Ben Keen moved to Pittsburgh after serving in Iraq for eight-and-a-half years. He’d been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, since 2004, and after his honorable discharge in 2008, re-adjusting to civilian life proved virtually impossible.
“At war, you have to rewire your brain to survive. That rewiring doesn’t really work here,” Keen tells PEOPLE of his rocky adjustment back to life at home, far away from the chaos of war zones. Wary of seeking help from large organizations like the VA, Keen chose to self-medicate with alcohol, an option that some recent vets choose when they find they no longer recognize their old lives. As Keen puts it, you’re still “ramped up” from battle. “There’s no off switch.”
After two years of barely surviving under the weight of alcoholism and suicidal thoughts, it was Keen’s 3-year-old daughter who woke him up. She asked Keen if they could play together, and he had to respond, “Daddy can’t play,” because he was too inebriated.
“I didn’t survive multiple deployments to come back and kill myself on the couch, and that’s exactly where I was headed,” Keen tells PEOPLE. So he made a change – for his sake, for his family’s sake and for the sake of thousands of other veterans who feel isolated in their struggles with PTSD.
For Keen, connecting vets was integral to his healing process. He founded Steel City Vets, an organization that supports post-9/11 veterans with job search assistance, social activities and support groups. He also became active on RallyPoint, a social networking site for veterans, where users post about everything from résumé help to night terrors, the sort of stuff their Facebook friends may not understand.
His work with both organizations has a singular mission: reminding veterans they are not alone in these battles, that “there is somebody willing to meet you at Starbucks to talk about it.”
To help veterans with PTSD, Keen is insistent that Americans need to change the conversation around the disorder. The first step, however obvious, is to actually start that conversation.
“The biggest effect of the stigma surrounding PTSD is that people don’t get the treatments they need – they’re scared,” Keen tells PEOPLE. “It’s important for vets to connect with other vets, who really understand what they’re going through – the nervousness in crowded rooms, or going to a restaurant and asking for a different seat because you can’t see the exits, or swerving around what looks to be a trash bag because you’re not sure if it’s a trash bag or a bomb.”
PTSD is a debilitating medical disorder that many veterans never escape. Keen acknowledges that he’s not a medical professional – he works a 9-to-5 at AAA. But with roughly 22 veterans committing suicide a day (“over six months, that’s a whole brigade combat team”), he knew he couldn’t sit by and watch that happen to his fellow service members – and possibly himself – without trying to help.
“When you start making connections with people things don’t get so bad,” says Keen, who often goes on RallyPoint on sleepless nights to chat with veterans who are terrified by the dark thoughts they’re having. Members typically receive responses within minutes – fellow users will often share their contact info on posts to offer support or grab a coffee. “We need to remind vets that it’s okay to say you have this issue. PTSD is just your mind’s normal reaction to a highly abnormal situation.”