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Symptoms of Traumatic Stress Are Varied, Complex, Says Military Expert

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By Karen Guin

United States Army Col. Jeffrey Yarvis drew from decades of experience in military social work to describe the challenges faced by returning veterans during an information-packed and deeply personnel presentation at UCF.

Yarvis is a decorated officer, a published scholar with a doctorate and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. He currently serves as chief of the Department of Social Work at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center in Fort Hood, Texas.

Approximately 75 military veterans, students, and social work alumni and practitioners gathered to hear him speak at the "Subtleties of Trauma Spectrum Disorders" workshop offered Nov. 6 by the School of Social Work and College of Health and Public Affairs Alumni Chapter.

Yarvis shared data and statistics on U.S. veteran populations, and he showed video clips to illustrate changes in attitudes toward soldiers who are traumatized or grieving. He spoke extensively about the impact of war-related stress on veterans and their families.

"About 80 percent of returning veterans will exhibit some changes in behavior," Yarvis said. "Those who are deployed more than once have a greater chance of a clinical diagnosis."

Some returning veterans experience symptoms commonly associated with traumatic stress, such as fear, anxiety, grief, depression and sleep disturbance. A smaller number exhibit Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which may include physical symptoms and always includes these symptoms: 1) re-experiencing trauma, such as nightmares and flashbacks; 2) avoidance, such as feelings of numbness and detachment; and 3) arousal, such as anger and hypervigilance.

"These are very complex issues for mental health care givers to negotiate," Yarvis said. "It's hard to quantitate these symptoms, and they manifest themselves differently in different people."

Yarvis described his own behavioral changes when he returned home from deployment. He exhibited risky and aberrant behavior, became easily frustrated, and turned to alcohol to deal with his insomnia. Several participants said they found his candidness quite helpful.

"He spoke your language," said UCF student Lyndon Ortiz, a senior in social work and U.S. Marines veteran who served in Iraq until he was injured.

Yarvis is encouraged to see military social work coming into its own as a profession. "I love that UCF has a military program," he said, referring to UCF's Graduate Certificate in Military Social Work program, which prepares master's degree-level social workers to help veterans and their families.

Social work senior Kristopher Vite plans to enroll in the program while pursuing his master's degree in social work at UCF. He is a U.S. Army veteran, and like Ortiz he served in Iraq until he was injured. Both Vite and Ortiz aim to become Licensed Clinical Social Workers so they can work with veterans like themselves.

U.S. Air Force veteran and UCF alumnus Charlie Antoni (B.S.W., '95) is already on the front lines, working as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and palliative care coordinator for the Orlando VA Medical Center. He is educating local physicians and nurses, and he is developing networks of community support that he will help place at the new VA hospital in Lake Nona.

Also on the front lines is U.S. Army veteran Richard Whitten, who works as a peer-support specialist at the Daytona Beach Vet Center. "A lot of the homeless vets I meet have PTSD symptoms, but it's hard to convince them to come in for help," he said. "I've learned a lot today that I can take back with me."

Yarvis concluded his nearly three-hour presentation by commending the participants. "What you are doing is incredibly important," he said. "You are helping veterans grieve and return to their lives."

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