Post-traumatic stress syndrome brings the impact of war far beyond the battlefield, affecting an estimated 15 to 30 percent of returning veterans reliving the traumatic event, avoiding memory-triggering situations or people, having negative beliefs or feelings about themselves and others, and feeling constantly keyed up.
Complicating matters is that for many years PTSD was not taken seriously, and, in the case of the Vietnam War, returning veterans faced antiwar sentiment and serious disrespect.
PTSD of course continues today, but a new treatment mode with the help of specially trained service dogs is helping some veterans successfully resume lives disrupted by combat and its lingering effects.
Training these dogs is costly, at $15,000 a pop, and the fraternal order of Greek Americans, AHEPA, adopted a national program to raise money for training at its 2016 convention in Las Vegas.
Hamiltonian Rick Roscoe, president of AHEPA Chapter 72 in Trenton, learned of the program from Vietnam veteran George Karatzia, who created it in 2015 in AHEPA Garden State Chapter 517, where the Marlboro resident is a member. Roscoe, in turn, committed himself to raising $15,000 in the first year of his presidency. He plans to raise the bulk of the funds April 21 at “Spring Sprint,” a 5k race/1M fun walk-run at Veterans Park.
Roscoe has drawn much inspiration from Karatzia’s experiences. Karatzia remembers his own return to the United States after a year’s service in Vietnam in the late 1960s.
“Physically I came home, but your mind is still on the battlefield,” he says. “Just because a plane took you from there to here, it doesn’t mean everything is erased from your memory.”
His wife, who he had met three months before he was drafted at age 18, told him, “you’re so much angrier,” which Karatzia attributes in part to coming back “at a time where nobody thanked you.”
“For me, I just didn’t want to think anymore; I wanted to be a workaholic,” he says.
‘They did tell you, ‘So many of you here are not going to be returning home’—they were trying to prepare you for war.’
Karatzia had planned to work for a year and then to go to college, but he was drafted after graduating from the 5,000-boy Dewitt-Clinton High School in the Bronx in 1966. Using the subway token sent to him by the draft board—“so you have no excuse for not showing up,” he says—he had his physical on Whitehall Street, did basic training in Augusta, Georgia, and did advanced infantry training at Fort Polk in Louisiana.
“It was very rigorous, difficult, and exhausting,” he said. “They did tell you, ‘So many of you here are not going to be returning home’—they were trying to prepare you for war.”
“You think you have all this training but that just goes out the window,” he says, remembering his first firefight in the jungle, looking over his shoulder at the bullets ricocheting from the trees. He also recalls burning down a village suspected of being a strong Vietcong site, seeing the dead on both sides, and awakening at night to find himself under attack.
“You don’t know where anything is happening, and you try to shoot in the direction of where you think [the shooting] is coming from,” he says.
An emotional turning point for Karatzia was when the two guys in front of him were killed during an ambush in a ravine, and helicopters let down lines to take them away.
“I could seem them turning, and I was thinking of myself in that situation,” he says. “In a couple of days two soldiers would be knocking on their families’ doors to tell them what had happened to them.”
He and all the young draftees changed deeply during their year in a war zone. After arriving in Vietnam “at the innocence of your age,” Karatzia says, about two-thirds of the way in, “as you go and start to have these horrible situations forever, it’s like the innocence is gone from everybody. Where everybody would smile and talk about their hopes and dreams and futures, those conversations are rarer to hear. Instead it’s ‘Are we going to live another day?’”
“After the Vietnam War, hardly anyone knew anything about PTSD,” Karatzia says.
As was true of the general population, he had not been aware of PTSD, but says he gained insight into it from two films. In the 1946 feature “The Courage of Lassie,” the army-trained Lassie to be a war dog, and, Karatzia says, “we see her struggling to bring [help] back [from headquarters] to where the troops are in harm’s way.” But when the war was over, he says, “she became like a wild dog.” When she was put on the train to return home, “she was lifeless in the cage. I know that look. I’ve seen that same look on so many of our men returning home.”
In the 1930 film “All Quiet on the Western Front,” a returnee from World War I “walks into his mother’s house as a stranger,” Karatzia says. “She is embracing him, hugging him, then steps back, and says, ‘You look the same yet you look different.’”
Karatzia says that the audience then did not understand what she meant by that, and when troops came back like that from Vietnam, people would say, “He came back shell-shocked, he lost his screws in the war—and it was all dismissed.”
Karatzia said, for PTSD sufferers, the war has become ‘a movie that is played every night, vividly, not only with sound, but with smell.’
But our understanding has deepened with time, through the efforts of people like Karatzia. In his initiative, AHEPA partners with K9s for Warriors in Florida, which finds the dogs, trains them, and places them with veterans. Any vets who have been on active combat duty since 9/11 and have a diagnosis of PTSD post-engagement are eligible to apply. The dogs, many from shelters, learn the signs of a PTSD event and what they need to do to intervene to prevent a full-blown PTSD crisis over their 10-month training.
Karatzia developed the program based on his own experiences with PTSD and others he met with it at the local VA and local chapter of Disabled Veterans of America. While visiting veterans’ facilities, he noticed many veterans with service dogs.
While attending a meeting in Freehold, Karatzia met the Zilinski family, whose son Dennis was killed in Iraq. The family created a memorial fund in their son’s name, and raised money to sponsor service dogs at no cost to the veteran. The Zilinskis helped Karatzia believe that a program through AHEPA could be a success.
Karatzia first presented his program at the 2016 District 5 AHEPA convention hosted by the Trenton chapter—because its adoption at the district level was a necessary step in taking the program national.
At the meeting, Karatzia introduced two veterans, one waiting for a service dog and one who wanted to get on the list. Roscoe was so moved that, upon his ascension to the presidency, he was determined to have the chapter purchase at least one service dog during his first year in office.
“That commitment from myself took me on a journey to learn more about PTSD and the importance of what this national mission is really all about,” Roscoe says.
In July 2016, Karatzia went before delegates at AHEPA’s national convention in Las Vegas, and asked for the program to become a national project. It was unanimously approved, with Karatzia made national chairman.
Karatzia said, for PTSD sufferers, the war has become “a movie that is played every night, vividly, not only with sound, but with smell. Someone is still on a battlefield. In a nightmare, it is like you can’t move, so you are exhausted when you wake up, and you don’t want to get out of bed.” Dogs can sense the nightmare, wake up its master, and get on top of the person to hold him or her down, with one hand free to begin petting the dog and calming down. Sometimes when a dog senses its master is anxious when out in the world, it may lay on the person’s feet for reassurance.
Roscoe grew up in Dover, Delaware, where his father worked for the highway department. He says he comes from a military family, and his father was a major in the National Guard. An athlete in high school, Roscoe chose, at the University of Delaware, to study physical therapy, which he says “was a good fit because I like working with people, I like working physically, and I like the challenge of thinking and solving problems.”
His first physical therapy position was at Mercer Medical Center in Princeton, and a couple years later, in 1979, he and three other therapists opened an independent practice, Hamilton Physical Therapy, where for the last 20 years of his clinical practice he specialized in hand and upper-extremity rehabilitation. He is now retired.
“I have wonderful memories of helping people recovering from things that I don’t think I could have gotten sitting behind a desk,” he says.
Born a Methodist, Roscoe joined the Greek Orthodox faith after his marrying a Greek woman. Friends at church encouraged him to join AHEPA, which he did in 1997, but only became active in 2010 as chair of the scholarship committee, which over the last 15 years has given away well over $100,000 in scholarships for local and national schools. In 2013, he became treasurer, and in 2017 president.
His two daughters, both graduates of Steinert High School, work in education. His elder daughter, Andrea Quintanilla, teaches at Harlem Village Academy. His younger daughter, Carolyn Navikonis, works for the not-for-profit Citizen Schools, which extends the school days and recruits citizen teachers to teach skills to middle-school children.
Karatzia’s family immigrated to America from Greece in 1949, ending up in an apartment in the Bronx, where his father eventually owned a restaurant. For elementary and middle school he attended the church-run Zoodohos Peghe, which, he says, “instilled in you respect. You went there to learn.” That his parents chose a parochial rather than the poorer public schools for his early education was an important lesson for young Karatzia: “My father worked seven days a week. I was always touched by fact that he had limited funds but how education was important. He could have saved money but spent it on parochial school.”
Karatzia earned an associate degree in hotel and restaurant management at New York City Technical College in Brooklyn. He and his brother fell into the hotel gift shop business when they heard about someone auctioning off a space for a shop and decided to go for it. They eventually had 12 gift shops, and stayed in the business for 35 years.
The order of AHEPA, founded in 1922 in Atlanta in response to the bigotry of the Ku Klux Klan, focused on Americanization of Greek immigrants. In 1945 AHEPA achieved national renown by raising just under a half billion dollars for war bonds, more than any other organization; and in 1946 President Truman joined because of the “wonderful things” they did. AHEPA’s mission is “to promote the ancient Hellenic ideals of education, philanthropy, civic responsibility, integrity, and family and individual excellence through community service and volunteerism.”
“These are the pillars of our organization; and those are the same ideals that all Americans share,” Roscoe said.
Spring Sprint will take place at the southern entrance of Veterans Park on Kuser Road, Saturday, April 21, 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Minimum donation is $30. Sign up online.