Iraq war veteran helps others recover from invisible wounds at Emory

Program treats vets with anxiety, depression, PTSD, brain injuries

Michael Yandell deployed to Iraq in 2004 for one of the most dangerous missions in the war: finding and destroying roadside bombs. He was awarded a Purple Heart that year after he was injured in Baghdad while retrieving an old and rusted artillery shell loaded with the nerve agent sarin.

That harrowing experience shook his confidence. About to redeploy two years later, Yandell felt overwhelmed getting his unit ready. He suffered from sleeplessness, obsessed about his unit's preparations and could not express himself well, all while despairing over the constantly shifting focus of the war. Ultimately, Yandell was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was medically retired from the military in 2006 as a sergeant.

Those experiences give Yandell instant credibility in his role as a pastoral consultant at the Emory Healthcare Veterans Program, which treats anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Such illnesses and injuries are common among veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

An ordained Christian minister and a doctoral student in religious studies at Emory, Yandell travels every Wednesday from his home in Athens to the Emory Brain Health Center in Atlanta, where he leads a one-hour group discussion called “Making Meaning of Service.” The veterans chat about the difficulties transitioning from military to civilian life, alienation and their searches for a new purpose after leaving the armed forces. Others divulge the trauma they experienced in combat.

Josh, 30, a Navy veteran from the Atlanta area who asked that his last name not be published to protect his privacy, recently attended the program for help with the severe depression, anxiety and panic attacks he has struggled with since a close friend from his unit died. He went to two group sessions with Yandell and met with him individually.

“Everyone knew that he was one of us, in a sense. There was that common bond. I think that enabled people to open up and truly share a lot,” Josh said. “He struggled. He has dealt with the same demons that a lot of the same people here have. I think a lot of people respect that, at least I did.”

The veterans pass around a pure white selenite stone that signifies it is their turn to speak. Yandell asks them to identify their relationship with the military. Digging deeper, he asks who they are outside the military, what the good life looks like for them, what they want people to know about them and what their best qualities are.

“What I think I am witnessing is people realizing that they are not alone in the feelings they are experiencing and that nobody in that room is judging them,” said Yandell, who is writing about the concept of “moral injury” in his dissertation, or despair over the betrayal of moral values. “In fact, everybody is relating to those experiences. And that is quite powerful.”

The two-week intensive outpatient program at Emory is free for post-Sept. 11, 2001, military service members and veterans. Started in 2015 and funded by the Wounded Warrior Project, it offers talk therapy, virtual reality-assisted therapy, acupuncture and help reducing anxiety and getting better sleep. As many as six patients start the program every Monday. About 500 have passed through the program so far.

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Many veterans who come through the program struggle with meaning and faith after experiencing trauma, said Barbara Rothbaum, a psychologist who leads the program at Emory. Some wonder why they survived while others did not. Some believe they were spared for a reason and must now fulfill a purpose. Others blame themselves or wrestle with guilt for what they did or did not do during the traumatic events they survived. That is where Yandell comes in.

“He has been there,” Rothbaum said. “And he is a kind, gentle person. So he instantly understands whatever they are bringing.”

A native of Union City, Tenn., Yandell joined the Army in 2002 with a sense of patriotism after the Sept. 11 attacks. An angsty teenager, he was also seeking to do something meaningful. Becoming an Army explosive ordnance disposal specialist appealed to him for a few reasons.

“Honestly, it just sounded exciting — and the fact that it was rare to get into,” he said. “I guess it played to my ego. I was 17 years old at the time. My recruiter said, ‘You blow stuff up.’ And that was it. I was sold.”

Now 35, Yandell is bearded and has a ponytail and tattoos. Among them: A large cross in the hollow of his throat, another one on his left hand, the ichthus Christian fish symbol on his right hand and a verse from the Bible, Ephesians 6:12, on his back: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” That verse, he said, means a lot to his mother and is about not hating others.

Yandell wished the Emory program was around when he got out of the military in 2006. His work there has helped him reconnect with veterans.

“I was really discouraged when I got out about how disconnected society seemed from the fact that the war was still going on,” Yandell said. “I am meeting people here week by week. A lot of them got into the military after I left and experienced trauma years after that in the same war. I don’t know what that does for me other than it keeps me caring. It keeps me motivated to keep working.”

Yandell added it is fulfilling to him “seeing veterans receive the care they deserve at the Emory Healthcare Veterans Program, care for issues that I feel were often overlooked by the military and the public when I left the military in 2006.”

More about PTSD and TBI

As much as 20% of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which can be triggered by life-threatening events, including combat, natural disasters, car wrecks and sexual assaults, according to the Veterans Affairs Department. Symptoms can include upsetting memories, nervousness and sleeplessness.

Also common among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, traumatic brain injuries are caused by explosions — such as those from roadside bombs — and can cause headaches, blurred vision, loss of balance, chronic depression, slowness in thinking and problems with concentration. As of September of 2013, 221,895 veterans had joined the VA's national TBI registry.