HAMMOND — When Michael Vela started losing patches hair after serving in the first Gulf War, his doctor said the likely culprit was post-traumatic stress disorder.

Vela had no idea what that was.

Twenty years later, the condition is more well-known, though Vela, a former paratrooper in the Army, says not well enough. Even now, people he knows tell him he should just get over his extreme anxiety and depression.

“They said you just jumped out of a plane. Yeah, to enemy fire,” he said. “It’s not like throwing a GI Joe off a roof, tied to a string.

“I saw a lot of burned up bodies, charred bodies,” he added. “It was unimaginable.”

Even worse were the things he witnessed back at his military base in North Carolina: fellow soldiers dying in training accidents and suicides, including one who shot and killed himself playing Russian roulette.

Vela, of Hammond, is now using his experiences, as well as the subject he’s studying at Purdue University Northwest, to help other people understand what former soldiers like him are going through. A public relations student, Vela has been sending out news releases and reaching out to various community organizations to raise awareness about PTSD.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan created millions of new veterans, many with heavy psychological scars. Most of those men and women are now back home and in need of mental health care the Department of Veterans Affairs is often unable meet the demand for. An estimated 20 veterans commit suicide every day.

Vela says a good place to start is to teach civilians what those veterans are dealing with. Imagine having to take another life. Imagine killing innocent people by mistake. Imagine watching your friends die in front of your eyes.

Then have some empathy if you encounter a veteran with a short temper or who has a public panic attack or a nervous tic.

Vela, 46, figures he went on more than 100 combat missions during his year and a half in the Middle East. When he returned home, he noticed the hair loss, then the mood swings. He got in fights, acted impulsively, drank a lot.

He’s been married twice yet never shared his bed with either wife. He sleeps on the couch because of his near nightly nightmares.

He admits that it’s often a chore to wake up in the morning, and he sometimes watches the clock hoping the day will just hurry up and end already.

He did manual labor for a time before deciding to try his hand at college. He chose to major in public relations because it would give him an outlet for sharing what veterans with his condition go through on a daily basis.

It’s been a challenge. He’s almost dropped out over frustrations that he’s not performing well enough, only to have professors tell him otherwise. He’s been asked questions only to start shaking and freeze up. But he endured, in part, because, post-military service, he has a new mission.

He wants to not only educate the public how to deal with loved ones who have PTSD but encourage veterans with the condition to get help. He hopes to save lives, like that of a friend from Hammond, who shot himself through the heart four years ago, Vela believes, because of undiagnosed PTSD.

“I don’t feel like I fit into the world. So I figured I should fit into a world I know best, and that’s PTSD,” he said. “I just want to do something to help veterans.”


Health reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.