Pa. nonprofit seeing fewer veterans with physical injuries, more with ‘invisible’ PTSD
In 2010, when Paul Spurgin founded Keystone
Wounded Warriors, most servicemen who sought his help had obvious
scars from the war zone.
“When we started out, basically, the severe, the amputees, the sniper
shot, the head shot, those kind of folks” were the people coming to
Keystone Wounded Warriors, Spurgin said.
Since then, there’s been a shift.
Spurgin said his organization, which helps about 250 veterans
annually across Pennsylvania, sees fewer severely wounded cases, but
more veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain
injuries. “And those are the folks the public is not doing
fund-raisers for,” he said.
About 85 percent of the people Wyomissing, Pa.-based Keystone Wounded
Warriors helps each year suffer from PTSD and/or TBI, Spurgin said.
He believes veterans with those afflictions don’t draw the same
charity as those with amputations and physical injuries, and
speculated that’s because PTSD and TBI are invisible.
Also, he said, servicemen suffering with those afflictions have a
hard time asking for help.
“The hardest part about running this kind of organization,” Spurgin
said, “is these warriors don’t want to come out, they don’t want to be
Dr. Roger K. Pitman, a doctor at
Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at
Harvard Medical School who specializes in post-traumatic stress
disorder, said many people can’t understand it if they’ve not been
“A lot of people are ignorant about it,” he said. “They don’t believe
it still exists. They look at someone and they say, why can’t he just
get on with his life? If I was him, I would.”
But it’s not that simple.
While PTSD and TBI might not have visible symptoms, there is a
visible change in the brain of someone who has suffered such an
injury, Pitman said. He said more needs to be done in the United
States to get servicemen who experience PTSD and TBI the help they
“I think we need new treatments,” he said. “And there are not enough
After serving in the military for 13 years, Rick Wilks doesn’t regret his service.
But he wishes life after the service was less difficult.
The Penn Township resident is one of an estimated 40,000 veterans
living in York County, and one of millions of veterans in the United
States living with post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, between 11 and 20 percent of Iraq
and Afghanistan veterans suffer from PTSD.
A few years ago, Wilks had only himself to take care of. Now, he is
married, and has a 1-year-old son and a stepdaughter to care for. He
knows he’s not the only one who stands to lose something if the
post-traumatic stress disorder gets the best of him, or if he can’t
contribute to his household.
Wilks said a friend of his committed suicide after returning from the
serving overseas. Although Wilks doesn’t know for certain if PTSD was
a contributing factor in his friend’s suicide, the possibility alone
“People don’t understand,” Wilks said. “If you haven’t been over
there, it’s hard to deal with all this stuff.”
Wilks said he talks to a psychologist and a therapist about his
concerns, including his inability to sleep. He said he is aware of his
PTSD, but sometimes it’s difficult to manage.
Loud noises bother him. “I go to the gym and it’s horrible. Some of
the guys have no idea. They just throw the weights around.”
He has the same reaction to noisy trucks.
“It’s hard to get used to the noises,” he said. “It reminds you of things.”
The smell of diesel is bothersome, too, and “sets off your senses and
reminds you of stuff, like the vehicles and explosions” in Iraq, he
said. “It reminds you of all the stuff you’ve seen and done.”
The most difficult part of living with PTSD, he said, is the effect
it has on his family, especially when he is watching his son, Liam.
“There are days when I’m watching him, and it’s not his fault, but
the button gets pushed, and I’ll need to put him in his crib for 5
minutes,” Wilks said. “It’s like anything can set you off, and it’s
not his fault.”
In addition to PTSD, Wilks lives with physical ailments as a result
of his service. He called Liam a “miracle,” and explained that he was
told some of his experiences in Iraq had affected his fertility. He
said he was treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center
after he returned from Iraq, and he and Trish were able to conceive.
He has had trouble finding work since he’s returned from overseas,
and that adds to the stress in his life.
Spurgin said many service members want the opportunity to be
productive members of society when they return home, and a key part of
that is finding employment. Spurgin tries to put veterans in touch
with resources to help them get a job.
Wilks said he used to feel alone, living with the PTSD and physical
maladies after returning from Iraq.
But when Trish became pregnant in 2011, the family reached out to the
Keystone Wounded Warriors, and they were introduced to Spurgin.
Through the organization, Wilks met other wounded veterans who have
had difficulty transitioning post-war.
In April, the Wilks family attended a day for wounded service members
at Hershey Park, which was sponsored, in part, by the Keystone Wounded
Spurgin said he doesn’t treat the veterans he meets like they’re
statistics, and even when they’re done receiving help from his
organization, he doesn’t call them “graduates.”
“These aren’t alumni, these are families,” Spurgin said.
He said when Trish Wilks first called for help when she was pregnant
with Liam, the organization purchased a changing table and a crib for
“We try to do practical solutions,” Spurgin said. “It’s personal.
We’ve earned the trust and respect of the individuals.”
With the troop draw down in Afghanistan, Spurgin said he expects his
work with Keystone Wounded Warriors to continue for years.
“We were told that … if the war ended today, that our services
would be needed for another 30 years,” Spurgin said, noting that
figure is a “universal one” referenced by many service organizations.
He said the estimation comes from comparing the lasting affect of the
war in Iraq and Afghanistan to that of the Vietnam War.
Pitman said a key component to PTSD is the distress it causes, and
that is exacerbated by the veteran’s inability to transition back to
life. He said more needs to be done for the service members suffering,
not only for their own benefit.
“It’s a cost not only to the veterans who have to suffer with the
symptoms, but society,” Pitman said.
What is post-traumatic stress disorder?
Post-traumatic stress disorder, which can cause stress or fear in
people even when they’re no longer in danger, develops after a
“terrifying ordeal that involved physical harm or the threat of
wphysical harm,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Symptoms of PTSD include recurring flashbacks, bad dreams and
frightening thoughts; isolation, depression, and loss of interest in
previously enjoyable activities; and being easily startled, having
trouble sleeping, and feeling tense.
Veterans and non-veterans who have endured a traumatic experience,
such as physical or sexual assault, may experience PTSD. Not everyone
who has a traumatic experience gets PTSD.
For more information, visit www.nimh.nih.gov
Programs in the U.S.
Wounded warrior programs in the U.S. include:
Texas Wounded Warrior Foundation aims to raise awareness “to honor, and to empower” wounded veterans in Texas as they transition back to daily life after combat, according to the organization’s website (www.txwoundedwarrior.com.)
The organization provided assistance to veterans who were injured serving in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, specifically helping to defray the cost of living they incur as a result needing to get care for their injuries.
Heartbeat — Serving Wounded Warriors is an organization based in Washington state that helps wounded veterans and their families by providing emergency assistance, including “therapeutic services, support groups and morale-building programs,” according to the organization’s website.
Among the programs the organizations offers are financial assistance, equine assisted therapy, and therapeutic scuba activities.
Ice Stars for Wounded Warriors is an organization based in Massachusetts that assists wounded servicemen by hosting a series of fund-raisers and community events including a hockey tournament and ice skating exhibition.
The organization raised $20,000 during its annual Ice Stars for Wounded Warriors Celebration in April.