Veterans Affairs psychologist breaks down the mental impacts of combat and PTSD

Kevin Foy
Posted at 4:49 PM, Oct 26, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-26 17:49:31-04

MILWAUKEE — Mental health struggles are not uncommon for veterans. On Monday, an Afghanistan war veteran was shot and killed by Germantown Police officers after he was acting erratic and then shot at police.

His family said he too suffered from PTSD and was not interested in seeking treatment.

For the last two decades, Dr. Catherine Coppolillo has specialized in treating combat veterans at the Milwaukee Veterans Affairs Hospital.

"The vets from Vietnam, the vets who served in Korea, we've always known that they struggled. We learned a lot about how to treat PTSD in the years after the Vietnam vets came back. Most recently, the veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan," Coppolillo said.

Coppolillo said many soldiers go through training that teaches them to suppress emotion, use targeted aggressiveness, and harness anger which works well in combat scenarios.

"The problem is people find that that switch doesn't turn itself back off when you come back to the civilian world," Coppolillo explained.

This makes reintegration into society often difficult.

"A lot of people kind of struggling because they're continuing to use those kinds of combat-sharpened skills. People who tend to respond to things more aggressively than civilians are used to, folks who are having difficulties in their personal relationships," Coppolillo said.

Coppolillo said treatment, especially at the VA, can help with PTSD. However, if PTSD isn't treated properly, vets can slip into a dangerous place.

"What they may find particularly if they have PTSD is that they are apt to over-appraise threat, so you see things as threatening when maybe they're not, and then it's harder to inhibit your behavior and say 'let me think this through,'" Coppollilo added.

She said that's something that leads someone to act out in a violent way, which Coppolillo said is rare with PTSD veterans.

"It's important, I think, to know that most people who have PTSD and who served in combat, don't act out in violence. But for those who do get there, it's a series of increasingly struggling with feeling disconnected, feeling alone," Coppolillo said.

Family of Kevin Foy, the man who was shot and killed by Germantown Police Monday, said he struggled with feeling isolated and resisted getting help.

Coppolillo said she sees that same resistance in her patients too and wants to ensure that resources, whether at the VA or elsewhere, are available.

"We have so many options for care. There are so many kinds of treatment for PTSD that are really effective these days. We want to help create a place where people can come and they feel like they belong, people can come and feel like they're understood," Coppolillo explained.

If you're looking for assistance or someone to talk with you can call theVeterans Crisis Line at 988, then press 1.

For local resources at the Milwaukee VA:

  • Emergency Department is open 24/7, with specialists available to help those having a mental health crisis.
  • Immediate Mental Health Access Clinic (IMHAC): 414-384-2000, ext. 45760. Provides mental health services on a walk-in basis. Open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays.
  • Mental health department:  414-384-2000, ext. 42098

You can also check out Be There For Wisconsin Veterans and Reach Out Wis.