In the chaotic, numbing days following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Gene Swisher did what his Special Forces Green Beret training and experience prepared him to do. In addition to being a first responder at the Pentagon, he was tasked as the Officer in Charge for the Pentagon 9/11 Civilian Relief Effort, managing the work of more than 6,000 people.
Within six months, an optometrist friend mentioned potential signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but Gene refused to believe them.
"My initial reaction was denial and I used the excuse that PTSD signs would not show for at least one year after the incident," Gene said. "At the time, one year was the time frame in which the psychiatric community believed it took for PTSD to manifest."
Concerned that his friend might be right, Gene researched PTSD, and soon recognized in himself many of the signs and symptoms about which he was reading. In 2005, a low-flying airplane near his home led to five nights with no sleep and a hospital stay of nine days. An initial diagnosis of bi-polar led to three years of more research, more testing, and the involvement of the U.S. Army Medical Evaluation Board before PTSD was diagnosed - but the initial notice of bi-polar was not removed.
"By the time I was diagnosed by the civilian psychiatrist, the treatment option left was therapy to understand how to better cope with PTSD and misdiagnosis," Gene said. "I knew then I wanted to be an advocate for patients with PTSD, but I did not get completely engage until I retired from the military in 2011."
True to his word, Gene has jumped enthusiastically into advocacy work since his retirement. He has been working with Liberty Baptist Church in Hampton, Virginia to establish a Traumatic Stress Support Group (TSSG). Fittingly, its first weekly meeting will be September 11, 2012. Gene said the TSSG is unique in that it is a holistic support group, and includes support not only for the individual, but also for family and friends.
In tandem with supporting the launch of the TSSG, Gene is also active with Code of Support, Operation Wellness, and the Department of Veterans Affairs National Chaplain Center. "I have learned that there needs to be a driving force to synchronize these efforts to tackled one of the largest problems this nation is getting ready to face," Gene said of the reasons for taking a leading role in advocacy.
His dedication to advocacy was recognized when he was nominated by the National Naval Medical Center to serve as a Peer Reviewer for the Department of Defense Psychological Health/Traumatic Brain Injury Research Program.
"It is an honor to be selected to represent the one million service members believed to have PTSD. I feel that the consumer advocates in all the CDMRP panels make the difference in validating the research conducted," Gene said. "My participation in the chiropractic, pain, and PTSD panels have increased my knowledge and understanding of those areas a hundredfold."
Gene said the unique aspect of PTSD, in which the nature of the research is as much mental as physical, is one of many significant reasons regarding his interest in serving as a peer reviewer.
"Participation as a consumer peer reviewer provides a means for the scientist to get the human impact of the consumer, and helps to shed light on whether or not the research will accomplish its objectives," Gene said. Being a peer reviewer allows me to voice my experience as a consumer/suffer and give my opinion on the receptiveness and impact to the consumer advocate."