Pam and Larry Barfield, holding their granddaughter, Rileigh, and their family are dealing with Larry's post-traumatic stress disorder, a result of a tour of duty in Iraq, with the help of NAMI.
LEESBURG — Larry and Pam Barfield are one of those long-time married couples who didn’t grow apart over the years. They were high school sweethearts who started dating Pam’s junior year, got married eight months after she graduated and have been together since.
That’s 32 years for those keeping score.
So when Larry returned home from a six-month deployment to Iraq in March 2007, a deployment during which he spent his time trying to detect and defuse improvised explosive devices planted by the Iraqis, Pam immediately knew something was wrong with her husband.
“I saw the change in him right away,” Pam Barfield said. “As soon as he got home, I knew he was dealing with stress in a way he never had before. He had panic attacks, and things like sudden noises really affected him.”
Larry Barfield was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a common malady among soldiers and others exposed to events that result in psychological trauma. Unlike many of his brothers-in-arms, though, he sought treatment early rather than trying to sort through feelings that had turned his life into a living hell.
“I didn’t really want to see a doctor at first; that was a hard thing for me to do,” Barfield said. “I felt like a wimp, felt like I was going against everything they teach you in the military. But I kept having flashbacks and panic attacks. And when I started back to work (at Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany) and saw all those shot-up vehicles, it just got worse. I knew I couldn’t go on like this.
“Pam and I decided together that I’d get treatment.”
AMONG THE LUCKY
Today the Barfields count themselves among the lucky. Larry’s insurance and his standing as a veteran afforded him an opportunity to get treatment from the Veterans Administration and from private doctors.
Pam, meanwhile, was introduced to the local National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter that’s not only helped her cope with Larry’s disorder, it’s trained her to help others who find themselves in similar situations.
“We were a lot more fortunate than many veterans,” Pam Barfield said. “Larry had treatment opportunities that many can’t get. And when we realized that he would need long-term treatment, I knew I was going to have to find something to help me.
“There were no VA-sponsored family support groups for people in the situation we were in. I’d been looking for several years when a friend suggested I check out NAMI. That turned out to be such a blessing; I don’t know what I might have done if we hadn’t found them.”
The Barfields’ story is one of those fairytales-come-true that started when Larry’s family decided they’d rather move South than continue fighting the frigid cold of Chicago. They had relatives in the Dawson area, so they settled there.
Pam and Larry met at Terrell Academy and their high school romance blossomed into true love. A short while later the two were married.
Larry worked with a local tractor dealership for a period before being hired for a civil service position at Fort Benning in Columbus. He later transferred to the Marine base in Albany. In between having and raising their three daughters, Pam worked with Family and Children Services for 23 years.
SEEKING HELP NO DISGRACE
When he was 28, Larry joined the Naval Reserves, serving for 16 years as a SeaBee. (“We’re the ‘dirt sailors,’” he said.) He was called on to serve active duty in 2006, and after training at the Naval Construction Battallion Center in Gulfport, Miss., Larry shipped out for Iraq and Fallujah, where he and others in his unit tried to “stay one step ahead of the Iraqis and their IEDs.”
“We tried to come up with ways to counter what they were doing with those explosive devices,” Barfield said. “We’d make a change, then they’d make a change. It was always back and forth like that. There was never a time that we weren’t under pressure.”
After a period of debriefing, Larry went back to work at the Marine base in Albany. The anxiety that had hounded him since his return home intensified as he worked with the military equipment sent to the base for repairs.
“I’d see that shot-up equipment, and I’d have flashbacks about being (in Iraq),” he said.
Pam insisted that her husband seek treatment.
“The challenge was to convince him that seeking treatment was not a character flaw, that it was not a disgrace,” she said. “So many guys, especially those with a military background, feel they must gut it out rather than admit they have issues. And the longer someone waits for treatment, the worse it gets.”
As Larry’s outlook improved, Pam desperately sought some kind of support group to help her deal with the impact her husband’s PTSD was having on their family. Her first visit to a NAMI-Albany meeting proved to be just what she was looking for.
“The minute I walked into that first meeting, I knew this was going to be helpful to me,” Pam said. “Everybody didn’t have the same problems we had, but everyone had similar situations. They all could relate, and I think that was the key. They didn’t judge me; I knew I was no longer by myself.”
ONE SUCCESS STORY
The National Alliance on Mental Illness is the nation’s largest nonprofit grassroots mental health organization. It has more than 1,000 chapters throughout the United States and Puerto Rico, including 28 in Georgia.
NAMI-Albany President Jere Brands said the Barfields’ issues were atypical locally, but she said the organization considers their experience a success story.
“It’s really encouraging when we have people like Pam who find what they’re looking for through NAMI,” Brands said. “The need for support for family members with PTSD hasn’t particularly expanded locally, but I think as more of our military personnel come home from war we’ll see more and more seeking help.
“There is a general stigma associated with mental illness, but that’s especially so with the military. And it’s even more difficult when, as a recent New York Times article indicated, military doctors are apparently underdiagnosing PTSD, calling it instead a ‘personality disorder.’ It has to do with the ongoing cost of treatment.”
A short while after Pam Barfield became a regular at NAMI support group meetings, she took the organization’s Family-to-Family course and eventually continued training so that she could become a facilitator.
“I wanted to help others; it’s as simple as that,” she said. “One of the things Larry and I both said as he was undergoing treatment was that we both wanted to know if there was some way we could help others going through what we were going through. We feel like we’re doing that now.
“I don’t know what we would have done if I hadn’t found NAMI.”