Family tells son’s story to bring awareness for veterans with PTSD

Portrait of Petty Officer Steven Brissette courtesy of the Brissette family | Graphics by Brett Barrett, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – A United States Flag was presented to the father of U.S. Navy Petty Officer Steven Brissette in honor of his service to his country Thursday afternoon. It was an emotional moment for Robert Brissette, Steven Brissette’s father, as it brought an end to a long battle with what he described as “bureaucratic red tape” in order to have his son’s service recognized. While honoring the memory of his son, Robert Brissette also wanted to use his son’s story to help bring awareness to a condition that affects many military servicemembers and their families after they return from active duty.

Robert and Debbra Ann Brissette, St. George, Utah, Sept. 19, 2013 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News
Robert and Debbra Ann Brissette, St. George, Utah, Sept. 19, 2013 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Petty Officer Brissette’s story

In 2011, Petty Officer Steven Brissette, of Kanab, took his own life. His father said his son was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to events experienced while serving in the Navy. He would eventually go through a divorce in 2008 and lose contact with his ex-wife and 2-year-old son, Robert Brissette said.

“None of us knew or realized that Steven was suffering from PTSD at the time,” Steven Brissette’s step-mother, Debbra Ann Brissette, wrote in a statement offered at the ceremony Thursday.

Efforts were made by Steven Brissette’s parents and family to get him some form of help once they realized he had PTSD. Their efforts were often frustrated however, as Steven Brissette would not give his consent for counseling.

The divorce and losing contact with his son complicated things, David Brissette, Steven Brissette’s uncle, said. “He went from being gung-ho to no-go.”

“On Oct. 23, 2011, for reasons we have yet to know,” Debbra Ann Brissette wrote, “he chose to end his life and go home to our Father in Heaven.”

“Regardless of everything he went through,” Robert Brissette said, “he was still a good man and still served our country.”

Steven Brissette joined the Navy in 2002 with dreams of becoming a SEAL. After he enlisted and went through boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Base, Steven Brissette was assigned to the USS Carl Vinson. While at sea, the aircraft carrier was deployed to the Persian Gulf for a number of months in 2005 as a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Steven Brissette left the service in 2006.

Since Steven Brissette’s suicide, Debbra Ann Brissette said it has been an uphill battle to get a hold of her son’s DD214 file, which details a history of his military service. However, through persistence on her part and working with the Department of Veterans Affairs, Steven Brissette’s father was ultimately presented with a United States Flag in his son’s honor.

“Its been a long time in coming,” Debbra Ann Brissette wrote, “but well worth the wait and I know it fills my husband with pride to accept this honor. We want to thank … the VA’s office here in Southern Utah for all (the) help in making this honor a reality.”

Raising awareness of PTSD

The Brissettes wanted to share their son’s story to help bring awareness to PTSD.

“We would like to bring awareness to the fact that something needs to be done so that we can help our servicemen and women that are suffering, so that they do not commit suicide,” Debbra Ann Brissette wrote. “(No one) should have to go through this pain when it’s preventable.”

PTSD is defined by the Mayo Clinic as being “a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.”

A myriad of traumatic events can lead to the cause of PTSD. Causes of PTSD can include, but are not limited to, the following circumstances and events:

  • Disasters
  • Life-threatening accidents
  • Torture
  • Witnessing a violent death or mutilation of others
  • Violent crimes
  • Sexual assault
  • Threat of injury or serious death
  • Loss of a friend of family member due to a traumatic event

Symptoms may also include:

  • Difficulty falling or stayingasleep>
  • Irritability, anger and rage
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of anxiety and panic
  • Easily startled by loud noises or sudden movements
  • Hypervigilance: always on the lookout for danger

While PTSD tends to be associated with soldiers returning from active duty, it also affects victims of disasters and violent crimes, law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical personnel and others. As traumatic events can come in many forms, PTSD can affect nearly anyone.

It’s not a cookie-cutter disorder,” said Bruce Solomon, a Vietnam War veteran and readjustment counselor at the St. George Vet Center.

Some veterans will not admit to having possible PTSD, Robert Brissette said, because they see it as a weakness.

Many soldiers don’t want to be classified as a “headcase,” and thus will not seek professional help, Solomon said.

A high percentage of returning combat soldiers who experience PTSD have relationship problems or self-medicate, Solomon said. The suicide rate among the veterans is also twice the national average.

St. George Vet Center

Problems with PTSD can arise as soldiers have difficultly “readjusting” to civilian life. The instincts and training that kept a solider alive in a combat situation cannot simply be turned off, Solomon said. In situations where a vet may perceive a threat, even in a seemingly harmless situation, reactionary instincts and training can take over.

“Those instincts kept them alive,” Solomon said. “You don’t have time to think about it.”

PTSD is not just an individual issue. “It’s a whole family problem“, Solomon said. Marriages and families can be adversely affected when a family member is dealing with PTSD

The St. George Vet Center, located at 1664 South Dixie Drive, Suite C-102 in St. George, is centered around helping veterans readjust to daily life. It offers individual, couples, and family programs, Solomon said.

There are also conflict-specific support groups offered for veterans of the Vietnam War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the Global War on Terror. Corresponding groups are also offered to the wives of veterans of these conflicts.

“All these guys need is an ear,” Robert Brissette said. “They need someone to talk to who understands.”

Aside from the stigma society tends to attach to mental health issues, Solomon said another reason veterans may not seek help is because the individuals either pushing for it or offering it have little to no credibility with them – they are not someone the veteran recognizes as being in “their line of command.” These people also tend to lack credibility in the eyes of the veteran due to a lack of common experience.

At the Vet Center in St. George, the counseling for the combat veterans is given by combat veterans in return, Solomon said. There is a common bond offered instead of a talking suit, who has never been through combat, spouting pscyhobabble.

Solomon said he has dealt with PTSD for 42 years and has since learned to manage it. Now he and other veterans help others do the same. Like the Brissettes, though, he too has felt the frustration of trying to get veterans to accept the help.

“I am at a loss on what to do to get these guys in here,” Solomon said. He attends a myriad of public events and is on the radio weekly talking about the Vet Center and the services it offers, yet in the 18 months he has been in St. George with the vet center, its services have not been as widely used as he would like.

The survivors

What about the survivors of a veteran who may have died in the line of duty or by suicide? Solomon said the Vet Center also provides services for survivors who may also experience PTSD from the loss of a loved one.

The Brissettes, who live in Kanab, said they came across a group called TAPS – Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. According to its website:

TAPS provides immediate and long-term emotional help, hope, and healing to all who are grieving the death of a loved one in military service to America. TAPS meets its mission by providing peer-based emotional support, grief and trauma resources, casework assistance, and connections to community-based care.

Taps has been an amazing find,” Debbra Ann Brissette said.

TAPS can be contacted via its website, or by phone at 202-588-8277. A toll free, 24-hour number helpline is also provided for when survivors are hurting and need someone to talk to: 800-959-8277.

The St. George Vet Center can be reached at 435-673-4494.

There is help

The suicide of Petty Officer Steven Brissette serves as a tragic reminder of what can happen when PTSD goes unaddressed, despite the efforts of loved ones to the contrary.

Many men and women in the military have difficultly readjusting to life outside of the service. There is no magic switch that turns their combat training and instincts on and off. The same applies to the memories and images left in a combat veteran’s mind after he or she trades the theater of battle for Downtown USA.

Solomon said that where the civilian may simply see a group of people standing in front of him or her in a grocery story aisle, combat veterans may initially see an obstruction that needs to be removed – because it’s a potential threat to their avenue of escape – before the reality of the situation kicks in. The St. George Vet Center exists to help veterans readjust to daily life so those days need not be lived in a state of hyperawareness and worry that the trash by the side of the road hides an IED or the worker on the top of a building is a sniper.

Like Solomon, Robert Brissette urges any veterans who may be dealing with PTSD to seek the appropriate aid. “Don’t hold it in,” he said, “that’s what’s going to eat you alive.”


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Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.

Portrait of Petty Officer Steven Brissette courtesy of the Brissette family. Graphics by Brett Barrett, St. George News
Portrait of Petty Officer Steven Brissette courtesy of the Brissette family | Graphics by Brett Barrett, St. George News

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  • mm1 (sw) peltier January 19, 2014 at 10:03 pm

    this is not ptsd, he was on a ship and did one cruise. there was no shooting, nobody getting killed. he ate in a galley 3 times a day. there was a/c and heat, with running water. this sickens me to pin this guy’s incompetence on a real symptom, from people with boots on the ground sleeping on sand and being shot at and watching there friends dying. I did 20 years in the navy, did 10 extend cruise’s to these hot spots, might as well call it a carnival cruise.

    • Craig January 20, 2014 at 6:30 am

      @mm 1 (sw) peltier…You have no idea what this young man went through and no clue what contributed to his condition.

  • Mike January 31, 2014 at 10:03 pm

    MM1, just because you didn’t experience a “terrifying” event during any of your cruises doesn’t mean others did not. Also, not everyone on a Aircraft Carrier enjoyed the luxuries of 3 meals in the galley and air conditioning or heat. During my stint on Carl Vinson it was not uncommon for people in my division (V-2) to get a couple of hot meals a few times a week. 20 hour work days for the majority of both cruises were standard. The only A/C in any of our spaces was the berthing which we hardly ever saw. In fact, because of the machinery and steam pipes and valves, our spaces were over 100 degrees on a regular basis during our time in the Arabian Sea. Most guys slept on tile, work benches and cat walks in turtle necks soaking wet with perspiration. I’ve seen a shipmate lose his arm. Another lost his eye. Even seen a pilot almost bludgeoned to death when a gauge in his cockpit slammed into his face directly after a cat launch. The smell of large quantities of blood tends to stick with you. I could go on and on. When I was in, the senior guys would always talk about the incidents that they have seen. Like when a helicopter rotor decapitated a line chief. Or when a young Sailor was crushed by JBD’s. Even someone’s face being melted to a catapult because that was the only place he could find to sleep that was warm. Granted , we weren’t being shot at and dying but nonetheless could be a terrifying event. Being that you are Navy you should you know that most policy and procedures for maintenance and operating equipment are written in blood.
    You have no idea what this young man has been through. It would be best if you didn’t judge this man based on the circumstances of his death and your own experiences in the Navy. Your experiences in the Navy isn’t the same as others.

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