Army Veteran William Fuentes Josephson and Vanessa Janes, RN. (Pictured above)
Iraq Army Veteran William Fuentes Josephson is just back from a Habitat for Humanity “Build” project in Battambang, Cambodia. Josephson’s job was to work with others to build a traditional bamboo house on stilts for a family of four whose former house was not habitable.
Josephson said the experience was deeply meaningful. He said it was amazing to feel useful again and to function as part of a team serving a noble purpose with good and selfless people. The road over the past 20 years that brought Josephson to rural Cambodia has been eventful, but certainly not easy.
Josephson joined the Army in June 2001 and served five tours in Iraq. After fulfilling his eight-year service obligation, he was hired as a defense contractor.
“I started displaying symptoms of PTSD, like nightmares, irritability, sleeplessness, and depression. Even though I was out of the Army, I was still in the same line of work, focused on national security threats and counterterrorism. I found that I was really good at what I was doing and the pay was awesome.
“On the outside, everything appeared normal, I appeared normal, but I hated my job, and I wasn’t happy. I didn’t know where or how to begin processing everything that I had experienced in the war.
“I didn’t know how to process what I had experienced in the war.”
“I felt disconnected from society and I couldn’t relate to anyone. Without even realizing it, I ceased contact with my old teammates from the unit who were like brothers to me. Who could I possibly talk to about all my experiences in Iraq that were clearly classified? Without any solutions to those questions, I focused on keeping myself occupied so I decided to go back to school. “
I needed to find purpose once again
Josephson went back to school in 2010 and earned two master’s degrees, but done with his studies, he was at loose ends.
“I didn’t have work or school to keep me occupied. My PTSD symptoms became more unavoidable. I had flashbacks, my insomnia would keep me up for several days at a time and when I was finally able to fall asleep I would get nightmares and night terrors.
“I started having suicidal thoughts and abusing drugs. I overdosed. I didn’t want to leave my house. I was trapped and the drug abuse only exacerbated my PTSD symptoms. I never imagined I would find a way out of this hole.”
As Josephson describes it, “First things first. The first step in getting out of my hole meant quitting drugs and avoiding any addictive substances. What worked for me was applying logic to my situation. If I am alone, then I should surround myself with supportive and positive people, if I am sad, I should try to make myself happy, if I feel useless and without purpose, then I needed to find purpose once again. I took control of my situation. I wasn’t going to wait for pity or sympathy or someone else to facilitate change in my life.”
Needed to tackle PTSD head-on
Josephson went to VA Manhattan anytime he felt he needed to speak to someone about mental health concerns, such as suicidal thoughts. He realized he needed to tackle his PTSD head-on in a more regimented way and started receiving regular care at the Mental Health Clinic in VA March 2018.
He recalls his anxiety from his first visit to the clinic with nurse Vanessa Janes. “I was crying in the hallway. She just listened, and like the dog whisperer, she got me to calm down. The Mental Health Clinic has been amazing for me.”
Josephson attends support groups located at the Mental Health Clinic. He has attended PTSD 101, Operation Iraqi Freedom and the LGBTQ group.
Josephson spent much of last year looking for work and said he wanted nothing more than to feel like a functioning member of society again and have a purpose.
Once his benefits kicked in, he decided to start volunteering in New York City on community service projects in Harlem and in the Bronx.
“We coordinate with local schools to help out with tasks such as painting classrooms, assembling furniture, building compost and pile bins. I decided to spend my time volunteering while I continue looking for work so that I could network, be productive, and gain experience in the non-profit sector, which has become more appealing to me, the more I volunteer.”
In October 2018, Josephson applied and was accepted to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity to build houses for those in need in Battambang, Cambodia. On return from Southeast Asia, Josephson says he felt incredibly rewarded by this “build” project that allowed him to put aside the negatives of the past.
“I know it helped my PTSD.” Relating to those he was helping was very meaningful. He missed being part of a team. He also feels that the experience in Cambodia afforded him an opportunity to put forth constructive and positive energy into the world.
“The reason I am so candid with my story is because if there is a chance that there is a Veteran out there, that feels how I felt, alone, helpless, hopeless, angry, sad, tortured by PTSD, maybe what I shared will help them in some way. If they suffer from PTSD, I encourage them to enroll at VA and explore all the different treatment options, such as group therapy, one on one, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
“It sounds cheesy, but this journey is not one that should be traveled alone. There is no reason to deal with this alone. There are fellow Veterans that you can find in support groups that you will be able to relate to. Interacting with fellow Veterans in these groups allows us to help each other.”