CHEYENNE, Wyo. — When America's military service members return home from war, they often face another dangerous, if more subtle, battle within themselves.
Veterans often experience post-traumatic stress, suffering panic attacks and dwelling on what they saw overseas, feeling isolated from family and finding themselves unable to adjust to life at home.
The results can be horrific. A veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates, and tens of thousands of others have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress.
The real danger, experts say, is that it can be extremely difficult to diagnose post-traumatic stress victims. They often don't realize what's wrong with themselves, or they avoid seeking help for fear they'll be labeled "crazy," hurting their reputation and their career.
But now, Sheridan architect Timothy Belton has designed a deceptively simple tool he hopes will help veterans take initial steps toward breaking through that wall: a Frisbee-sized cardboard wheel called the AnswerRing.
With four moveable tabs circling a draped American flag graphic, the ring is designed to be played with. It conspicuously stands out lying on a coffee table or on a kitchen counter.
"It's, if you will, a guy thing," Belton said. "The curiosity of simply seeing it and saying, 'I wonder what this is' is enough to hook them."
Once the ring is picked up, the veteran can move around the tabs to choose from different scenarios that may apply to him or her: from war memories that can't be shaken to marital problems to thoughts of suicide.
After his or her selections are made, the vet can flip the wheel over to read explanations for such behavior — "recurring memories of the war is the most common problem" — along with suggestions on how to deal with it, from simple advice to counseling or suicide hotline contact information.
The goal of the AnswerRing, Belton said, isn't to solve vets' problems, but to identify them — both for them and their loved ones, who may later see the choices their veteran has selected on the ring.
Belton's never served in the military, but he had a front-row seat to an extreme act of violence by a military veteran.
On Sept. 17, 1993, 29-year-old Kevin Newman walked onto a Central Middle School field in Sheridan with a rifle and a pistol and opened fire, wounding four children in a gym class before shooting himself. A suicide note offered no motive for the crime, but shortly before the incident Newman had received a less-than-honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy.
Belton was chairman of the Sheridan County School District 1 board at the time, and his son was in school at the time, though he wasn't hurt.
"It had a powerful effect on our family, on our children," Belton said. "Our 5-year-old was worried, (asking,) 'Is that guy still out there?'"
A few years later, Belton decided he wanted to develop some sort of system that would allow people with common problems to be able to quickly and easily find potential solutions. A bit of tinkering later, the AnswerRing was born — and subsequently patented.
But it took until 2009 for Belton to find a cause worthy of his new invention. While driving one day, he heard a radio show featuring a psychologist and a military chaplain discussing the problems returning military veterans face and how it's often hard for them to identify what's wrong with them after they return home.
"I had to pull off the side of the road when I heard this," Belton said, "because I realized that this answering system that I previously developed was spot-on for helping with this problem. It was just right."
By chance, one of Belton's neighbors, Victor Ashear, had worked for more than three decades as a psychologist at the Sheridan Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Working together, the two came up with the format and wrote the scenarios for the AnswerRing.
"This AnswerRing is designed to create in the mind of the user that, yes, you have a legitimate problem, and yes, there is help for it," Ashear said. "Particularly with the younger vets from Iraq and Afghanistan, they're very leery about receiving help."
The goal now, Belton said, is to get a ring into the hands of every service member returning from combat, either directly or via a loved one through the military's family programs.
"I think it could, quite simply, save marriages and save lives," Belton said. "And save the kind of thing that our little town went through in 1993."
So far, Belton said, his company has distributed about 1,200 of the cardboard discs, including 600 to the Wyoming Psychological Association, 200 to the Wyoming National Guard, 200 to the Colorado National Guard, and 100 to the Sheridan VA Medical Center.
Belton's also talked with the National Guard on a national level, along with other veterans groups, about purchasing the AnswerRings.
"If the military will pick up the ball," Belton said, "and they get these distributed en masse to returning combat veterans, (the AnswerRings) will find themselves where they belong."
The rings sell in bulk for $16.95 apiece, Belton said; they're also sold individually on Amazon.com for $19.95 apiece.
If that seems high, those prices don't even cover the manufacturing cost of each ring, Belton said. Belton himself isn't selling the rings to make a profit: indeed, he's sunk in a lot of his own money into the AnswerRing venture that he doesn't expect to see again, though he declined to say how much he's given.
The very nature of how the AnswerRing is supposed to work makes it extremely difficult to know how effective it's been in helping people. But Belton said he's already gotten a number of signs that it's made a real difference in people's lives.
A number of veterans and their family members have contacted Belton lauding the device for helping them or others they know identify problems and get motivated to do something about them.
At least one note left with Belton stated that the AnswerRing saved a traumatized vet from killing himself.
"This is, in my opinion, a God-given gyro of a tool in the midst of post-war deployment valley of desolation," U.S. Virgin Islands Air National Guard 1st Sgt. Reynaldo Guadalupe wrote in a different email.
The Wyoming National Guard has used some novel ways to distribute the 200 AnswerRings it's already purchased, Belton said, as troops often don't want to be seen with one.
One tactic has been to hang a couple of rings on hooks in bathroom stalls in armories and National Guard facilities around the state, said Larry Barttelbort, director of the Wyoming Veterans Commission.
Barttelbort said it's too soon to tell what effect, if any, the AnswerRings are having. But while the National Guard is prohibited from endorsing products, Bartlebort said the Wyoming Guard sees them as a tool that, along with smart phone apps and other communication methods, could help National Guard members who have post-traumatic stress.
"Every veteran integrates back into their life back here in a different manner," he said. "So if this AnswerRing can be used as a tool to help someone if they're having some readjustment issues, all the better."
"If it can help veterans," Bartlebort said, "we certainly want to embrace that."
Information from: Casper Star-Tribune - Casper, http://www.trib.com