An interview with David Maulsby, executive director of the PTSD
Foundation of America and driving force behind creation of Camp Hope.
STORY BY FRANK JARDIM
PHOTOS BY CAMP HOPE
As a kid, seeing the old men at the Memorial Day parade with the sleeve of their coat or the leg of their suit pants pinned up because they were missing an arm or leg made a powerful impression on me. As I got older, I realized they were veterans of the First World War, the youngest of whom were in their late 70s in 1975. When I saw them, honoring their dead comrades whose names were cast into a bronze plaque on a monument in our town, it made me sad thinking how much harder their lives were because of those terrible wounds. The experience helped me begin to see the real cost of war in the sacrifices that were made by real people. It was obvious even to a kid. As obvious as a veteran’s empty coat sleeve or wheelchair.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to understand that many veterans suffered from grievous wounds that never earned them a Purple Heart like those whose bodies were torn by bullets and explosions from shells and bombs. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is estimated to effect up to 30 percent of military personnel to some degree. The American Psychiatric Association defines PTSD as, “a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence or serious injury.” PTSD doesn’t just affect veterans. People suffering from PTSD often have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experiences that last long after those traumatic experiences have ended. Reliving the experiences through flashbacks or nightmares is common, as are feelings of sadness, fear and anger. The symptoms can leave the sufferer feeling detached or estranged from family and friends, and isolated from people in general. People with PTSD often try to avoid situations or people that remind them of their traumatic experiences, and they may have strong negative reactions to something as ordinary as a loud noise or an unexpected touch.
While PTSD among combat veterans is nothing new to the military medical community, the treatment of it outside of active duty is a rather recent development. In World War I, PTSD symptoms were grouped under the term “shell shock,” and in World War II it was called “combat fatigue.” Its immediate debilitating effects were recognized and treatments attempted to restore the mentally injured soldier to combat effectiveness so he could be returned to his unit and resume his military duties. Whatever mental troubles he may carry home with him after discharge were apparently seen by the military as a private, personal matter outside the interest or responsibility of the government. The proliferation of Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion clubs across America after the world wars may have been a grass-roots, private sector solution for veterans to at least partially mitigate their PTSD. While the understanding company of fellow veterans probably helped, the fact that all these clubs were essentially private bars certainly hurt those vets inclined to self-medicate with alcohol. My uncle was one of the latter.
An infantryman in Europe in WWII, he came home in 1945 a different man. PTSD derailed his promising prewar future. He never married, had trouble holding down a job, lived in poverty and ultimately drank himself to death alone in a run-down apartment. What happened to my uncle was a terrible waste. He loved his kin, and at least they loved him back. They clearly thought more of him than he did of himself. As I got older, I started to recognize my uncle in other veterans. Jumping to the present, the cost of failing to adequately treat PTSD among service members and veterans is becoming shockingly apparent to more and more Americans.
For me it happened a few years ago, when an acquaintance who worked for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox (a man in a position to know) told me that active-duty military personnel were committing suicide in increasing numbers. To my disbelief, he informed me that every day, some soldier, sailor, marine or airman killed themselves. Just that week, a young soldier, recently returned from a deployment in Afghanistan and living in the pleasant, suburban-like on-post housing, got into a seemingly inconsequential argument with his wife and afterwards walked out the door, put a gun to his head and killed himself in the front yard.
By the end of 2018, the official reporting showed 321 active-duty military suicides for the year, but when the Reserve and National Guard components were added in, the deaths rose to 584. Since then, the reported suicide deaths indicate things haven’t really improved. They’ve actually gotten worse overall. Suicides weren’t tracked before 2001, so we don’t have a concise picture of how things were in pre-9/11 wars, but the fact is the increasing suicide rate has alarmed leadership in the military and Department of Veterans Affairs. As heartbreaking as this trend is, it pales in comparison to the rising suicide rate of post-9/11 discharged veterans. Last September, an official study reported that in the 20 years from 2001 to 2021, 30,177 active-duty personnel and Iraq/Afghanistan veterans died by suicide. In the same period, only 7,057 service members were killed in combat. You read that right! Four times as many active-duty and veteran military personnel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan died by their own hand than were killed by the enemy in combat operations.
This epidemic of suicide is a tragedy that can be halted and reversed, but it seems unlikely the Veterans Administration is up to the enormity – and complexity – of the task. Fortunately, many private charities have emerged to reach out to veterans suffering from PTSD and help them get the treatment they need to get their lives back. However, the reality of limited resources means that often the vets suffering the worst cases of PTSD are the least likely to be treated. Camp Hope was established in 2012 as a rescue beacon for those veterans who need help the most. My interview this month is with David Maulsby, the executive director of the PTSD Foundation of America (ptsdusa.org), and the driving force behind the creation of Camp Hope.
American Shooting Journal Tell me about Camp Hope.
David Maulsby Camp Hope is focused on saving those veterans most at risk for suicide, the hopeless ones who feel the world has given up on them. Our goal is to reduce veteran suicide to zero. No veteran is too far gone from their PTSD to be saved. There is a way back and we’ll show you. We don’t get the easy cases. We get the hardest ones. Typically, our veterans stay with us from six months to a year at Camp Hope’s interim housing and treatment facility. We usually have 60 to 75 vets in residence on the 5-acre campus under the care and supervision of our staff. We work with them and their families to help them heal from the effects of combat-related post-traumatic stress. We aren’t drugging them up and sending them out the door like the VA. They are with us to get their heads right again. We take a whole-person approach to healing. Many veterans struggle with their sense of purpose, identity and self-worth when transitioning back to civilian life. They often carry tremendous anger and guilt associated with what they saw and experienced. Camp Hope offers a safe space for veterans from across the country to heal through group lessons and support sessions, individual mentoring and life-skills training needed to transition back to civilian society. The veterans in our program pay nothing to participate in it. All our funding comes from the donations of private citizens and our corporate sponsors. We’ll even get them here if they have no means of transportation. Nobody comes to Camp Hope riding a winning streak. Most of the people we accept are at rock bottom and not getting much sympathy from society as a whole because of their anti-social behaviors. In addition to their PTSD, most of them have addiction problems, which often result in legal actions against them, civil and criminal. They can’t hold a job, pay their bills, or relate to people in the civilian world in a normal, positive way. Commonly, they are estranged from their family and friends who can’t understand or deal with their seemingly erratic, sometimes violent and frightening behavior. They’ve abused drugs and alcohol, been fired, evicted, divorced, failed as parents, lived on the street, and sometimes committed crimes and been arrested. It’s heartbreaking, how often they’ll say something like, “My family is better off with me dead.” The symptoms of their PTSD isolates them and about 66 percent have already attempted suicide at least once.
It’s the untreated mental health issues caused or aggravated by PTSD that are driving the bulk of this suicide stuff. It’s human nature to fight to live. To want to destroy yourself is against human nature. You have to ask yourself, “What happened to this person to make them want to destroy themselves?” Remember, these veterans once proudly served their country in time of war. Supposedly, our society holds that among its highest honors, but that isn’t how these veterans at risk of suicide feel.
ASJ What is the Camp Hope experience like for vets? DM It becomes their temporary home. Vets are assigned a private room in one of our townhouses and they live, eat and sleep here. For the first month they stay on campus, blocked out from the outside world, to focus on their recovery, which in most cases involves addressing drug addiction, or alcoholism, or both. You can’t be drunk or high and recover from your PTSD. If they were getting any treatment from the VA, our staff nurse and pharmacist will carefully review all the medications they were prescribed there. A vet might start the program on 10 to 15 VA-prescribed medicines, and almost every time we find that several are working against each other. We work with them to help them make good decisions about the best prescription plan for them. The guy that starts the program on 10 to 15 meds often leaves needing only a few or none. That’s not a benchmark of success for the Camp Hope program. It’s just the natural outcome of caring about our vets and treating the health of the whole person. They finish with us not needing so many meds because they’re leaving healthier people. The heart of the treatment program is the peer-to-peer mentorship our staff provides. They are veterans themselves who have gone through combat, suffered with PTSD and recovered in our program. They get weekly training from professional psychologists and psychiatrists to learn to counsel and mentor others and lead support groups. In addition, helping others helps the mentors cope with their own challenges, especially sobriety. They can teach it because they’ve lived it. It’s a fight for them, just like it is for anyone. We aren’t a substance abuse rehab program, but it’s part of what we need to do to treat PTSD. Our success rates are actually better than addiction rehab programs. One of the big reasons guys stay on with us as mentors is that they’ve suffered the experience of returning home and not being understood, and they know how it leads to some dark circumstances. Our society says it values veterans but doesn’t understand them. When vets become mentors in our program, it gives them a new sense of purpose. Remember, military personnel dedicate themselves to serving their country when they sign up.
That’s their guiding purpose. When they are discharged, their duties to the nation are discharged too, but you can’t discharge a person’s heart and soul and purpose for being with a document. The last phase of the program is about transitioning the veteran to return to society. We serve both the vets and their families. The last month is when we work on reintegrating the recovering veteran with their family. Sometimes it’s been years since they were together as a family. In many cases the family has adjusted to working without them, and maybe works better. The reintegration with family is a delicate step. We teach the family members about boundaries, coping skills and safety plans to help them understand and deal with what’s ahead. In the last month vets can go home on weekends to ease their way back into their place within the family. Think of how wonderful it is for those family members when the person they loved and feared lost forever comes back to them ready to be a responsible husband, parent and valued member of the workforce again.
ASJ What do the vets admitted for treatment learn at Camp Hope? DM We teach them what PTSD is, coping skills, personal and peer accountability, breathing exercises, and how to manage their emotions. They are taught to set aside their emotions and anger so they can think through the things that happened to them. Since our vets are formally diagnosed with PTSD on entering the program, they are seeing licensed professional counselors on a weekly basis. What we’ve learned from this is, it is not uncommon for vets in our program to have other underlying traumas unrelated to their combat experience. I’ve mentioned substance abuse already, but in addition to that, we’re finding trauma from child abuse and sexual abuse that took place long before they ever put on a uniform. Any of those traumas alone can result in PTSD, and then you add the horror of war on top of it … from a mental health standpoint, this type of thing isn’t going to be a quick fix. It’s no wonder the VA failed so many of these veterans most in need. I’ll say point-blank, in many of these cases, what the VA is doing to our veterans is damaging and not helpful at all. We hired a full-time psychiatrist to be Camp Hope’s clinical director to help us work with the VA. He watches what the VA is doing to our 70 sick veterans. The VA is watching over thousands of sick veterans, so you can see why it’s important for us to monitor them. I already mentioned our full-time nurse/pharmacist.
ASJ How do you find the vets? DM Sometimes they find us, but mostly it’s through referrals. Sometimes it’s a family member reaching out to us on the vet’s behalf, or a fellow veteran who knows about us, or someone at the VA, or the veteran courts. Texas, like many states, has a jail-aversion program for veterans that allows them to expunge their criminal record in certain cases if they can straighten their lives out. The Texas program lasts two years, and the veterans must check in with their case supervisor regularly, but it surely beats the alternative of going to jail.
They are supervised for a two-year period to make sure they aren’t relapsing into substance abuse or crime. Camp Hope can’t sweep a veteran’s crimes under the rug, of course. Part of recovery from PTSD is taking personal accountability for your life. We’ve had vets in the program with warrants against them. When they recovered, they had to answer to the court. Some guys went to jail, but they were ready to take responsibility, pay their debt and get on with a healthy life.
ASJ There are clearly a lot more veterans in serious trouble with PTSD than you have the space and resources to help at Camp Hope. How do you decide who gets accepted to the program? DM It’s tough. We do screening, including a review of their DD214 military records to determine that they were in the military and had combat experiences. We will accept veterans in need from all branches of service, and all eras. We had a Korean War veteran, and many Vietnam vets come through Camp Hope. To participate, vets also need to have a formal PTSD diagnosis. If they don’t, we arrange for them to see a doctor to get it. Veteran women are not currently in our Camp Hope residential program, but they are involved in our outside warrior and first responder therapy groups.
ASJ The Korean War ended in 1953, and combat operations in Vietnam ended in 1975. Is there evidence that veterans from those conflicts that have lived this long are committing suicide from PTSD? DM Yes. There’s anecdotal evidence that many returning vets suffered PTSD in earlier wars, but either you got over it yourself, or it got you. Those were the days when the military sent you home expecting you to work out your mental health issues on your own time. Data on veteran suicides wasn’t systematically collected before 2001. You can understand why a veteran’s family wouldn’t want a suicide reported too. But take a look at the 2021 VA report on suicides and you’ll see there were between 5,500 and 6,800 a year every year for the last decade. That’s about 60,000 suicides. They reported the largest segment of that, around 38 percent (approximately 23,000), was in veterans aged 55 to 74. War is a young man’s work, so I believe that 23,000 figure could include a lot of Vietnam veterans. I’ve seen unofficial estimates that 300,000 Vietnam veterans have died by suicide over the past 50 years, which is four times the combat deaths in that war. The ratio is similar to what’s going on today with Iraq and Afghanistan veteran suicides … but it took 50 years to get to that number! It seems the suicide problem is worse with Iraq/Afghanistan vets than it was with the Vietnam generation.
ASJ How big a role does faith in God play in recovery? DM I didn’t mention this before because I didn’t want anybody who is struggling with their relationship with God to be turned off from seeking help at Camp Hope. I am a Baptist pastor, so it’s actually my job to bring the message of God’s love to those who need it. There is nothing that God can’t heal within us, and a lot of veterans suffering from PTSD have benefitted from sorting out their relationship with Him. It’s a big boost to a person’s sense of self-worth when they recognize that God loves them and would never give up on them. We are a faith-based program, but nobody has to agree to any faith to be treated and there is no discrimination. We can and will help you if you are an atheist.
The VA is scared to death to talk about faith. I am not. For believers, faith gives purpose to life … does it not? Damaged faith has to be repaired too for the whole person to recover from their PTSD. We’ll ask our vets, “Where was God when the traumas that caused your PTSD happened?” I’ll tell you something I learned while counseling them for 10 years. Not one veteran that has come through Camp Hope would have said they were an atheist before they went to war. They became an atheist because of what they saw in war. They usually say, “There cannot be a God with this horrible stuff happening.” They claim to be atheists, but then they say how angry they are with God for letting the horrors they witnessed happen. Well, how can they be angry with God when they don’t believe God exists? Obviously, they do believe God exists. When they think that through, they’ll admit there is a God, but they hate him because of the terrible suffering and evil they have witnessed. “Well, get in line,” is what I tell them, and we think and talk it through. War is what men do to each other, not what God does to man. Our hope is that after they work through everything they can with us, we can help reconnect them with their faith system.
ASJ How many vets has Camp Hope helped? DM Over 1,600 vets came through since 2012. We have 70 vets currently. Our recovery rate is excellent. We can’t confirm some outcomes because we’ve lost touch with some of them, but I know of only 10 who we have since lost to suicide. Those lives were precious to us. You don’t spend six to 12 months with a person and not connect to them as human beings.
ASJ What other programs does PTSD Foundation of America have for veterans who need help but maybe don’t need the magnitude of care you provide at Camp Hope? DM We still do what we did before we built Camp Hope. We operate veteran support groups across the country where vets can talk peer-to-peer to work through their PTSD. When Covid-mandated lockdowns made face-to-face support groups very hard to organize, we added Zoom support group options so those vets that couldn’t participate in person could at least be there online with each other and our counselors. We operate a free PTSD veteran crisis line 24/7. We are there for you anytime of the day or night, and a phone call or text away. The number is (877) 717-PTSD (877-717-7873). I also host the Road to Hope live radio program Sunday nights at 2 p.m. on AM 950 KPRC in Houston. When we are live, we take questions from our audience through our Facebook page at facebook.com/ptsdusa. Each week we feature the story of a veteran’s journey to recovery. We have five years of stories online. The same episodes are recorded and available online as a podcast for people outside the local listening area. (Go to spreaker.com/show/road-to-hope-radio to find episodes online.) Through the Road to Hope broadcast, I reach out to those currently serving and military veterans and their families, with real, practical help. We understand that when a person serves in the military, their family serves along with them. Our show is designed to be both informational and inspirational.
ASJ What are the obstacles PTSD Foundation of America faces to achieving their mission? DM Our society honors veterans in principle, but when they come home, more often than not, they come home to a society that’s basically forgotten about the fact that we even had people at war. A lot of civilians still don’t understand what PTSD is. It may be that our relatively easy 21st century lifestyle and humanitarian values has made Americans more vulnerable to PTSD in the last 22 years. Historically, it was probably less prevalent in harder times and among people who lived with life and death traumas all the time. But there’s no doubt that PTSD has always been with us. If you read the Psalms of David in the Bible, you’ll find David described as suffering from symptoms that PTSD vets are suffering today. I’m talking David the shepherd boy, who fought and killed the Philistine Goliath and saved the Israelites. That wasn’t all he did. The text says he killed tens of thousands in subsequent battles.
To do combat stuff all day every day like military personnel in a war zone, your brain has to rewire itself to do what you have to do to survive. The PTSD is when the brain can’t rewire itself back to normal civilian life. On patrol in Afghanistan, the soldier comes to see every plastic bag left by the road as a potential deadly IED. Back home in the shopping mall parking lot, it’s probably just somebody’s garbage they didn’t bother to throw out. In Afghanistan, children might be strapped with bombs for suicide attacks. At the playground in the city park in your hometown, that is certainly not going to be the case. In Kabul, a crowd of people could easily conceal Taliban gunmen waiting for the right moment to ambush you. Outside the movie theater in your hometown, that crowd of people are just hanging out waiting for their show. In war, the mind becomes hyperaware. Paranoia and fear of crowds are survival mechanisms, but they are anti-social behavior in peacetime. People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping and feel detached or estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person’s daily social and family life. Unfortunately, to the uninformed civilian, the PTSD symptoms make the veteran look like a jerk or a nut-case, and naturally, they are shunned, which further aggravates the veteran’s feeling of isolation and depression. When PTSD veterans try to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs, things always get worse for everyone involved.
ASJ Camp Hope is free for the veteran, so where does the money to run it come from? DM We get the $7 million general and administrative operating budget we need annually from private donors, both individual and corporate. Our annual electric bill alone is 18 to 20 percent of that G&A budget. Some of our major sponsors include Comcast Cable, iHeartRadio, and Greystar, which is the world’s largest apartment management company. We couldn’t have even gotten Camp Hope off the ground without the expertise and generosity of Greystar.
On the individual level, it’s lots of small donations from caring people that make a big difference. Recently, we became part of the AmazonSmile program (smile.amazon.com) and started to see about $12,000 per quarter from it. People who shop at smile. amazon.com can help fund us at no cost to themselves just by buying the things they would normally buy. Amazon will donate 0.5 percent of eligible purchases to your favorite charitable organization. We appreciate everyone who chose PTSD Foundation of America as their AmazonSmile charity. We are a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit and all donations are tax deductible. Anyone who wants to get involved by making cash or in-kind donations can reach us directly at (832) 912-4429 or info@ptsdusa .org. Our website (ptsdusa.org) has a lot of information about how people can volunteer with us too.