When he was in Afghanistan, Gary Heckard's mission was to lead his men into battle against the Taliban - and keep them as safe as possible.
Now, he's on another mission - to tell Estherville - and the world, if necessary - of the realities of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A story of Heckard's struggles to cope with PTSD appeared in an earlier edition of the Daily News.
This Tuesday, it was the supervisors' turn to hear about PTSD, its symptoms, and why they as public officials should understand and be able to deal with the realities of PTSD in the workplace.
Gary Heckard, above right, talks with the Emmet County Board of Supervisors about PTSD on Tuesday.
EDN photo by Michael Tidemann
Heckard said his PTSD issues include heightened awareness of everything around him.
"You're on alert the whole time," he observed.
There's also depression and sleeplessness.
While counseling and medications help, Heckard said at this time he still doesn't like going outside the house by himself. Hence, he tries to do things that are repetitious - with habit comes comfort.
And PTSD isn't limited to soldiers, he said.
"PTSD can happen to anyone," said Heckard. That includes victims of car accidents, child abuse or disasters. "It's basically any life-changing event that happens," Heckard said. "It doesn't sit mainly with soldiers."
Heckard said next March he'll get a service dog specially trained to help when he's in a crowd. The dog will even be trained to wake him during nightmares.
Provided through Paws and Effect, a nonprofit organization, Heckard said local families train the dogs for a year and a half to two years before they're given away. "The dog is going to be fully trained, he said.
In public, the dog will be on a leash and have a vest with an identifying card, very much like a seeing-eye dog.
"They're very well socialized," Heckard explained. The family trainers take the dogs to places like the Iowa State Fair and airports. Children are even encouraged to pet them.
Heckard said he'll undergo four days training before he's issued a dog that's trained to even sit under a seat on a plane. And there's no cost to soldiers who receive the dogs which are valued at $20,000.
With a dog, or "battle buddy," Heckard hopes to find life close to normal again.
"My biggest goal is to pave the pay for other soldiers that come in with the same issues," Heckard said.
As a full-time National Guardsman, Heckard helped other soldiers with what they needed. His wife Joan pitched in too as local Family Readiness Coordinator.
Heckard would like to start up a group for returning veterans who want to talk about their PTSD issues. And he's like to go to colleges to tell future leaders about the disorder. And he wants people with PTSD to feel comfortable with telling their employers. "All of us want a job that's steady, that's long-term, not six months," Heckard said.
"The county wants to be supportive of you," supervisor Jon Martyr told Heckard.