IRMO, S.C. - The circle of men and women look up at the broad-shouldered speaker with understanding in their eyes as he recounts how his week went. One man shook his head earnestly when he described how he often brought his hands up to waist level and shook them hard when he felt stressed. Others in the group voiced their relief in knowing that their own similar experiences were not unique. They were not alone in this fight.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Michael W. Hutcheson, 133rd Military Police Company, South Carolina Army National Guard, attends this post-traumatic stress disorder management group as needed as a result of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
"I started going to group two years ago after I realized that I had an anger and anxiety problem that I couldn't handle on my own," Hutcheson said.
He has struggled with the disorder along with traumatic brain injuries for more than seven years and both have a large impact on his everyday life. The symptoms affect his role as a Soldier, father, husband and friend.
"I met Hutch when we were in the ninth grade and we have been best friends ever since. There isn't anything that we haven't been through together," said Jason Kyzer, 30."But when he came home from his first deployment, there was something very different about him."
As a SCNG Soldier, Hutcheson deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom four different times between 2008 and 2014. His duties included patrolling an area, training local police and capturing high-value targets. These duties often placed him in combat situations. When he returned home from the most recent deployment in 2014, he made a commitment to getting help for his condition.
Two months after Hutcheson got home from his last combat deployment in 2014, a stranger bumped into him at the Darlington Race Track and refused to apologize. Many physical blows and a set of handcuffs later, Hutcheson woke up hung over in a jail cell.
"I was sitting at my mom's house after I was bailed out of jail for losing my temper with a stranger and getting physical," Hutcheson said."It was at that point that I realized I couldn't be that person."
Hutcheson went to the VA the next day and made an appointment with the mental health department. He also signed up for a post-traumatic stress disorder support group and an anger management group. The war veteran had to admit that he had a weakness that his physical strength could not fix. He said that it was hard to share during group sessions when he first began to attend.
"I didn't want to reveal to these people and to my doctors the dreadful thoughts going through my head and the horrible ways I was treating the people I love," Hutcheson said."I couldn't fathom revealing how vulnerable I was feeling."
Hutcheson also contacted his company commander and told him about what he was experiencing. The commander was able to connect him with South Carolina National Guard resources for those with PTSD.
"The Guard has been my family through it all. Yes, I got help from professionals, but it was the emotional support I got from my brothers and sisters in arms that got me through this hard time," he said. "For quite a few months, there wasn't a week that went by that someone wasn't checking on me."
Hutcheson has gotten individual counseling as needed, and his family and friends have seen the difference the support has made.
"I'm grateful to have gotten my friend back," Kyzer said."He still hasn't told me everything that happened to him over there (Afghanistan, Iraq) but us being able to hang out without an episode is enough for me."
Hutcheson has found others ways, besides spending time with loved ones, to help cope with his combat-related disabilities. He decided to start an organic garden in his backyard after declaring an environmental science major at the University of South Carolina.
Learning that there was a fight to be fought at home gave him a mission. Every day Hutcheson goes into his backyard and carefully tends to his crops.
"The outdoors has always made me feel calm, and being able to tend to something so fragile makes me feel stronger emotionally," said Hutcheson."I also enjoy seeing the fruits of my labor. Too often I feel useless, and gardening combats that."
Hutcheson has found that his Labrador retriever, Samantha, serves to calm him as well and help him control his anger. He said that whenever he begins to get angry, his service dog senses it and brushes against him in an effort to calm and distract him. She also helps his feeling of uselessness because she depends on him as her pack leader.
"I love throwing the ball with Sam and taking her swimming with me," said Hutcheson."Her love and affection makes me feel positive and in control."
Hanging out with friends, gardening and his loving service dog have all benefited him and made the symptoms of his condition less noticeable. His monthly meetings at the VA also help him cope with his post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. In the two years since his redeployment home, Hutcheson has remained on the Dean's List at USC as a full-time student.
"I hate that I had to put my family through as much as I did before I realized I needed help. My advice to other veterans is this: it is painful to reveal that you can't do it all on your own. However, when you are that low, the only place to go is up," Hutcheson said."There are people who love you and many military programs available to help but you have to take the first step and find what works for you."
June is PTSD Awareness Month. The South Carolina National Guard has special resources, such as the Resilience, Risk Reduction & Suicide Prevention branch of the Service Member & Family Care Directorate. Another great resource for all service members is the Veterans Affairs' Hospital, which includes the National Center for PTSD.