Overcoming PTSD: Veterans in Memphis struggle with trauma of war

Charley Williams puts on his bulletproof vest and walks outside to complete his mission.

Williams, 43, thinks he is on active duty, but he is only leaving his home to patrol his neighborhood street.

“I just started to cry,” he recalls about the incident.

Williams’ post war symptoms are typical of people who experience a trauma or life-threatening event. They can experience jumpiness, upsetting memories of the event and lack of sleep, all  symptoms more commonly known as PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. About 19 percent of returning service personnel suffers from PTSD, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Williams was diagnosed with PTSD in 2005.  He and a few other men hit a roadside bomb while he was serving in Iraq.  The bomb left him without feeling in three of his fingers, nerve damage in his right arm, and severe hearing loss.

The two other men involved in the incident received Purple Hearts three weeks after the bombing, but Williams had to wait three years. Williams, who is black, blames the color of his skin as the reason for his extended wait.

“I never understood that,” Williams said. “That kind of hurt me a bit. It hurt tremendously.”

Audio by Taylor Means

Williams said his emotional stress led to increased levels of PTSD. Some days, he wanted to commit suicide or hurt someone else.

Williams credits his new wife Erika Williams, who he met in 2008, for helping to make his condition better. She is a nurse at the Veterans Affairs in Memphis, and because she works there, understands his symptoms, orders his medication and takes him to his appointments.

Though Williams hasn’t been employed since his accident in 2005, he began college at LeMoyne-Owen in 2012 before transferring to the University of Memphis in 2015. Now a senior human service’s major at the U of M, Williams said he is motivated by school, his children, and his faith in God.

“I hurt everyday, but I keep on pushing,” Williams said.

Ex-Marine Tony O’Brien, who has been back in Memphis for almost 10 years,  also understands the pain of combat.

“There were a lot of hard moments when you have to go funerals, when your brother dies in your arms,” O’Brien said.

However, his most difficult memory from 10 years of service is not a lost soldier.


Graph by Kristina Vitsenko.

“We were at a roadblock, and the car didn’t stop, so we turned fire on them,” O’Brien said. “We fired upon the car; the car did not fire on us.  There was a father, an uncle, and a little girl sitting in the backseat.  The little girl in the backseat got killed.”

There are four different types of symptoms with PTSD, and they must all be present for a minimum of a month before they start causing problems in daily routines, according to data provided by the VA’s National Center for PTSD.

When veterans suffer with PTSD, local non-profit organizations such as Alpha Omega Services, which was founded in 1987, can help veterans reintegrate into society. The organization offers counseling services and help with employment.

Rodanial Ransom, an assistant director at Alpha Omega Services, said overcoming PTSD is all about how people cope. Veterans who are diagnosed with PTSD often struggle with telling people they have the disorder because of the fear that arises within them, he said.

Video by Daisha Dear

“We have people here I probably see twice a month, and I have to go knock on their doors to make sure that they are okay,” Ransom said. “That’s how they cope. They seclude themselves.”

Ransom says that testing veterans for PTSD when they are discharged would decrease the amount of social problems they eventually experience. He said mandatory testing would encourage veterans with PTSD to go back to school or to generate an income.

“When you were growing up, did you have that uncle everybody thought was crazy because he was in a war?” said Ransom, who is also a retired Navy veteran. “Instances like that. That’s what makes them afraid to say ‘I have PTSD.’”

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About the Author

Omer Yusuf

When he’s not reminding his fellow Memphians about it never being cold, Minnesota native Omer Yusuf is the sports editor at The Daily Helmsman, the University of Memphis independent student newspaper. Yusuf has also interned at The Commercial Appeal, Memphis’ largest daily newspaper. Yusuf loves sports, but he wants to assure the world he’s more than just a sports mind.

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