On July 4, the United States celebrates 241 years of freedom. The 13 colonies signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, but went on to battle the British army for another five years. This was the first of many wars Americans would fight to preserve freedom at home and across the world.
PTSD: freedom from oppression
By Mark Stoller
Millions have served and fought in the U.S. Armed Forces, and not everyone came home in one piece. The overt wounds of war are evidenced by lost limbs and those who gave their last measure. The invisible wounds of war are equally devastating. They have been described by many different names: shell shock, war strain, combat exhaustion, battle fatigue, and currently PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Deployments to combat zones are intense each day; the personal stakes are exorbitant, and the risk of death is at every turn. Service men and women learn to operate at an incredibly high level of vigilance, focus and tension to accomplish their daily missions. According to Aspen Pointe Behavioral Health in Colorado Springs, Colorado, 20 percent or 300,000 of the veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from a spectrum of trauma disorders and related depression.
PTSD is a term used quite frequently in print and conversation, but not well understood. Per the National Institute of Mental Health, the human body responds to a threat by going into “flight or fight” mode during a traumatic experience. It releases stress hormones, like adrenaline and norepinephrine, to give a burst of energy. The heart beats faster. The brain also puts some of its normal tasks, such as filing short-term memories, on pause. PTSD causes the brain to get stuck in danger mode. Even after danger subsides, the brain stays on high alert. The body continues to send out stress signals, which lead to PTSD symptoms such as disturbing flashbacks, trouble sleeping, emotional numbness, angry outbursts and feelings of guilt. Many sufferers avoid things that remind them of the event. PTSD interferes with life, making it harder to trust, communicate and solve problems; which can lead to problems in relationships with friends, family and coworkers. It also affects physical health.
There are many resources available to combat veterans suffering from a spectrum of trauma related symptoms. One common theme runs through the countless testimony of veterans who have sought help: They could not do it alone or run from the demons inside. To readjust to post-deployment life, the veteran and the family members must acknowledge there are emotional and physical changes in their loved one. They must desire to seek help. Assistance comes in the form of individual, group and family therapy and the devotion of service animals.
The Veterans Administration addresses PTSD on its website. There is a thorough description of recommended therapies and information on VA medical centers in the United States to help the veteran in need. They suggest the veteran seek “evidence-based” medication and therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (talk therapy); cognitive processing therapy (managing the emotions from distressing thoughts); prolonged exposure therapy (coping techniques for the distress from memories) therapy; and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (emulate rapid eye movement sleep brain activity, allowing the brain to process the traumatic events).
Seeking help is the first step of a recovery process. The Colorado Springs Vet Center at 602 South Nevada Ave, can enable the veteran’s journey to healing. Austin Wilmarth, the Colorado Springs Vet Center outreach specialist said, “The entire staff consists of the director, five counselors, outreach specialist and office manager. We are 100 percent veteran.
“Each one of us has served in either the Air Force, Army, or Navy; and most all have combat experience from Bosnia through Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Veterans seeking assistance will be met by another veteran who can relate to their experiences and help them begin the healing process.
The Vet Center counseling services are free and focus on post-combat readjustment to civilian life. Veterans who have served in combat operations, experienced military sexual trauma, served as an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle crew, first responders and/or served in Mortuary Affairs receive priority attention. Austin said, “No one — active duty or veteran — is ever turned away when seeking assistance. We can have, on average, up to 50 walk-ins per month; and currently assist over 300 active clients.”
Vet Center counselors guide the adjustment through talk therapy during individual and group sessions, outdoor recreation and will soon offer EMDR. Taking care of a veteran’s family is equally important and essential. Counselors at the Vet Center offer additional services such as bereavement counseling for surviving family members and close friends. Family and marriage counseling is provided by a counselor with Special Forces experience.
“The real selling points of the Vet Center are the free services, fellow combat veterans who can relate and understand and the key concept of confidentiality,” Austin said. “Unless there is concern for personal safety, the assistance and services provided at the Vet Center remain local. No individual or organization within the Veterans Administration or Department of Defense will know a veteran received help, if there is concern about maintaining employment or security clearances.”
The VA also sponsors a website called Make the Connection to “connect” veterans with other veterans and family members who have shared combat and homecoming experiences. The site also provides a locator for local veteran readjustment resources, programs and assistance.
In one video on the site, Mike, an eight-year marine and military policeman with two combat tours in Iraq said, “Just because you leave a war zone doesn’t mean that your war is over. It’s not. It’s tough for a Marine to admit, but I was anxious about asking for help. It was the best thing I ever did. It’s not just for me and my family, but I feel I owe it to my fellow Marines to get my stuff squared away. I owe it to those who didn’t come home at all.”
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On any given day, one can find Rudy Welch at Meadow Lake Airport in Falcon, Colorado. Welch, age 90, has owned and operated American Aviation Inc., housed at the airport, since its inception in 1972.
90 years old and flying high
By Breeanna Jent
The organization’s official website describes it as a “full service Fixed Base Operator … and Cessna Pilot Center;” it is the oldest continuously operating airplane maintenance shop and flight school in the region.
Welch speaks modestly of his career. “It’s normal work; it’s like everything else. You kind of just stay after a while,” he said.
Although he is a longtime resident of Cimarron Hills in Colorado Springs, the airport is a second home to Welch, a father of two and grandfather of one. Welch is there so much that he has to be prompted to take a day off.
“He’s there seven days a week,” said Natalie Mielke, his office manager, who has worked with Welch for 10 years. Recently, she convinced Welch to take a hard-earned day off to celebrate Memorial Day, and the two spent the holiday at Territory Days in Old Colorado City in Colorado Springs.
Welch has spent 45 years — half his life — with American Aviation, offering flight training, conducting aircraft rentals and sales and performing aircraft maintenance. He is assisted by a small team, but as a certified Airframe & Powerplant mechanic, “Rudy really does most of it,” Mielke said.
With a quiet demeanor, Welch recounted his lifetime of aircraft experience.
“I’ve worked at airports for the last 60 years, and I did the same thing in the service,” Welch said. “I used to build planes, but don’t anymore. I do still fly from time to time.”
Born in Wallins Creek, Kentucky, Welch grew up in Texas and Tennessee. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1944 at the tail end of World War II, and began working with planes as a civilian in 1946. He joined the U.S. Air Force in 1950 and did aircraft maintenance; later, he served in the reserves until 1963 when he retired.
His close friend Frank Macon, an original member of the Tuskegee Airmen, has known Welch for more than 50 years. He met Welch at the Colorado Springs Airport during Welch’s time as the airport’s flight instructor and chief pilot.
Like Mielke, Macon speaks fondly of his friend, reminiscing about the first time they met in the 60s. Macon, who learned to fly during World War II but was a civilian at the time, had been attempting to fill up a flat tire on his airplane.
“Rudy comes up, talking to me about how I might need to learn how to fly,” Macon said. “I kind of laughed and went along with him. I brought my plane out of the hangar, taxiing it around. This thing had a 42-foot wingspan and a 300-horsepower engine. It made a lot of noise. I hadn’t intended on flying it, so I filled up my tire and put it back in the hangar. Rudy says to me, ‘Well, I guess you don’t have to learn how to fly after all.’”
While Macon doesn’t make it out to Meadow Lake Airport as often these days, he still sees Welch from time to time to assist with aircraft sales and other day-to-day operations.
“We’ve had a great friendship, and we’ve always been good buddies,” Macon said.
Even at 90 years old, Welch continues to pass the Federal Aviation Administration’s rigorous medical exams, which are required to continue flying.
“He still has his pilot’s license, he still teaches; he does maintenance and flight review. I’m so comfortable going up in a plane with him; I don’t think I feel comfortable going up with anyone else,” Mielke said. “He’s just amazing. I just adore him and I’m not going anywhere. Rudy is my best friend in the whole world.”
People are welcome to visit the airport and take tours of the hangars or the aircraft itself. Mielke also invited visitors to picnic and observe the aircraft above.
In celebration of American Aviation’s 45th anniversary, the organization is hosting an open house July 29, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the Meadow Lake Airport. The event —and the food — is free.
Meadow Lake Airport is at 13539 Judge Orr Road in Peyton, Colorado. Visit http://americanaviation.net for more information.