One of the most emotional interviews I’ve ever conducted was with retired Army Major and author Marc Raciti, who’d served in multiple warzones as a physician’s assistant. After only his first deployment to Iraq, Raciti began suffering from what was later deemed to be undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), one that develops chronically in certain individuals, such as soldiers, who are exposed to a continuous loop of shocking, fear-inducing or dangerous events. Side-effects can include high stress, nightmares, off-the-rails anger or depression—and might even cause someone to become suicidal. To make matters worse, PTSD is often misdiagnosed, because any of those symptoms could be related to a number of equally virulent disorders. Although Raciti did contemplate suicide, thankfully, he sought out treatment, learned ways to cope with PTSD through therapy and medication, and ultimately published a book, I Just Want To See Trees, about his ongoing struggles with PTSD and eventual recovery.
But many veterans don’t have that luxury, suffering in silence until their symptoms become too unbearable to live with. And the reality is nothing short of shocking: According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, some 20 veterans commit suicide every day. For Corinth-based neuroscientist, engineer and doctor, Magali Haas—who’s also the founder, CEO and president of Cohen Veterans Bioscience (CVB), a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing veterans’ brain health—it was an easy decision devoting her life to men and women in uniform. “My husband is a veteran, and my sister’s a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force,” says Haas. And then there’s her friend Curt Schreiner, a former Olympic biathlete and Army National Guard reservist. An avid biathlete herself—that’s what brought Haas upstate in the first place—she became interested in her chosen path when Schreiner returned home from a deployment and developed multiple sclerosis (MS). Soon after, she founded Orion Bionetworks, a nonprofit seeking an accelerated cure for the crippling disease. Then, in 2015, Orion secured major funding from billionaire hedge fund manager and philanthropist Steven Cohen, rebranding to CVB and widening its focus to helping veterans suffering from other brain disorders, including PTSD.
At present, CVB is conducting groundbreaking research that could someday lead to an objective PTSD diagnosis. In other words, a way for doctors to figure out, clinically, which soldiers are most genetically and biologically susceptible to the chronic version of the disorder before they even set foot on the battlefield. This past October, the nonprofit unveiled findings from what was the largest PTSD genetics study to date, hinging on data from 60 different institutions collected from 200,000 international test subjects. Haas explains that her group took those data, in the form of DNA samples, and “connected the dots.”
Why does a concrete diagnosis matter? Psychotherapy, which is one of the most effective ways to treat PTSD, only works for 50 percent of patients—and that percentage is even smaller for veterans. Even with those horrific suicide stats bearing down on her, Haas says she’s bullish about the future. “I imagine a world where we, at the point of trauma— or the day after—do some kind of therapeutic intervention, so that a veteran’s chronic PTSD diagnosis doesn’t happen,” she says. “That’s prevention.”