Missouri guardsman wrestles with post-traumatic stress disorder

Monday, November 10, 2008 | 2:39 p.m. CST; updated 11:12 a.m. CST, Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Donnie Hoffmann works in the main kitchen of Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans' Hospital on Nov. 6, 2008. Hoffmann is a veteran of the current Iraq war.

COLUMBIA — One Thursday afternoon last month, Donnie Hoffmann was washing dishes in the basement of Truman Veterans Hospital.

It had already been a long day. But it was nothing like his days in Iraq.

He wasn't stuck in long-sleeve camouflage on a journey aboard a Humvee driving through 145-degree air. Or on a disturbing search-and-recovery mission amid the remains of the bombing of Baghdad's U.N. headquarters. Or coming home to a flooded tent.

No, he was only doing dishes.

The task is one of a number of duties Hoffmann, 26, performs in the veterans hospital main kitchen eight hours a day, 40 hours a week. His work is part of a Veterans Affairs program called Compensation Work Therapy, which offers veterans a place to sleep, the opportunity to work and the help they need.

And Hoffmann, who enlisted in the Missouri National Guard in 2001 just before graduating from Crocker High School near Iberia, appreciates the help.

Since 2004, when he came back from Iraq — where he volunteered with the 203rd Engineer Battalion (Combat Heavy), building, cleaning and traveling in convoys in Baghdad and Najaf — he has been tormented by post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to "Invisible Wounds of War," a study the RAND Corporation released earlier this year, about 300,000 of the 1.64 million people deployed for the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — officially known as Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), respectively — are estimated to suffer from the disorder. That's about one in five.

Signs of trouble for Hoffmann began in Iraq. He capped off his nerve-racking days in Baghdad that were punctuated with gunshots and mortar rounds by drinking and partying with his fellow troops. But it wasn't for social reasons.

"Self-medicating myself," Hoffmann explained. "Drinking till I passed out."

He brought his bad habits home. After making up his mind to live away from his parents, he slept wherever he could. But he couldn't escape his problems.

He couldn't sleep, so he stayed up all night watching television.

He had major mood swings. He couldn't adjust to other people's schedules. He didn't want surprises.

He didn't like to be in crowds, either. In fact, he was incompatible with anyone other than himself.

"I had in my head what I wanted somebody to do," he said. "I tried to tell 'em military thinking, and I'd just get frustrated with the person, impatient."

His experience was filled with symptoms of the disorder.

When Hoffmann visited Columbia's VA for some help in those days, he was disappointed.

"I kinda blew off the medical help," he said. "They really didn't have anything for me. I was kinda one of the first OIF or OEF people. They didn't know how to deal (with us)."

He went back to Iberia and continued the downward spiral.

In July, he came to the VA again. This time, staffers were able to help him. He enrolled in the Addiction Treatment Program. He has since been taking medicine for the disorder, for anxiety, his inability to sleep and alcoholism. He attends group therapy once a week. He goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

He has also gotten used to sharing his war stories with other veterans. Not only does he enjoy it, but he is convinced it can comfort others.

He said he has been sober since July.

Now, he said, he looks forward to "just gettin' back on track, trying to pick up the pieces I left when I went to Iraq. Just life, college, a career."

Hoffmann plans to go back to college, major in physical therapy and then do "something in the medical field," he said. He hopes to do something that involves "talkin' to people, helping veterans one on one."

Continue to read Iraq veteran Michael Fiscella's story

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