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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Of all the thousands of men and women who put on their caps and gowns and walk across the graduation stage this spring, Mike Pereira feels as if he's among the luckiest.
After what he describes as a lifetime filled with trauma, he was one of more than 2,800 students to receive a degree from Washington University, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (http://bit.ly/1HnkWZz ) reported.
Standing in the university's outdoor quad, diploma in hand, he was a long way from his days as a homeless teenager in Bellingham, Washington.
He also was a long way from his days as an Army sergeant when he served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Pereira said he feels lucky because he found a way to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, while many of his military friends did not.
"What I found was that service, doing something for others, helping the people who need help, was the most beneficial route for me," Pereira said. "I went to Wash U because I wanted to learn how to articulate that."
Along the way, Pereira said he's been able to help his military friends the way other veterans helped him.
As many as 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Every day, 22 veterans commit suicide.
It's a miserable life for sufferers, said Dr. Sonya Norman, a clinical psychologist with the VA's National Center for PTSD.
"After a traumatic event, it's kind of natural to have nightmares and other reactions that fade away after a few months," Norman said. "With PTSD it doesn't fade away. They feel guilty all the time; it changes a person's life."
Norman said a typical sufferer withdraws from society, rejects intimacy and can easily turn to alcohol abuse to cope.
They live their lives so as to avoid triggers that remind them of the trauma they've been through, she said. Triggers could be anything from large crowds to the smell of gas.
Pereira found himself in familiar downward spiral, keeping to himself and drinking heavily, until he found comfort through friend and fellow veteran, Tim Nelson.
"He told me that I was going to have to pull out of it," Pereira said. "Then one day he put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger."
Pereira said his lifeline came through Eric Greitens, another friend and veteran who founded The Mission Continues, a St. Louis-based nonprofit that connects veterans to service projects in their community.
Greitens eventually recruited Pereira to St. Louis to work for the organization.
Pereira said he volunteered to help the sick, the elderly and the disabled.
"It made sense," he said. "Civic service could give me and others like me the same sense of purpose that we had in the military."
Around the same time, Pereira reconnected with another military friend, Ian Smith, who was having a tough time coping after being overseas.
The two originally met on a military base in Germany when they were both 18. Later, they were split up as the military scrambled to respond to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"When Ian came back, I knew he was hurting," Pereira said. "It was the same for me, you don't want to tell anybody how you feel. I just didn't want him to get swallowed up by it."
In late 2011, after working together at The Mission Continues, the two decided to enroll at Washington University together.
After earning a bachelor's degree in anthropology and psychology, Pereira's next step is to study psychiatry in Washington University's medical school.
"Right now, when you treat someone for PTSD you use the assets available, which are therapy and medicine," Pereira said. "But that just stops the bleeding, it makes them stable. It gets them from minus-5 to zero and then they're out the door until the next time they fall below zero.
Pereira said he wants to study how to get people onto the positive side of the scale.
"We need to get people to plus-5," he said. "I found my way out of the dark hole through service. I believe service can be used for post-traumatic growth."
As for Smith, after earning a degree in global leadership and management, he's headed to the University of California at Berkeley to continue his studies.
"I wouldn't be here if not for Mike," Smith said. "I started at a really low point and he helped me up."
Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com
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