Sunday, September 23, 2012

Then out spake brave Horatius: Get thee some therapy, soldier!

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods?"

From Horatius, by Thomas Babington McCauley

Luis Carlos Montalvan first came across these lines while reading a biography of Winston Churchill. Montalvan was 13, a voracious reader, memorizing McCauley and Poe and Neruda and any other verse that struck his fancy.

"It really fueled my passion for life," Montalvan said. "It also led to a love affair with those teachers who taught me in school."

Luis Montalvan and Tuesday
His parents were well-educated. His father fled Castro's Cuba. His mother emigrated from Puerto Rico. They were well-read and liked to argue about politics.

"My father was a Republican and my mother, a Democrat," he said. "We had lots of discussions. I tended to wear my opinions on my sleeve. At school, kids looked at me, said, 'here's a spirited guy' and beat me up. But I became a warrior and they didn't beat me up any more."

Montalvan's dream was to be a soldier. He grew up in the Reagan era when "the Evil Empire was a true-blue threat." He joined the Army at 17, receiving his parent's consent because he was under-age. He started boot camp in June 1990 just as Operation Desert Shield got started in Kuwait. Desert Storm followed. By the time Montalvan was a trained soldier the following April, the war was over and he wasn't deployed.

But over the course of the next 17 years, he worked his way from the enlisted to the officer ranks and was deployed many times, eventually earning the rank of captain. An explosion knocked him out of action in Iraq. He walks with a cane now, and is aided by a helper dog, a Golden Retriever named Tuesday. But Tuesday helps his master as much with his Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as he does with the physical wounds.

Montalvan joined Iraq War veteran Brian Turner and Desert Shield/Desert Storm veteran Patrick Amelotte at a panel discussion entitled "Active Duty, Active Voices" at the Equality State Book Festival Sept. 14-15 in Casper. Montalvan's book (co-written with Bret Witter) is Until Tuesday: The Story of a Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him. In it, he relates the long journey toward healing his physical and emotional wounds.

As he spoke about his experiences, Montalvan began to recite the McCauley quote above. He stumbled after a few lines. This is caused by an aphasia that stems from his TBI. As Turner and Amelotte took turns speaking, Montalvan brought out a sheet of paper and wrote out the lines of Horatius that he had memorized as a 13-year-old. When it was his turn to speak, he read McCauley's lines.

"I sometimes forget words," said Montalvan. "It's disturbing."

Montalvan has received years of physical and psychological counseling for his wounds.

"I believe in the importance of facing trauma head-on," Montalvan said. "Trauma causes the five stages of grief. It causes physical and psychological suffering. It's impossible to get past trauma by internalizing it."

He encourages every veteran he meets to get counseling. He encouraged everyone in the book festival audience to get counseling.

"When I talk about the value of therapy, that's not learned until one does it," he said. "Here you are in a safe place. What you say is confidential. If your therapist is good, he is there to facilitate you talking about your issues.

"It causes stress to express your journey through pain. It is a release of negative energy. It doesn't really solve anything, but it gets it off of your chest. You sometimes stutter and stammer through these things. But there is a value in what you're forced to do."

Montalvan acknowledged that there is a difference between individual therapy and group therapy. "In group therapy, there's a different dynamic," he said. "Camaraderie builds. There were times when I was in the throes of PTSD and I imagined a whole platoon of friends were behind me. That would give me strength."

The retired Army Captain, who also holds a master's degree in journalism,  notes that writing and speaking have aided in his recovery. He also extols the benefits of journaling, of getting thoughts down on paper. "There's a healing to that."

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