridges was the squad leader lost that day.

Assessing what happened, Hausman says, “It was chaos; it was tragedy. That really shattered me for a while. I won’t let it ruin my life—I’ll go swimming and stuff—but it was just traumatic. It is hard to deal with—getting over it. There’s some parts of it I will never get over.”

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The Aftermath Comes Home

War being war, there’s no time or support for processing tragedy and trauma. “It was shove everything inside, shut up, move forward,” says Jake. Those unresolved feelings came tumbling out like an “avalanche” when he got back home in 2004.

“I was just a trainwreck. I was miserable, destroyed. My emotions ran wild. I couldn’t sleep. I was just so anxious. I couldn’t take deep breaths, I would sniff, just like a dog panting. Like a 24-hour panic attack. You’re uncomfortable being you every second of the day. You’re not in control, and that’s what you’re afraid of. Just freaking out about stuff. I was so afraid at night I would get up nine or 10 times and check the lock on my door. The nightmares are incredible.”

Excessive drinking became his coping mechanism. The more he drank, the more he needed to drink to keep his demons at bay. “You’re in a vicious cycle, and you can’t get out of it,” he says.

“At one point, I contemplated suicide because I was like, ‘What is the point of living when I am this bad, this miserable? Is it ever going to get better than this?’”

His family saw him unraveling.

“Mom and Dad were worried, deathly worried, but they didn’t know how to handle it. They didn’t know if it was a stage or my turning 21. They didn’t know what to do with me.”

“Usually in this population, patients turn to drinking or to other substance abuse and the number one reason they tell me they do it is because they can’t sleep or to fight off nightmares,” says Omaha VA social worker Heather Bojanski. “They don’t want to come in for help, they don’t want medication, and drugs and alcohol are easy to get a hold of. They’d rather try to cope themselves before they come in for help or actually have to face [that] there is a problem.”

Omaha VA Hospital counselor Heather Bojanski.

Omaha VA Hospital social worker Heather Bojanski.

Jim Rose, a mental health physician’s assistant with the Lincoln VA, says recovery has to start with someone recognizing they have a problem and wanting to deal with it. “If they’re still reluctant to accept that as a problem, then it makes it very difficult. Help’s out there, but it is difficult with this group who by nature tend to be more self-reliant and have the world by the shoulders, and then to have something like this happen kind of turns things upside down.”

There’s no set timetable for when PTSD might present in someone.

“They’re all on a continuum,” says Bojanski. “Two veterans can come back who have seen and been through the same exact thing, and one will seem perfectly fine and the other may immediately start struggling. That all depends on a few things—what was going on in their life when they came back, and how much family support they have. It’s all going to depend on them and their family and what’s going on and how honest they are with themselves.

“If they come back and they have great family support and their family’s in tune and really watching them, then they’ll do well. But if nobody’s really paying attention and they’re just doing their own thing and they start isolating and drinking, then those are big issues to look at and people really need to encourage them to come in.”

Hausman says, “There’s a threshold of stress. It’s going to come out eventually if you don’t take care of it. For me, it came out real early. I was a boy; I was not equipped for getting used up in the war machine.”

“[Some veterans] would rather try to cope themselves before they come in for help or actually have to face [that] there is a problem.” – Heather Bojanski, social worker

Rose says PTSD tends to be suppressed among active duty military because they’re in a protective environment around people with similar experiences. But once separated from the military, it becomes a different matter.

“They feel isolated, and the symptoms will probably intensify,” he says. “It’s usually a couple years after discharge people reach a point where they just can’t cope with it anymore and something’s going to happen—they’re going to get in trouble or they’re going to ask for help, and that’s when we see them.”

That’s how it was for Hausman, who concealed the extent of his problems from family and friends and tried coping alone.

“I didn’t want to burden them with that…My friends, they thought it was just old Jake because I’m a partier, I’m gregarious, so they enjoyed it. But they didn’t see the dark side of it. They didn’t understand the mega-depression and anxiety. When I was drunk, I could shield it.

“But there’s usually one or two people in your life that know you. Robert Engel is probably my best friend to this today. He was in my unit. He lives in Kansas City, Mo. He recognizes when I’m down; I recognize when he’s down. We kind of pick each other up. He’s seen me at my lowest point but he accepts me for who I am, and I accept him for who he is, and we sincerely care about each other.”

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Getting Help

“When I decided I wasn’t going to kill myself, I resolved to figure this out,” says Jake. “I started reading spirituality, I started studying psychology.”

Most importantly, he sought help from the Veterans Administration. He and a fellow vet in Lincoln, Mike Krause, talked straight about what he needed to do. Like any vet seeking services, Hausman underwent screenings. He had all the classic symptoms of PTSD.

The intake process works the same for all vets. Bojanski says, “We sit down with each of them individually and decide what level of care they need.” In the case of Hausman, she says, “He came to the VA, and we started to treat him. Then when he started to take medication, he stopped drinking, and it was like an eye-opening experience to him that, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been suffering all this time.’ He started to go to groups, he talked to other people and realized, ‘Wow, I’m not the only one suffering.’ Other people he knew from his unit were going.”

Rose says the medications commonly prescribed for PTSD are “a mixed bag” in terms of effectiveness. He emphasizes, “There is no medication that cures these symptoms, but we have got things that can help people lead better lives, including anti-depressants and anti-psychotics.” To supplement the meds, he says, “We try to steer people to cognitive-therapy counseling.”

A holistic mind-body-spirit approach has worked for Hausman.

“That’s why exercise is important, counseling is important, and you have to supplement it with medication,” he says. “It’s not just a one trick pony. You can’t just throw some meds at someone and expect them to get better, you have to do all those things.”

Rose salutes Hausman and anyone who embraces recovery. “It’s a fairly lengthy process, and it involves commitment. It’s not a passive act. Jake’s a testament to people that, if you really want to get through it you can.”

Lincoln VA substance abuse counselor Mary Ann Thompson admires him for getting sober and “remaining clean and sober and productive.”

“He easily could have succumbed to all those issues and who knows where he’d be at now, but I’m so proud of him for moving forward.” – Kendra Hausman, Jacob’s wife

Bojanski sees a new Jake, saying, “He has a much better outlook on life. He’s very proactive.”

More than most, Kendra Hausman appreciates how far her husband’s come: “I’ve seen a lot less anxiety. Overall, he’s more calm, more level-headed, he’s able to handle situations better. He doesn’t get as angry or as worked up about small things like he used to. He easily could have succumbed to all those issues and who knows where he’d be at now, but I’m so proud of him for moving forward. He’s very determined. Once he puts his mind to doing something, he’ll get it done no matter what. He’ll figure out what he needs to do, just like he did with his school and career.”

Jacob, himself, says, “I’ve come a long ways. Life is so much better.” What he’s realized, he says, is “There are just some things you cannot [do with] will power; you just have to get help from people. I’ve had a lot of good people in my life that have helped me. And that’s what I’ve learned—you have to ask for help, you have to be willing to get help. The VA is there to help people. They’ve helped me so many times.”

Bojanski says the VA’s more responsive to veterans’ needs today. “The VA realized we did a lousy job welcoming Vietnam veterans back home, so when this war started, we wanted to be proactive and make sure we welcomed our veterans home. We didn’t want them to have a stigma with mental health, we wanted to make sure everything was in place. So we created these clinics (OEF or Operation Enduring Freedom and OIF or Operation Iraqi Freedom), where we work very hard with veterans. It’s very confidential, so not everybody in their unit is going to find out. We have an ER open 24 hours a day.

“It’s not like it used to be when you just had to soldier on, or if you reached out for help it wasn’t confidential.”

She says there isn’t as much stigma now about seeking mental health care.

“It’s getting better; we’re still not where we need to be, but I will say the armed forces, the Department of Defense, and our population in general are changing their views about that. We also do a lot of outreach, a lot of speaking to communities to make sure people are aware it’s okay to get help.”

Hausman does outreach himself as a way of giving back. He says when he addresses audiences of freshly returned vets, he commands their attention.

“They believe in me because I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, and I’m working for the VA. I’m 90 percent service-connected; I’ve got a combat infantry badge. Seeing them is like seeing my reflection. I’m motivated to get them right before they take the wrong path. Someone got me over the hump, and I want to get them to that point, too. I want to help veterans get the services they need. It’s just so rewarding.”

Hausman with wife Kendra and dog Lucy.

The War that Never Ends, Moving on with Life

His PTSD still flare-ups now and then. “Recently, I had a little struggle for a while, but I didn’t fall back into the past because I’ve got good people in my life today.” He says he has combat veteran friends who still struggle because “they don’t have the support system.”

He accepts the fact he’ll always be dealing with the effects of war.

“There are some things I would change, but it’s made me who I am even with all the disabilities and struggles and everything I face. I think through all the suffering I’ve come to know peace. There’s some breaking points where you feel sorry for yourself and you have little pity parties, but then again I look around me and see what I have—a great support system, a wonderful wife.
It’s made me stronger.”

“I think through all the suffering I’ve come to know peace.” – Hausman

Finding Kendra, who works as a speech pathologist with the Omaha Public Schools, has been a gift. “She is the light of my life; she changed my life. Her enthusiasm for life is just breathtaking. She’s smart, beautiful, loving. She’s the greatest teacher in my life. She doesn’t need to understand everything I go through, but sometimes I need her to help me get through it.

“I was going through a low point, and she said something to me that no one else could say to me without offending me: ‘You got through war, now you can get through this, so suck it up.’ From her, that meant a lot. She knows me at that fundamental level to tell me what I need to hear sometimes. We’re really good together.”

Flareups or not, Jake’s moving on with life and not looking back.

If you have a concern about a veteran or want more information, call 402-995-4149. The VA’s local crisis hotline is 1-800-273-8255. For the latest findings on PTSD, visit ptsd.va.gov/aboutface.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.

It’s All Fun and Games

“It was just a joke.” “We didn’t think it was going to go this far.” “It was only supposed to be between us.” As many say, “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.”

Spiking is the act of adding drugs or alcohol to someone’s food or drink without consent. Drugs such as alcohol, GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyric acid), Rohypnol, and Ketamine are the most common spiking drugs. The intent is to take advantage of another person, resulting in assault, kidnapping, robbery, or just sheer amusement. The victim typically has no clue that they are being sabotaged, and when they begin to feel the effects of the drug(s), it’s most likely too late to efficiently protect themselves. These effects include dizziness, lack of coordination, nausea, vomiting, and blackouts. The most devastating effects last for a lifetime, especially with the presence of social media, which can make any victim the center of literally thousands of viewers overnight.

Talking with our children about the risks of spiking (both from the viewpoints of the spiker and the victim) accomplishes two things. First, it gives us the opportunity to provide them with upfront wisdom and the chance to move beyond barriers of communication. Second, it provides us with the opportunity to equip our children with a skill to defend themselves or keep themselves from getting into trouble.

Think about it. There are so many things that we cannot control, but what if something of this magnitude happened, and your child was involved in it one way or the other? Nothing about the conversation makes a child or adult feel comfortable, but I would rather feel uncomfortable than choose not to discuss the topic at all. It means so much more if you are able to say, “We crossed that bridge when we, as parents, communicated our concern with this issue.” Equipping your child (and yourself) protects your home and the dignity that can so easily become crushed in a matter of moments.

Spending time with your children and their friends presents another opportunity to discuss spiking. Their friends can be essential in protecting them and may even act as an inhibitor to a problem on the horizon. As an Airman of the Nebraska National Guard, we use the term “wing buddy” (this is the person who has my back and holds me accountable for their back as well). By getting your children and their wing buddies together with you to communicate, you can double your defenses. Perhaps while having dinner, remind your children and their friends to never leave their food or drink unattended in group settings or to always have a trusted individual keep an eye on it if they leave.

Create the scenario and explain the process of being accountable while asking them their thoughts throughout the conversation. What they say in response can be key in connecting the missing pieces to the reality of this danger. As always, it’s a conversation worth having.

Jarell Roach is a motivational speaker with He That Has An Ear Presentations in Omaha.