MUNCIE, Ind. — Patrick Weber walks into each of his classes on high alert, very aware of his surroundings. After all, it’s how he has been trained.
The 47-year-old social work major at Ball State University is one of 180 veterans taking classes on the college’s campus. He’s also one of about 25-30 students registered with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at the university’s disability office.
Because of this condition, a typical classroom setting can trigger flashbacks to unpleasant events. It’s instinct for Weber to stroll to class with his head down, to keep to himself. Once in the classroom, he secures a spot in the back row. Otherwise, claustrophobia would set in. His leg starts to tremble when he sits down. He will sometimes cover his face with his hands.
And if the teacher shuts off the lights for a PowerPoint presentation, he’s out the door.
“I equate darkness to bad things because bad things happened to me, personally, at nighttime,” he said. “I don’t know what’s on people’s minds. I really don’t think 99.9 percent of the people in this world are out to hurt me, but you still have that in the back of your head.”
PTSD results from experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. Weber received his diagnosis in 2009. According to a study by the Congressional Research Service, he was among almost 29,000 diagnosed that year with a traumatic brain injury, one that occurred from a blast in Iraq.
That same study reported 13,984 new PTSD cases in 2009 among those deployed for at least 30 days during active missions in Iraq. Weber was part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, which lasted from March 2003-August 2010. Other missions included operations Enduring Freedom, New Dawn, Inherent Resolve and Freedom’s Sentinel.
There were 138,197 total cases of PTSD reported within those five missions.
Weber originally had enrolled in the military in 1988 “gung-ho and patriotic,” ready to promote democracy and follow in his father’s footsteps, who was in the service for 25 years. Not a great high school student, Weber added that he didn’t have many options at the time.
The Army stationed him in Germany when the Berlin Wall was taken down. When the terrorist attacks occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, Weber was stationed within the state of New York at Fort Drum, a military reservation. He traveled to Iraq three times: one eight-month, one 15-month and one yearlong term. Within that duration, he witnessed death from both sides. He saw his fellow soldiers lose limbs.
“I know people who . have lost more than just their sanity,” he said.
Being away from home also heightened his anxiety. Every time Weber left his station, he questioned whether he would come back.
The chaos of it all distracted him from his own mental health. He said not taking action about it most likely contributed to the severity of his disorder now.
“I think you could say I probably came back from my first deployment and didn’t have a lot of problems, but I didn’t really seek any help,” he said. “I went on another deployment, and that exacerbated the problem.”
Weber nearly volunteered for his third deployment. He didn’t think he’d survive this one, nor did he care. He was just so emotionally damaged from the first two trips, the third basically was a “death wish.”
GETTING A FRESH START
Weber retired from the Army in 2012, but the effects carried over. Burdened with stress, overthinking and “intrusive thoughts,” he began excessively drinking. His temper was quick.
To build his life back up, Weber registered for college. Getting back into “the real world” was rather intimidating at first. He started off taking small classes at Ivy Tech Community College. But his grades suffered. The atmosphere “was so overwhelming, going back to school after such a break,” he said.
Those challenges made Weber think he would never be accepted to a major university, but a friend’s encouragement prompted him to give Ball State a try. The college campus was only a little more than 20 miles away from his home in Anderson.
Weber did, in fact, get accepted, so he didn’t want to blow this chance. One of the first tasks he completed was speaking with the disability office to see how he could prevent his PTSD from being a roadblock in his education.
Larry Markle, director of BSU Disability Services, said the university makes accommodations for those with the disorder. Like any condition, his department handles each case individually, starting with a face-to-face conversation.
A letter from the disability office encourages professors to provide flexibility for someone with PTSD who might need to leave or miss class. Sometimes, help is provided through priority registration, which would allow the student to be one of the first to sign up for classes. The office also has a Smartpen available for students to check out. The pen has a device built in that can record lectures while the student is writing down notes. Those recordings sync with where the pen hits the paper, so pressing the pen against a specific point will play the recording from that specific time of taking notes.
Weber mainly takes advantage of testing accommodations. He said having the option to take tests elsewhere, or at different times, helps him concentrate more. Those accommodations help more with his large lectures, like his 9 a.m. speech class every Monday.
But Weber finds solace in smaller classrooms. His 11 a.m. policy class Tuesdays and Thursdays with professor Matt Moore is an example. Moore teaches his students to analyze government policies and study social issues. The lessons keep Weber interested because they directly connect him to the social work he wants to do when he graduates.
“Being in his classroom is a lot more comfortable than a lot of other classrooms,” Weber said. “It’s more hands-on. He’ll get right next to you and sit down with you and actually talk to you.”
Moore also has his lights on constantly, which helps Weber. Moore jokes that he just keeps them on so his students won’t fall asleep, though he ensured he would work around any problem Weber faced.
“(Patrick’s) unique in that he has a lot more lived experiences than some of the students we’ve had in the class,” Moore said, adding that Weber is really good about seeking feedback on his work.
“I like validation,” Weber said.
“I like when people want validation,” Moore responded. “It assures we’re on the same page.”
“And we have been,” Weber said. “I really enjoy this class.”
In Weber’s first semester at Ball State, he wasn’t pleased with his grades. He finished the semester with three C’s. Today, in the middle of his fourth semester, he’s already made the Dean’s List twice.
So far this fall, he has all A’s.
NEXT MISSION: GRADUATION
Nightmares can keep Weber awake. When he’s having trouble sleeping, he switches gears, gets out of bed and heads to his computer to do his homework. His wife, Amy, will wake up and help him. She’s going through school, too, so Weber said she understands.
The work is all so he can graduate college and help other veterans who are going through PTSD and are in need of medical and psychological attention. As of now, Weber is set to finish Ball State in 2018, and then he hopes to obtain his master’s degree at the University of Louisville.
Weber’s inspiration is Eric Dungan, outreach specialist with the Fort Wayne campus of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Dungan has worked with Weber through his PTSD. That’s his specialty. He holds the type of position Weber hopes to get when he has earned his degree.
“We’ve talked, and I’ve said, ‘You know, I’m going to be almost 50 years old when I graduate and get my master’s. Is anybody going to hire me?'” Weber said.
Dungan seems to think so.
“Pat’s by far one of the most motivated people I’ve ever met and by far one of the best men I’ve ever met,” Dungan said. “It takes a lot of courage to do what he’s doing, but I have no doubt he’s going to finish it.”
Weber said PTSD didn’t prevent him from completing his later missions overseas, so his condition surely won’t prevent him from completing his next mission.
Weber takes medication to help with the physical challenges associated with his condition: a mood stabilizer for his temper, an antidepressant for his flashbacks, a medicine to limit his nightmares and another one to help his insomnia.
And in the middle of class, when his legs start to shake or his claustrophobia starts to set in, he’s aware. He has more control now than when he was first diagnosed.
“I call this my ‘new me.’ It’s not who I was 20 years ago. It’s not who I was 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s who I am now, and that’s why I decided to go into social work . because I want to help veterans.”
“I think I would be able to help them understand that I know what they’re going through, that there is hope out there.”