Tag Archives: suicide

Wicked Omaha

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Musty newspapers, photos, archives, public records, presentations, and endless hours of research. Sure, the life of a modern folk historian sounds glamorous, but it’s not all like Raiders of the Lost Ark. In many ways, history is an occupation reserved only for those obsessive truth-seekers disconnected from their place on the space-time continuum.

Local historian, author, teacher, and Glenwood native Ryan Roenfeld has been making history entertaining for nigh on two decades. The 44-year-old nontraditional UNO student describes himself as a “hick-from-the-sticks.” A quasi-Luddite with a passion for the past, he doesn’t have a cell phone but he uses Facebook.

“I don’t know how I got so interested in history,” Roenfeld says. “Most folks see history as dry and dull, but it’s not. It really is—good, bad, or indifferent—the story of why things are the way they are.”

While decrying the modern age, Roenfeld helped popularize one of Omaha’s most frequented social media sites: Chuck Martens’ “Forgotten Omaha” Facebook page.

As one of three administrators, Roenfeld has seen “Forgotten Omaha” grow to more than 45,000 likes over the last year.

“I was surprised at the interest. Omahans didn’t know as much of their history as I thought,” says Roenfeld, who also teaches classes on Omaha history for Metropolitan Community College at Do Space. “History really is the story of us all, and I like telling people their stories.”

A folksy populist with an encyclopedic knowledge of colorful locals and criminals, Roenfeld tells the lesser-known tales of underrepresented populations, colorful characters, and swept-under scandals. He has self-published a dozen books and contributed to many articles on topics ranging from old postcards, railroads, steamboating, and local 19th-century brewers. To date, his most popular book has been Tinhorn Gamblers and Dirty Prostitutes, a colorful history of vice in Council Bluffs, which offers a glimpse at the city’s exploitation of prostitutes in the late 19th century.

“The highlights are always the lowlifes,” Roenfeld says. “People like hearing stories of cowboy shoot-outs in the street. People think the Old West happened in Arizona, but this area was really the archetype for every Wild West trope.”

The popularity of Western depravity was also obvious to Roenfeld’s publisher, The History Press. Roenfeld’s latest book, Wicked Omaha (not to be confused with David Bristow’s book, Dirty, Wicked Town [Omaha], published by Caxton Press in 2000), looks closely at “Hell’s Half-Acre,” Omaha’s red-light district in the 1880s.

Hell’s Half-Acre stretched from the Missouri River to 16th Street and from Douglas to Cuming streets. The city portrayed in Roenfeld’s Wicked Omaha makes all the stereotypes of Deadwood seem trite.

“People don’t realize that anything went in Hell’s Half-Acre,” Roenfeld says. “It was a different Omaha, when the saloons ran all night and strangers were victimized by every scheme going, all right downtown, nothing secret about it. Brothels were illegal, but ran in the open. There was drug addiction, suicide, and systematic exploitation. Prostitutes paid ‘fines’ monthly to keep operating. If they couldn’t pay, the city gave them a few weeks before they were hauled in front of a judge to either pay up or get shut up.”

Wicked Omaha made its debut Thursday, March 9, at the UNO Criss Library’s Read Local Author Showcase. Roenfeld plans to present his book at Omaha’s W. Dale Clark library May 6. The book is sold at The Bookworm, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and elsewhere.

Visit arcadiapublishing.com for more information.

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

Hopelessly Devoted

April 14, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

At 63, John Erickson looks like he could still put a sleeper hold on a steer. If possessing the intimidating presence of a Midwestern hit man is a hurdle to getting acquainted with someone, it is a blissfully low one.

“I admit it is a barrier, looking like a bouncer or a cleaner, that kind of thing,” Erickson says, musing on the subject of first impressions at Caffeine Dreams where he’s a fixture, even lending his mug to a Joshua Foo photo exhibit on faces.

Tough though he may be, Erickson is also a healer, a licensed therapist trained in suicidology. He “tends the garden of the mind” at Bergan as well as doing risk assessments in “jail settings.”

In this stressful, post-9/11 world, our understanding of brain function has increased dramatically.

Much of that time Erickson has been on the front lines. One might expect a suicidologist to be morbid, but nothing is further from the truth.

“We have much greater understanding of brain function today and it’s well established that when our system gets stressed, we can reach a tipping point,” says Erickson. “And we live in very stressful times.”

From contentious politics to the carnival of souls that is Facebook, stress is omnipresent.

“Studies have been done of children growing up in poverty, where their neurological systems show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Erickson, whose wife is a fifth grade teacher.

“She teaches in a school with a lot of poverty, and it does have an effect. It takes a compassionate response based on understanding and respect. Walk a mile in someone’s shoes before you judge or criticize them.”

Police and medics are called for mental illness related welfare checks that can end tragically, but Erickson believes mental illness first aid training has been paying off in Omaha. 

“Credit to the Omaha Police Department for handling things. A lot of times, they have no idea what they’re going to walk into or what the response is going to be,” Erickson says. “I’ve just recently had police respond to a patient of mine who was distressed and they handled it exceptionally well. There are more and more police officers understanding mental illness.”

Training mentally ill patients to call attention to their psychiatric conditions during crisis helps forestall tragedy, says Erickson, who is not just an advocate for others, but himself as well.

“There are different levels of mental illness. It is very common. I have attention deficit disorder. It’s a lifelong condition,” Erickson says. “We all have a tipping point…and as the mind goes, so goes the body. Some have neurological systems that are over-reactive or under-reactive to stress. Anytime we feel threatened—physically, socially, intellectually, or emotionally. There is a segment of the population with mental illness that just has a very difficult time handling stress.”

Helping others can cause stress as well. John recently came off medical leave for compassion fatigue. Insurance issues left him feeling “like he was driving down a winding road with faulty brakes.” Knowing that feeling personally is one reason John has trained in suicidology.

“Suicide is the heart attack of mental illness,” John says about why he keeps going. “I’ve had an opportunity to have patients who are more than patients; they’re friends. I care about them. It doesn’t always work out, but it does have an effect.” 

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New Beginnings on Park Avenue

May 8, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It wasn’t until Dave Wingert was in his 20s that he learned, that, like himself, his father had been an actor and radio personality. And it wasn’t until that time that he learned the full circumstances surrounding his father’s death. He had committed suicide the day Dave was born.

“I inherited his talents to a T,” Wingert says. “I also inherited his melancholy.”

In December 2014, Wingert had his suicide planned. He’d recently been let go from KOOO when the station changed formats—he’d served as morning host since his departure from KGOR in 2012. He was in the middle of a run of A Christmas Story at the Omaha Playhouse. He was going to have to leave his downtown condo. He couldn’t imagine leaving it.

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When the Playhouse show closed, he thought, he’d just leave altogether.

He started writing letters to his friends. And then he realized he couldn’t do it.

“It leaves such a wake,” he says. “I have friends who have people they’re still missing. You can’t do that.”

So he opened up to his friends. He started looking for a new place. After combing through numerous apartments downtown, he walked into a lofty apartment in The Unitah Flats, an Urban Village Development property at 29th and Leavenworth streets. There he found his new home.

“This place really was a life-changer,” he says. “To start a new chapter, your environment is important.”

The City of Omaha might agree. It approached Jerry Reimer and Scott Semrad, owners of Urban Village Development, in 2011 to come up with housing solutions for a four-block section at and around Park Avenue and Leavenworth Street—a notoriously difficult intersection plagued by drug activity and buildings in various states of disrepair.

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“It was a hard project,” Reimer says. “The buildings were in awful condition.”

Urban Village, established in 2008, had been avoiding Park Avenue in its work to renew multifamily housing in Midtown; once it decided to tackle the project, the only real place to start was with a blank canvas. The buildings were gutted. Roofs were replaced. Buildings originally designed to contain specific numbers of units—which, over time, had been divided up to include more units—were outfitted with only the number of units intended.

The goal was to marry the best new-construction amenities—granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, lofty ceilings, washers and dryers, walk-in closets—with Midtown character; exposed brick walls, wood floors, and, especially, well-working windows.

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Reimer was careful to say the project, while respectful of the buildings’ history, wasn’t about historical preservation.

It was about a better future.

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Wingert’s apartment in the Unitah is filled with things from his previous home—contemporary chrome and glass tables, a grey sofa, wood, and glass storage pieces. The walls are studded with vibrantly hued art and wall sculptures mostly done by local artists and friends. Twelve-foot ceilings and 8-foot colonial doors in crisp white gave him an airy space to fill.

“Everything found its own home,” Wingert says.

Several of his windows overlook a landscaped courtyard that’s part of the development; the others offer views of the neighborhood streets.

“I can sit at my computer or on my couch and watch 20- and 30-somethings walking their dogs outside,” Wingert says. “It’s a village. I feel that energy in the building.”

Of course, the hope now is that future improvements will come to Park Avenue—commercial and mixed-use space both. Reimer said the Park Avenue project couldn’t have happened without the model Mutual of Omaha’s Midtown Crossing created; he’s encouraged now by emerging developments like the Blackstone District.

“I hope it will come down to Leavenworth,” Reimer says. “It’s a big dream, but I think it could be the new Dundee someday. And if Park Avenue and Leavenworth can be successful, there’s not a project in Midtown that couldn’t be successful.

For now, for Park Avenue and Leavenworth, and for Wingert, things are beginning.

“Right now, I don’t need anything,” Wingert says. “Things have to move forward or move back. The nature of Omaha has gone away from the center and it’s starting to come back.

“I love it here,” he says. “I love making a difference in the city. This is my home.”

It’s all as it should be, he says.

“The universe always takes care of you.”

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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.

Bipolar Disease

November 25, 2012 by

“My husband didn’t know if he was going to come home to Cruella Deville or Dolly Levi from Hello Dolly.” That’s how Jane Pauley, broadcast journalist and former co-host of the TV morning show Today, described her battle with bi-polar disease in a interview on Healthy Minds, produced by New York Public Radio. “Who knows what provokes it, but it was like a swarm of bees that wants a target,” she says.

Being diagnosed with bipolar disease was a shock, recalls Pauley, but getting a diagnosis and subsequent treatment, however, allowed her to regain some normalcy in her life again.

Bipolar disease is a serious mental illness that is associated with extreme mood swings from mania to depression. “It is one of the most serious illnesses we deal with because of the disruptive nature of the disease,” says Sharon Hammer, M.D., psychiatrist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC). “It is more serous than depression or schizophrenia because it can lead to risky behaviors, such as drug and alcohol abuse, damaged relationships, and suicide. And because of the impulsive nature of the disease, there is often no time to intervene.”

The average onset of bipolar disease tends to occur in older teenagers and young adults ages 20 to 25 years old. “Many women may start to experience symptoms of depression in their teenage years followed by their first manic episode in college,” says Hammer. “This is a very risky time because the college years are often mixed with stress, sleep deprivation, and alcohol use, which are all triggers for episodes.”

“It is one of the most serious illnesses we deal with because of the disruptive nature of the disease.” – Sharon Hammer, M.D., psychiatrist at UNMC

Women with bipolar disease typically spend about 80 percent of the time in depression and 20 percent in mania. Episodes of mania are characterized by abnormal elevated moods that include irritability, being easily agitated, impulsivity, racing thoughts, and insomnia.

Many women tend to be in denial and don’t start taking it seriously until they have children, notes Hammer. Even then, it is often misdiagnosed as depression or anxiety due to the extended depressive states associated with the condition, and the fact that women are twice as likely to have depression than men. In fact, bipolar disease is the most under-diagnosed mental illness and the most challenging to diagnose, notes Hammer.

Misdiagnosis can create more problems because medications used for depression and anxiety are different than those used to treat bipolar disease and can make the condition worse.

In addition, untreated bipolar disease tends to gain momentum and become more malignant with time, says P.J. Malin, M.D., a psychiatrist with Alegent Creighton Clinic and an associate professor of psychiatry at Creighton University School of Medicine. “It can be very disruptive to other parts of your life. Approximately 60 percent of people with bipolar disease will develop substance abuse problems, and it carries a 15 to 20 percent suicide rate.

“Early treatment of the disease can help prevent the disease from getting more aggressive. Untreated bipolar disease, on the other hand, lowers one’s life expectancy by 10 years.”

If you are being treated for depression and are not responding to depression medications or you are experiencing negative or an unusual response, it is important to communicate this with your provider, adds Malin.

“Early treatment of the disease can help prevent the disease from getting more aggressive.” – P.J. Malin, M.D., psychiatrist with Alegent Creighton Clinic

You can also do your own test by taking the Mood Disorders Questionnaire (MDQ) online, which provides fairly accurate results and can help you and your clinician determine whether you are bipolar, notes Hammer.

Environmental factors and heredity appear to be the major risk factors for bipolar disease, says Malin. “There are different theories as to how the environment plays a role, but they include: obstetric complications, intra-utero viral infections, use of hallucinogenic drugs, and traumatic life events, such as the death of family or friends or abuse.”

Treatment typically involves a combination of medications and counseling that may be necessary over a person’s lifetime. “Counseling is huge for long-term success and stabilization,” says Robin Houser, a counselor for Nebraska Methodist Hospital’s employee assistance program, Bestcare EAP. “Bipolar disease is a lifetime problem, and counseling can help people learn coping techniques and avoid unhealthy thinking and unhealthy patterns of behavior. A lot of people think that once they have become stabilized that they don’t need medications or counseling anymore, but that’s when we’ll start seeing imbalances and manic episodes occur again.”

Women with bipolar disease are very sensitive to stress, lack of sleep, and environmental and seasonal changes, all of which can trigger an episode, notes Hammer. Practicing healthy lifestyle habits like getting regular exercise, adequate sleep, managing stress, and light therapy during the winter months can help keep the disease stabilized.

 “Counseling is huge for long-term success and stabilization.” – Robin Houser, counselor for Nebraska Methodist Hospital

Postpartum is also a common time to experience recurrences, probably because of sleep deprivation, says Hammer. There are medications that are safe to use during pregnancy, which are important to take to prevent a relapse. If a woman stops her medications during pregnancy, it can take up to six months to get the symptoms under control again, says Hammer.

“Newer medications as a whole have fewer side effects,” she says, “but it’s important that you are matched with the medication that works best for you and has the fewest side effects.

“Patients who are being followed and treated by a trained health care professional can function vey well and live a normal life.”