By Navy Safe Harbor Public Affairs
Washington, D.C. – A Navy officer diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) shared his personal experiences with PTSD. Lt. Chet Frith was diagnosed with PTSD in 2011, after returning from a one-year deployment to Iraq as an Individual Augmentee (IA).
“I used to be part of the problem,” Frith recalled. “I didn’t believe PTSD was a real condition, and honestly, I thought people were making it up.”
He currently serves as a non-medical care manager for Navy Safe Harbor, the Navy and Coast Guard’s wounded warrior support program at Naval Hospital Jacksonville, Fla.
“After spending a year in a combat zone, you can’t return the same person,” Frith said. “Your brain is wired differently. You experience so many close calls that you become emotionally numb. In combat, that numbness, as well as demonstrating constant vigilance, makes you brave and strong. When you return home in that mindset, you are considered abnormal.”
Frith first noticed possible symptoms of PTSD one month after his return from Iraq. During a family visit to Sea World, he felt overwhelmed by the crowds and confined spaces. Soon, he began experiencing disturbing nightmares, and nearly every excursion outside his home became mentally exhausting because he could not relax.
Frith described his struggle with PTSD during the early months of his transition as “isolating.”
“Because I was deployed individually – as an IA – and I returned on my own, I felt isolated,” he said. “I didn’t come home alongside service members who could commiserate with my experiences in Iraq. After deployment, I usually stayed in my home because there were so many triggers – a loud noise, a strange car on the side of the road – that would bring on stress.”
Frith credited Dr. Tracy Hejmanowski with helping him identify and begin treating his PTSD. Hejmanowski is a clinical psychologist at the Naval Hospital Jacksonville Deployment Health Center.
“PTSD has become a lay person’s term that unfortunately conjures up images of disgruntled and out of control vets,” said Hejmanowski. “When in fact, these incredibly resilient men and women are persevering through much heartache that comes from guilt, regret, shame, grief, or fear, yet they continue to do amazing things. They are some of the most compassionate, loyal, and humble people you will ever meet.”
Hejmanowski said treating PTSD often results in remarkable personal growth, and the journey to recovery is long only if treatment is avoided for too long. In addition to established evidence-based treatments for PTSD, she noted various practice-based treatments that have demonstrated a great deal of promise, including horse-assisted therapy, PTSD service dog training, expressive arts, grief processing, and community and veteran volunteerism.
In November, Frith received Gunner, a PTSD service dog from a nonprofit organization. He said during the past few months the golden retriever has blended in very well with his wife and children, who share his strong attachment to the dog.
“Gunner has my back when we go out in public,” Frith said. “Having a dog also forces me to interact with people; strangers approach me in public to learn more about Gunner. And that helps remind me that there are good people out there, people who aren’t going to hurt me and my family.”
As a Navy Safe Harbor non-medical care manager, Frith provides assistance to seriously wounded, ill, and injured Sailors and Coast Guardsmen, as well as their families. His caseload includes service members located throughout the southeastern United States.
“Lt. Frith is an outstanding non-medical care manager,” said Kendall Hillier, assistant operations officer at Navy Safe Harbor. “He is caring, thoughtful, and always on top of things. I think many of the wounded warriors in his care open up to him more readily because of his experiences.”
Frith said his work with Navy Safe Harbor has been rewarding, and, in many ways, healing. He feels a special connection with service members undergoing treatment for PTSD; sometimes, his wife will share her experiences with the enrollees’ spouses.
Despite efforts within the military community to increase understanding of PTSD, both Frith and Hejmanowski agreed that a stigma about the condition and those diagnosed with it persists.
“The stigma remains somewhat because in military and warrior culture, strength and bravery are most important,” said Hejmanowski. “Contrary to what some believe, PTSD is not a failure to deal with traumatic events – it is simply what war does to our sense of self-identity and our humanity. I’ve worked with some of the most highly trained and experienced warriors who have made peace with their demons from war and came out stronger from the process.”
“The military has recognized the need to provide access to care for PSTD without fear of reprisal, and I’ve seen it work firsthand,” she added.
“In my work, I see so many Sailors, Soldiers, and Marines who wait to seek help for PTSD until so much has happened that their lives are turned upside down from divorce, legal trouble, or problems with their commands,” Frith said. “I want to encourage them to get help. PTSD is a beatable illness, and it will not kill your career.”
“If anything,” Frith said, “PTSD has made me a stronger person.”
For assistance or resources related to PTSD, service members are encouraged to contact the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury Outreach Center at 866-966-1020; the FOCUS (Families OverComing Under Stress) Project at www.focusproject.org; or the National Center for PTSD at www.ptsd.va.gov.
For more information about wounded warrior care, service members should contact Navy Safe Harbor at email@example.com or 877-746-8563. They also can visit the program online at www.safeharbor.navylive.dodlive.mil.
For more news from Chief of Naval Personnel, visit www.navy.mil/local/cnp/.