By Conor Roche
Every Sunday evening, the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Hamden welcomes roughly 20 to 40 people for a few hours of social time.
One of the familiar faces at the post is Loreen Lawrence. Lawrence, 54, is involved at the post as the quartermaster, or as she calls it, the treasurer of the post. In the waning moments before the post opens on Sunday evening, Lawrence, a life-long New Haven resident, is making final preparations as she sweeps the floor and puts tables together.
Lawrence is a veteran herself as she served in the National Guard medical unit for 18 years, including during Operation Desert Shield and Storm.
She’s also a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, and she didn’t even know she had it until she was in therapy after she was discharged.
“Even though I had signs and symptoms of someone that had PTSD, I was never treated for it,” Lawrence said, “Though they did note it in my file.”
Lawrence’s mother was the first to notice that something wasn’t right with her and she went to Veteran Affairs to point out there was something wrong. It was there that she found out she had PTSD, making her a part of the 10 percent of Gulf War veterans that suffer from the disorder, according to Medline Plus.
“It came time to where I could use some extra money, so I saw on the board that they had a study going for people who were serving during Desert Storm and people who were activated for Desert Storm and people who were supportive of Desert Storm,” Lawrence said, "After the study, I asked, ‘What part was I in?’ And they said, ‘Oh you’re in the PTSD part.’ I didn’t even know I had PTSD, I didn’t know they had diagnosed me with it. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I just had a different way of doing things.”
Lawrence mentioned the transition period between deployment and regular life as a contributing factor as to why she didn’t realize she had PTSD.
“I was too busy. I had a daughter at the time, I had to go back to work,” Lawrence said, “The type of work I was doing at the time was family support services. So, I was helping women with their children and stuff like that. I didn’t really have the time to focus on me. And then when we come back, it’s back to life as usual. It’s not really a degree thing, to get you ready to go back to regular life.”
Lawrence said the first time she realized she had PTSD was around 1998, which is seven years after Desert Storm. When she was at a camp that summer, something triggered her about her time in service.
“I had to think of what was it that had triggered me to not being able to sleep, to having flashbacks,” Lawrence said.
And then, she remembered.
“So we were going behind the tanks and stuff like that,” Lawrence explained, “When we got to Baghdad, the tanks were flanked and they’re telling us to go before the tanks and I’m like ‘this doesn’t make sense to me.’ So we go down there and you could see the helicopters shooting people in foxholes and stuff and this is like a movie … it was difficult at times.”
Two people died and four people were critically injured, Lawrence recalled.
She also said that during this time, there was no space for women to stay in the “VA hospital.” So, she had to go through one-on-one counseling for roughly 10 years before they made beds available to women because of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
The stresses of her family services job also became too much, making Lawrence quit her job.
“Some of the issues in the family I felt were unfair and the mother was unable to fix it, so I had to advocate for her,” Lawrence said,“I remember my boss at the time saying ‘Loreen, put the sword down, put the sword down.’ Because I would be angry, fighting mad and that's where some of the signs of PTSD started going. My boss said, ‘The war is over, you don’t have to fight here.’”
During the first 10 years after she was diagnosed with PTSD, Lawrence remarked on the hardships she faced.
“For about 10 years I was stuck in my room,” Lawrence said, “I was scared to go out and do things, even though I had three children, but the children kind of ran themselves.”
She also remarked that the first few times she did a 90-day recovery program that would expose her to crowds, it was hard for her. She would also have panic attacks on elevators. She was afraid to share her feelings.
Lawrence wants her story to be an example as to why the transition period can be so rough on veterans.
“One day I was in the sand dune and the next day I was in the streets of New Haven,” Lawrence said, "Only you know, nobody knows that you’re coming back from a war. And they treat you like you never left. And you deal with that with the best of your ability. It’s difficult for a lot of veterans.”
Lawrence is now taking her experience and hoping to spread awareness of PTSD in veterans as she is a part of Change Direction, a campaign that helps people recognize the signs of PTSD.
“What I’m doing now is trying to campaign for the 22 veterans that commit suicide daily in the United States,” Lawrence said. “Somebody came out with a campaign called Change Direction and it’s to aide people to see the signs. If a loved one is talking to you and they’re acting a specific way or they’re saying specific things, these are key words or key things for people that are suffering. You need to let them know, you need to get some help.”
Lawrence wants families of those who are serving and veterans to realize the Change Direction's five signs that someone may have PTSD. Those signs are: personality change, agitation, withdrawal, poor self-care and hopelessness.
“If they need assistance, get them over to the (Veteran Affairs hospital),” Lawrence said, “They have a thing called a vet center, which is a veteran’s readjustment counseling kind of place.”
Lawrence’s ultimate goal is for people to know the five signs so that one person could help save a life and then that person can do the same.
In addition to working on the Change Direction campaign and at the Hamden VFW post, Lawrence is also a post service officer at the Hamden American Legion, where she helps veterans get certain claims to go through.
Even though she’s faced tough times from a result of serving, Lawrence feels that her time in the National Guard was worth it.
“I miss it,” Lawrence said, “Even today, if I could go back, I would.”