Road Home program at Rush University Medical Center helps vets cope

Reg McCutcheon grew up poor in southern Indiana, his father a disabled Korean vet.

“I learned to appreciate the country’s cheese,” said McCutcheon, who went into the Air Force in 1980, right out of high school. “Going to the army was my escape.”

He became a satellite systems operator and was sent to Afghanistan in 2011.

“I thought I was going to look at the computer screen and say, ‘There’s a bad guy behind that rock,'” McCutcheon recalled with a chuckle. “It turns out they didn’t need it.”

He found himself much closer to the ground action than is typical for the Air Force.

“I lost a good friend on my fourth day there,” he said, of the conflict that killed eight other soldiers. “Beyond the wire, all the time, you see things. It hit home pretty quickly.”

McCutcheon also injured himself — “pretty beat up,” as he puts it — earning him a Bronze Star, a chest full of medals and 19 surgeries. But he put those memories aside when, in 2014, after 34 years of service, he retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He became a therapist, working with vets struggling to adjust to civilian life.

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Then, last July, he recognized an unexpected patient in need of professional help: himself.

“He fought,” said his wife, Shana. They were married for two years, the second marriage for both.

“A lot of it was amazing, but also difficult,” she said. “We have a lot of kids.”

Eight between them.

“It’s a very big family dynamic,” she said. “We had two family deaths and a wedding, all within 90 days.” It was a lot, and we were all still trying to get used to our new relationships.

Reg began to crack under the pressure.

“He was so busy trying to help everyone else, trying to be this great new stepdad, he kept getting hit from all sides,” his wife recalled. “He was struggling, so our whole family started to struggle.”

“My solution was little Jose Cuervo,” Reg said. “It just made me angry. I was quite verbal, and it scared my wife and kids. She gave me an ultimatum.”

“He was angry, a lot,” Shana said. “We really didn’t even know why.”

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Veterans Day is Friday. A time to honor vets, but part of that is recognizing the challenges they face during their military service and the challenges that may come after, which may go back to the hardships they had before.

Hidden in the statistics about vets is something rarely mentioned — while up to 20% suffer from PTSD and other psychological difficulties after service, only about 10% of all who serve actually see combat. To overlook that the difficult upbringing that drives some into the military in general can lie dormant during their time in uniform, only to flare up later.

“It’s not unusual,” Reg McCutcheon said. “People often join the army to escape from their environment, to find another place, to escape. It’s a pretty big predictor of PTSD. Childhood trauma complicates post-traumatic stress.”

He sought help from Road Home, a program at Rush University Medical Center that connects vets and their families with therapy, including an intensive two-week residential treatment program.

“People come into the military with challenges — trauma issues,” said William Beiersdorf, executive director of Road Home. “The VA does so much for vets, but there are still many gaps.

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Road Home helped McCutcheon get back to helping others.

“It was amazing, a godsend,” he said. “I had to change my outlook on life.” They do what very few programs do. Engaging not only me, but also my wife, children and dog. To show the family that there is hope.”

Families are critical support systems for veterans in service, a role they continue to play afterward, in good times and bad.

“We celebrate veterans,” he said. “But it’s much bigger: wives, husbands, children.” It’s systemic, the way trauma can affect people.”

So what message does he have for other struggling vets?

“Before you destroy another relationship, before you destroy the things that matter most to you, ask for a little help,” he said through tears. “Do not be scared. They must be worth something. You have to be willing to save something, but also to destroy it.”

To contact Road Home, call 312 942-VETS.


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