Dr. Bob Poston, himself a Vietnam veteran, works tirelessly to assist Bartow's ex-military
More than 30 people — virtually all of whom were either former military or the family of a veteran — gathered at the Bartow County Annex Building at 112 West Cherokee Ave. Wednesday evening.
White, black, male, female, the attendees of the weekly Vet-to-Vet program ran the gamut from Korean War veterans to those who served in Iraq in the 2000s. At one point, they were asked to raise their hands if any of them experienced obsessive compulsive disorder symptoms.
No hands were raised.
They were asked if they experienced major depressive episodes. About half the class raised their hands.
Then they were asked if they experienced post-traumatic stress disorder.
Every single hand in the room went up.
That's something Dr. Bob Poston, a longtime National Alliance on Mental Illness facilitator, knows all too well.
"I knew when I got back from Vietnam I had a mental illness," the 78-year-old Cartersville resident said.
"I got chosen to be an infantry slot, and I only made it about six months until a sniper got me. Being shot and having the Bronze Star for Heroism and being in several battles, I had some PTSD from that, having had to kill people and pack up body bags and that kind of thing. It took its toll."
Poston — who, today, is perpetually trailed by his amicable support services Chihuahua and is almost never seen without his Bronze Star baseball cap — said he started working with NAMI about 10 years ago.
"I have support groups that we run, three of them, as a matter of fact, for just veterans," he said. "And I have two other support groups that meet for family violence and anger management … it started out with just five or six folks. Now there's more than 150 participants."
Poston said his goal is simple — he wants as many local veterans as possible to obtain the benefits they rightly deserve.
"I have two licensed professional counselors that work for me, and of course, we do a lot of assessments," he said. "Normally I do one and the two licensed professionals do theirs and that's how we send the stuff down to the VA for them to analyze and give the people their disability ratings."
The magic number, he said is a 100 percent veterans compensation benefits rate. The amount each veteran receives on a monthly basis hinges on the severity of his or her disabilities. The formula used by the Department of Veterans Affairs is no doubt a complex one, but the gist of it is that the more "service-connected" disabilities an individual may have — meaning their physical and mental hardships were either caused or aggravated by their time in the military — the higher their rating, and thusly, their monthly payout.
And those ratings are often enough to mean the difference between homelessness and homeownership.
For example, a veteran with no dependents who had a 10 percent disability rating, as of Dec. 2017, would only receive $136 in benefits per month.
That same individual, with a 50 percent disability rating, would receive $855 a month. At 80 percent, he or she would get $1,587 in monthly benefits, and with a 100 percent rating? He or she would receive $2,973 a month.
Over the years, Poston said he's seen his fair share of remarkable turnarounds.
"In the last six months we have found soldiers that were living in the woods and we got them out of the woods and into apartments, drawing $3,000 a month," he said. "So we're proud of that."
Poston served two tours in Vietnam. His first tour he served as a convoy commander and on the second, he was a captain. He was involved in what was, at that time, a top secret project — Operation Igloo White, in which the United States used experimental electronic sensors to guide air strikes.
How the times have changed. "Now you can look it up on Facebook and Google," Poston said.
After Vietnam, Poston said the Army paid for his undergraduate degree, his master's degree in human development and, ultimately, his Ph.D. in psychology, which he received in the mid-1980s.
"As I learned more about mental health, I came in contact to NAMI through that," he said. "I got more and more involved — I've probably been involved with them close to 20 years, in some capacity."
The counselor himself has a counselor — Poston said he meets with a board-certified psychiatrist in Rome quarterly.
"I know I've got some control issues and I know I've got to work on it," he said. "So I have to keep it under control."
Poston said the PTSD counseling services he provides revolve around several different therapeutic models. The majority of the people he works with are Vietnam veterans.
"They're still mad because everybody picked on us when we got back from Vietnam," he said. "They got spit on and everything else under the sun."
Some are alcoholics. Two of his regulars are currently in jail. About half of them, Poston estimates, have had some kind of history of family violence. Multiple divorces are the norm, not the exception.
"We're beginning to see more and more of the younger ones," Poston said. "I thought they would be less angry than the Vietnam vets, but that's not so. They have about the same issues we have."
Another commonality, he said, is their disdain for Department of Veterans Affairs services.
"There's a lot of animosity towards them," Poston said. "They all feel like it's them against us. None of them feel like they got the correct percentage. There might be a case or two where somebody may try to exaggerate it, but I just haven't seen that. Every case I've done, they deserve every nickel that they get."
You can see a little bit of that old soldier mentality flare up when Poston's going over things like stressor letters and global assessment of functioning scales — both of which play pivotal roles in getting service-connected disability claims approved.
"We'll keep going at it until we get it," he told his class. "If you try to do it at the VA, it'll take years … we're going to win, we're absolutely not going to lose."
Each of the veterans he works with, Poston said, deals with the trauma of warfare differently.
One soldier can't even talk about his "triggers" without crying. Another was a chaplain who had no choice but to pick up a gun and start firing on the enemy when they began overrunning the special forces. "His morals, he just didn't feel like killing people," Poston said. "He's worked through a lot of that, but it caused him a lot of grief over the years."
There's even one man who has a Combat Infantry Badge, an Expert Infantry Badge and no less than five Bronze Stars.
"He was shot a few times and he still isn't at 100 percent," Poston said. "That's what we're trying to do — get him to where he deserves to be."
Although Poston has seen some of his "clients" follow down a road to ruin, he's also seen many who have changed their lives for the better. Just a few weeks ago he saw an old "patient" who hugged him and thanked him for helping him mend relationships with his family.
"I can't go to Walmart, front-to-back, without running into somebody that's been through our classes," he said. "They just got it back together when they were so far gone. That's just so fulfilling."
Poston recalled a third tour in Vietnam — this one, as a tourist in the 1980s. "I went back over just to resolve some issues," he said.
There, he learned that the Viet Cong had dug a tunnel outside their perimeter, and built their own headquarters directly underneath his own.
All Poston could do was laugh about it. "They were just soldiers doing their job," he recollected. "And we were soldiers doing our job."
That local veterans receive mental health services, Poston said, is vital for all of Bartow County. "It's important for the safety of the community, because they could fly off the handle and hurt somebody or they could hurt themselves and their families," he said.
Poston said he's especially concerned by the lack of mental health care for incarcerated veterans.
"We don't have adequate treatment in jail for veterans with PTSD," he said. "It's just not there, and the jail's full of them."
But that could become Poston's next big cause. Taking cues from a NAMI group in Columbus, he said he would love to be able to provide counseling and other therapeutic services for inmates at the Bartow County Jail.
"That would be something, when we get enough instructors, we might be able to do here," he said. "Which would be a feather in the sheriff's hat and would be a big bonus and a big plus for the veterans that need the service, or the mentally ill people who need the service."