Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center
Army Veteran finds peace with alternative therapy
In 1994, Michael Streeter, an Army Soldier serving with Company A, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, tightened down the straps on his parachute and launched himself from an airplane on a routine jump over the Middle Eastern country of Jordan. The static line jump seemed like business as usual until one of Streeter’s fellow Rangers unintentionally floated into his airspace, causing Streeter’s canopy to collapse midair. The resulting 100-foot fall broke Streeter’s back and left ankle and sent him careening down a long road of recovery that has stretched through nearly two decades.
“My whole life, all I wanted was to be a Ranger,” Streeter, who is now a patient at Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, said. “That was my entire goal, and I wanted to eventually be Special Forces. The dream came true to an extent but then it all crashed down around me when my accident happened.”
After the fall, Streeter struggled with his injuries and was unable to continue performing his duties as a Ranger, despite his best efforts.
“I would ‘Ranger up’ and not complain,” he said. “I would keep doing my job no matter the circumstances. I even jumped again the day after I broke my back because I didn’t know I had hurt myself that bad. Eventually, though I couldn’t keep up anymore and they reassigned me.”
Streeter separated from the Army in 1999, leaving behind the profession of arms, but finding himself embroiled in a whole different kind of fight – a fight for his health, a fight for his sanity and a fight for his life.
“It was so difficult coming back to the civilian lifestyle,” said Streeter. “I had been in the best unit in the military. I had done all the cool things that people only see in movies. I was all over the planet, working the missions that were leading up to Sept. 11, seeing and doing incredible things. But I saw a lot of hardship too, things that I wanted to forget. It was hard coming back and seeing how people here take their freedoms for granted after what I had experienced.”
The transition was difficult for the young Army Veteran. Soon, he found himself acting in ways that were completely foreign – drinking heavily to take the sting out of the unrelenting pain, staying awake for days on end in a hyper-vigilant state, alienating family and friends, and lashing out at complete strangers. It wasn’t long before Streeter no longer recognized the person he had become.
The treatment he received from doctors at the time only served to make matters worse.
“They had me on narcotics, Wellbutrin, stimulants, OxyContin, litium,” he said. “They had me on this pill and that pill – all kinds of pills. I went through doctors like crazy and no one was really taking my post-traumatic stress disorder seriously. I kept telling them that something was very wrong because I was mad all of the time, flying off the handle. I wanted to be on just one pill because I knew about those drugs. I knew that they were toxic and would do damage to my liver.”
In 2013, on the verge of a mental break after years of prolonged pain, anxiety and stress surrounding his health and military service-related conditions, Streeter was finally offered a lifeline. He was referred to the Pain Clinic at Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center and met two influential physicians, Dr. Robert Friedman and Dr. Layne Goble.
“Eventually, I got in touch with Dr. Goble and he sent me through a four-week-long course to help me learn how to live with the pain,” Streeter said. “At this time, my life was falling apart. My marriage was almost destroyed, I had lost several jobs and I was thinking about suicide. I say this all the time, but it is the truth, Dr. Friedman and Dr. Goble saved my life. I am just so grateful for them.”
Streeter collaborated with the doctors and staff at the Pain Clinic to develop a customized plan that would help him diminish the hold chronic pain had over his life. He began to view pain management as a personal responsibility – a task that required mindfulness on his part and constant attention and adjustment.
Initially, his care plan included weekly acupuncture treatments administered at the Charleston VAMC by Dr. Friedman. Friedman credits the acupuncture with not only noticeably reducing the patient’s pain level, but also helping the Veteran “buy in” to the whole holistic process by settling the mind and proving the effectiveness of these less mainstream therapies.
After his first acupuncture treatment, Streeter was sold. He jumped in with both feet and never looked back. He started meditating twice a day, using PTSD-specific meditation tools provided by the Charleston VAMC and resources he found online, to help focus his mind and reduce his stress and anxiety levels.
He also addressed his sleep difficulties. Following the recommendation of Dr. Friedman, Streeter decreased his caffeine intake and started cutting off his coffee consumption at 2 p.m. each day. Once he was able to get a good, reliable, night’s rest Streeter found that his pain became less noticeable. The positive change in his sleep patterns paid big dividends in the Veteran’s quality of life, just as Friedman had predicted.
“In Mr. Streeter’s case, the need for quality sleep was very apparent,” Friedman said. “His body wasn’t getting the rest it required to properly heal and he was irritable and on edge. He is doing so well because he is practicing mindfulness. He has taken everything we have taught him here at the clinic to heart and he is continuing to do the heavy lifting.”
Streeter now sweats it out several times a week in advanced yoga classes held at Jiva Yoga Center on Hilton Head Island. The movement and stretching exercises help to strengthen his core, which in turn offers support for his back, and alleviates some of the chronic pain. Streeter says he also enjoys an added benefit – the yoga practice helps him to remain centered and teaches him to deal with the pain in the present instead of trying to mask it or run from it. Similar yoga activities are offered at Charleston VAMC free of charge for Veterans who wish to attend.
“A lot of people I talk to about it are skeptical,” Streeter said of the alternative therapies endorsed by the Pain Clinic. “They don’t think it will work because it’s not ‘real’ medicine or they have specific religious beliefs that prevent them from trying it. I tell them you have to have an open mind and you have to want to get better. But this absolutely does work. I am proof that it all works.”
Since starting with the Pain Clinic, Streeter has come off all of the prescription pills, ceremoniously throwing the bottles in the trash once he felt well enough not to need them. He now takes only herbal remedies and utilizes at-home acupuncture treatments for pain management as recommended by Dr. Friedman. He has lost nearly 30 pounds due to improvements in his diet and his dedication to getting out and moving every day, even if he is pain. He has made amends with those he wronged in the past, writing letters and personally apologizing to the people who experienced him at his worst. And, perhaps most important, Streeter feels he has gotten his life back.
“Now I no longer have to just be a passenger on ‘the nightmare train’ - now I can just be me,” Streeter said. “It has really changed my life. I have become very connected with what I believe is my higher power. I can do things now that I was never able to do before. The difference is like night and day.”
And his wife, Jenna Streeter, agrees. “I got my husband back,” she said. “It got really dark for him for a while. It was like he was on this hamster wheel that he couldn’t get off of. But now he is so much more centered than I am and his mental toughness far surpasses mine. He looks so much healthier. The change is incredible.”
Streeter hopes his story will spread hope to the hundreds of thousands of Veterans in the United States suffering from chronic pain. He reaches out daily to Veterans online, encouraging them to seek help at their local VA medical center. He shares his story, gives them personal mantras to live by, and offers self-help solutions for those who may have trouble taking the first step.
"Mr. Streeter is the poster-child for this program.” Friedman said. “He is the shining example of what can happen when a Veteran really does the work and makes a commitment to be better.”