Local Marine veteran, James Petersen of Collinsville, shares his story | St. Louis Public Radio

Local Marine veteran, James Petersen of Collinsville, shares his story

Nov 11, 2016

In honor of Veteran’s Day, local Marine veteran and Brown School of Social Work student James Petersen joined St. Louis on the Air to discuss his experience with PTSD and the work he is doing to help other veterans facing similar struggles.

Petersen, who served in Iraq, described feeling some trepidation when he decided to pursue a master’s of social work at Washington University.

“Going into the Brown School, which is definitely a liberal leaning school, school of social work, I was pretty nervous to even admit that I was a veteran,” he said.

Petersen was pleasantly surprised to find that most of his peers were cautious and respectful.

“I never got the typical, ‘Did you kill anybody?’” he said. “They were very respectful.”

In 2004, Petersen’s unit was stationed about 30 miles west of Abu Ghraib when the 60 Minutes story about the prison’s inhumane practices broke. He and his fellow soldiers were immediately ordered to protect the prison, which Petersen explained had turned into a “hornet’s nest.”

When Petersen returned to the U.S., he was just happy to be home for the first few weeks. After that, however, he described having frequent bouts of anger and irritability without understanding why. One of the biggest challenges, he explained, was an overwhelming sense of isolation, of not being understood by the people around him.

With his wife’s encouragement, Petersen began receiving treatment for PTSD from the Department of Veterans Affairs in St. Louis.

“The PTSD clinic at the VA was life-altering,” he said. “I went through about a year of prolonged exposure therapy and cognitive processing therapy, and that made a huge difference in those things that were disrupting my life.”

Petersen explained that many veterans may be reluctant to admit they have a problem when they come back to the States.

“PTSD is, it’s a tough issue to admit that you have because you don’t want to admit that there’s something wrong with you,” he said. “There’s kind of a stigma involved with it still.”

Although Petersen said it took several years to be able to drive down I-270 without experiencing extreme anxiety, he is in a much better place now. He credits this progress to counselors at the VA and has chosen to use his experience to reach out to fellow veterans who may be struggling with similar issues.

“I strongly believe that a lot of those World War II guys, the Vietnam era guys…that they kind of paved the way for post-9/11 veterans to be able to get the care and the access in identifying these issues before they become issues later in life,” Petersen said.

Petersen is organizing what has been described as the “biggest Veterans Day event” in Washington University’s history. U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill and two Marine veterans featured in the HBO documentary “Generation Kill” will be part of the commemoration, which takes place in Washington University’s Anheuser Busch Hall from 6:00-7:30p.m. tonight.  

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.