SCHENECTADY -– Jon Fox was 850 feet in the air when his parachute malfunctioned during a 2013 training jump at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
The infantryman in the U.S. Army fell backward onto a downward slope that bore enough of the brunt of the fall to save his life. Years later Fox would learn he’d suffered a severe traumatic brain injury, vertebrae and spine damage, as well as a fractured right hip.
But when Fox landed, he was in such severe shock that he crawled away from the drop zone without realizing anything was wrong. To this day, he experiences night terrors and flashbacks that return him to the moments of crawling away.
Fox, now 38 and living in Hoosick with his wife and 2-year-old daughter, has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, but there is part of him that wishes it wasn’t referred to as a disorder.
“If you were to say, ‘Hey, I have post traumatic stress,’ that doesn’t sound so bad. When you say ‘I have a disorder,’ it’s like there is something wrong with me. And that’s really unfair to say someone has a disorder. It’s kind of like re-victimizing someone,” Fox said.
Fox is part of a chorus of local veterans and veterans organizations that are lobbying to drop the “D” from PTSD. In fact, dropping the D is the rallying cry of Operation At Ease’s 4th-annual Post Traumatic Stress Awareness Ride, which will feature roughly 200 motorcyclists traveling from Spitzie’s Harley-Davidson of Albany to the Nanola restaurant in Malta on Saturday.
“Our whole purpose of this ride is to mainstream the idea that posttraumatic stress is not a disorder,” said Joni Bonilla, Operation At Ease’s founder. “It’s normally called PTSD, and for this ride we dropped the D. A disorder implies that something medically unnatural is happening to your brain, when posttraumatic stress is the brain’s normal, healthy and natural reaction to trauma,” said Joni Bonilla, Operation At Ease’s founder.
Registration for the event, which is using the hashtag #itsnotadisorder, begins at 10 a.m., and the cost is $20 per rider and $10 per passenger. The ride is a fundraiser for Operation At Ease, which pairs dogs from shelters with veterans and first responders and provides a free guided training program for posttraumatic stress and light mobility service dogs.
“We just figured there is no better way to make a lot of noise than ride a couple hundred bikes through town,” Bonilla said of Saturday’s event, which will also feature live music, vendors and raffles. The Riser Motorcycle Association, based in Westerlo, is helping to put on the event.
Michael Hicks plans to attend the ride in his role as co-founder of #HicksStrong, which connects veterans and active duty service members to mental health professionals and covers the cost of up to 24 therapy sessions.
The Clifton Park-based nonprofit, which has helped connect 188 service members in 44 states to 1,350 therapy sessions, came to be after the Hicks family got a call every parent dreads.
Macoy Austin Daniel Hicks, a “ball of fire with a ton of energy,” served in the U.S. Navy from February 2017 to February 11, 2019, according to Michael Hicks, Macoy’s father. Stationed in Washington, D.C. as a rifleman in the Ceremonial Guardsman, Macoy was involved in the services of up to eight funerals a day.
Those grim duties took their toll on Macoy’s mental health, and his struggles continued when he was assigned to the USS Nimitz in Bremerton, Wash, Hicks said. After seeking help and not getting it, Macoy took his own life at age 20, Hicks said.
Hicks said he supports any action that can remove the stigma around people seeking mental health services.
“The stigma that the ‘disorder’ word adds, it can give an individual a feeling that they will never be able to get through their posttraumatic stress,” Hicks said. “The reality is we can work through it, we can adapt and cope with the posttraumatic stress. Dropping the D can, in essence, give hope to the individual that is struggling with it.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs believes PTSD should continue to be considered a disorder.
“PTSD is comparable to other conditions in the (American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual) that also use the term ‘disorder,’ such as Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Panic Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Alcohol Use Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder,” said a VA spokesperson. “PTSD is more than just ‘stress,’ and the term ‘posttraumatic stress’ has no clear scientific or diagnostic meaning.”
The spokesperson rejected the idea that dropping the word disorder will encourage people to seek treatment.
“Some have suggested that using the term ‘post traumatic stress’ and avoiding the word ‘disorder’ would make veterans more comfortable with the diagnosis and with seeking treatment. There is no evidence that this is the case, and it is not likely given the more general stigma about seeking treatment for mental health problems in veterans and non-veterans,” according to the spokesperson. “It is even possible that not using the word disorder would lead to a failure to recognize the seriousness of PTSD and its impact on those who are affected.”
But veterans like Fox disagree.
Fox was connected with Operation At Ease in 2019 after his wife, a licensed mental health counselor, found the Schenectady-based program. At the time, Fox was rejecting a lot of the programs and services being offered, and he felt guilty about collecting military retirement after serving only 3.5 years. At the time of his parachute accident, he was mere months from deployment.
But in Operation At Ease, Fox found a service he was willing to embrace. Bonilla – a professional dog trainer and military spouse – started Operation At Ease in 2015 to help a friend and four-time combat veteran who was struggling with the loss of his pet dog.
Through the program, Fox was given Gunner, a 60-pound mix, and Fox now considers the dog his “battle buddy,” which is a concept he learned in the Army that has to do with having a regular partner who can empathize with the struggles of service.
Now, when Fox is having symptoms of trauma and puts up his hands to hide his face or picks at his cuticles or scabs, Gunner is there to stop him.
“He’ll actually nuzzle me with my nose and get right up in my face so it’s hard for me to keep my hands there,” Fox said.
In a way, the benefit of having Gunner in his life is a simple but significant one – like the benefit that Fox said would come from dropping the D out of PTSD. Both Gunner and dropping the D can work to remove barriers to care and feelings of isolation, Fox said.
“He allows me to go out in the world. I can go out and focus on him if I feel uncomfortable somewhere,” Fox said of Gunner. “He’s allowed me to keep a human life going.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.