Milonas would have liked to stay in treatment longer, but the fall term was beginning and she’d already used up her sick leave. Back in the classroom, she found that the Eastern technique of mindfulness—emptying her head to focus on the present rather than on the past or future—helped her cope with the panic she often felt. With medication, she had stopped hearing the voices of Afghan kids clamoring in her head. And as a result of repeatedly talking in therapy about her war experiences, she was no longer as deeply frightened by street sirens, school bells and fire alarms. “I’m finally learning that no one’s injured that I know,” she says.
A Northwest rainstorm patters on the roof of the Tacoma Vet Center, a brightly lit, low-slung building behind a gas station in a corner mini mall. This is where Milonas continues her treatment with weekly individual therapy and occasional group sessions. We are sitting with her counselor, Debra M. Bretey, in the women’s-group meeting room, a serene space decorated with a framed quilt and spindly-legged chairs upholstered in teal. An air force veteran with salt-and-pepper bangs and a gentle voice, Bretey later tells me that when she starts dreaming her patients’ nightmares, she has to visit her own therapist.
Sometimes Milonas attends the group for male veterans, in their room down the hall, where the chairs are rugged black leather. Women are too nosy, she says, adding that she prefers to be left alone. I wonder aloud if this is code—her way of saying I ask too many questions. “I’m fine,” she replies, with a glance at Bretey. “I have my grip.” Her hands are clasped tight, fingers laced, in a prayerlike position that turns out to be yet another calming strategy. Milonas has learned a number of these tactics.
At home, after school lets out, she listens to a CD of a Native American flute player. To banish bleak thoughts, she burns sage as a cleansing ritual, and she uses controversial thought-field therapy—tapping her fingers on acupuncture pulse points—to help decrease anxiety. Deep breathing and visualization exercises take her to her “safe place,” a cornfield on her grandparents’ Virginia farm where she played as a child.
The techniques often soothe her, but not always. Two years after leaving Menlo Park, Milonas checked herself into a local hospital because she was having thoughts of suicide. She still has them sometimes. “Prayer helps,” says Milonas, who is a non-denominational Christian. “I credit my faith for my being here.
“It’s hard some days just to get up and keep going, knowing the things you’ve given up,” Milonas explains. She lists those things: She would have made full colonel if she hadn’t had to retire in 2005 because of her illness; if she could face night driving, she would still be teaching college-level health and PE courses (“The dark is not my friend,” she tells me); she would have a closer relationship with her grandchildren if they didn’t remind her of the children in Afghanistan. “I love them. But if I can avoid dealing with them, I avoid them,” she says.
The changes are physical as well as emotional; a cocktail of antidepressants has boosted Milonas’s weight by 70 pounds—not easy for a woman whose Special Forces training included a 10K road march with 80 pounds on her back. The drugs might also be partly responsible for the flatness of her affect. She lists her meds: Prozac, Abilify, buspirone and trazodone, plus pain pills for fibromyalgia, an exhausting muscle condition associated with PTSD that is common in women veterans. “I’m a walking drugstore,” she says.
After her 2005 PTSD diagnosis and her retirement from the reserves, Milonas applied to the VA for increased monthly disability payments, which she hoped would enable her to afford more time off for residential treatment. (She was already collecting a small sum for physical problems stemming from her deployment in the first Gulf War: lower-back pain and ringing in her ears.) The Veterans Benefits Administration turned down her PTSD application, saying she hadn’t adequately proved that her condition was related to her military service.