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Veterans returning from combat duty face an array of challenges, from traumatic brain injury to missing limbs .
Post-traumatic stress syndrome can have a lifelong debilitating effect if left untreated.
It’s not very widely known in the community, but the Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury offers a six-week inpatient treatment program for veterans who suffer from PTSD.
The Specialized Inpatient Post-traumatic Stress Treatment Program (SIPU) is one of only five such programs in the country for combat trauma. Begun in 1994, the program, which serves 20 veterans at a time, continues to be in high demand.
Dr. Christopher Watson runs the program. A psychologist, he’s been employed with the VA for 19 years and coordinates not only inpatient care for those with PTSD but outpatient care as well.
“Our program focuses on trauma reprocessing,” Watson says. “It’s peeling all the issues back to get to the core of their problem.” The program is specifically for those with combat trauma.
SIPU participants can’t be in immediate crisis, Watson says. Six months of stability is required for admission.
“You have to be stable so you can undergo the rigors of treatment,” Watson explained. “They have to have their head in the game,” he adds, and be able to focus their attention on PTSD. Some come in ready and eager while others are more guarded, Watson says. A willingness for self-examination and change are key, he says. But if basic criteria are met, “we’ll take whoever comes in and find a way to make it work for them,” he says.
SIPU Participants have been in combat situations as far back as World War II. Both men and women attend the program, although most participants are male.
The goal, Watson says, is for them “to be able to put pieces of their lives together and to recover from PTSD,” although Watson emphasizes that PTSD isn’t something that’s cured; rather, the goal is to give veterans tools to help them manage it.
To help veterans deal with their PTSD, they are supported in doing things they normally wouldn’t do, Watson says. They take outings in the community, putting themselves in situations they would usually try to avoid – things the rest of us might take for granted, like going to Concord Mills or seeing a movie in a theater.
Driving is often a stressful activity for those with PTSD.
In Afghanistan, Watson says, servicemen and women are always looking for IEDs (improvised explosive devices), and that heightened vigilance and stress associated with driving is hard to leave behind when they return to the United States.
Participants travel to Washington, DC to visit the war memorials to help them deal with their grief, Watson says.
SIPU participants come from around the country, with most being from the southeast. The application process includes an extensive questionaire and a clinical referral form. Some who participate are veterans; others are active duty personnel.
On a somewhat typical day, participants in the program take part in exercise groups and have community meetings (each group elects its own officers). They also break out in sub-groups called “process groups” in which they talk about their lives on an emotional level, Watson says. There are education groups that cover nutrition, anger management, healthy lifestyles and understanding PTSD, including how it affects their relationships.
Cognitive processing forces participants to examine their basic beliefs, Watson says.
“Trauma changes beliefs and expectations,” Watson says. Beliefs and expectations that might contribute to survival in a combat situation become burdensome when transferred to civilian life. The program, Watson explains, helps people identify and challenge their faulty beliefs and expectations – which can cause them to be isolated.
“Learning and sharing in a group environment is a big part of it,” Watson says.
Partipants learn how to stop isolating themselves and connect with other people.There is even a service dog who lives on the unit – Kimberly, who helps patients feel more relaxed. Kimberly is part of group therapy seassions, assisting by “sensing changes in energy,” Watson says, and going to where she senses negative energy to provide comfort and support.
The program considers patients’ spiritual needs as well, Watson says.
“Part of healing is a sense of a guiding force that gives you a level of hope,” he says, which also helps counter the belief – common among those who suffer with PTSD – that life is essentially random and chaotic.
After going through the program, participants are more comfortable and relaxed, Watson says, and better able to flourish in the real world.
They learn ways to re-enter the world and how to be able to rest at night, he adds.
Addressing PTSD for those on active duty can be a problem, Watson says, since in military culture it’s “not popular to say you have symptoms.”
As a result, the incidence of PTSD is under-reported, he says.
Watson believes that the VA is doing a good job of addressing veterans’ PTSD Needs.
“The big important thing is for people to know about these programs,” he says. “They don’t have to go it alone.
“We just need to make people aware and be sure they’re ready,” he says.
To learn more about the Hefner VA Medical Center’s SIPU program, contact Kristin L. Humphrey at 704-638-9000, extension 4230.

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