When Max Harris entered Iraq attached to the 3rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army in 2003, he found himself immersed in dangerous territory among people of a different language and a different culture.
Harris, though, understood every word he heard and every image he saw.
As one of the few U.S. military Arabic linguists at the time, Harris' job for an entire year was to break the language barrier and better understand the culture. In performing counter-intelligence insurgency work, he was always outside the safety wire, always among the people –assessing the threat level to the troops.
It came with a lifetime price.
“I witnessed some pretty horrific things that messed me up pretty well,” Harris said. “I didn't have the luxury of ignoring what was going on around me because I didn't have the language barrier.”
Harris suffers from acute continuous post-traumatic stress disorder – a mental health problem that can occur after a traumatic event such as war, assault or disaster – once known as “shell shock” in pre-Vietnam War days. With Veterans Day this week, Harris is an example that many people with PTSD can lead productive lives – professionally and personally.
“I think returning veterans are a tremendous resource for the Lehigh Valley and the Greater Pennsylvania workforce,” said Don Cunningham, president and CEO of Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. “The biggest issue in continued economic growth is attracting people with skill; and people with time in the military have those skills.”
Since the war, Harris has obtained a college degree, secured a top position in a technology solution company, started a nonprofit PTSD support organization and is preparing to launch an entrepreneurship initiative to provide education and resources for veteran entrepreneurs interested in starting a business.
“The greatest majority of people would be surprised that the person sitting next to them has PTSD,” said Vietnam War veteran Bruce Curry. He is Lehigh Valley Health Network's director of access and support services for the department of psychiatry, which diagnoses and treats patients with PTSD.
“Most times it's a personal, private purgatory, and they [veterans with PTSD] can lead a very normal life,” Curry said.
After being honorably discharged from the military in 2004 at 25, Harris spent many days and nights suffering from the numerous side effects of PTSD, including severe depression, insomnia, anxiety and hypervigilance.
With no idea where his life was going, Harris turned to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for mental health therapy and counseling, and soon thereafter enrolled at Kutztown University to pursue a degree in international business. He graduated in 2007 and landed a job at a local company where he stayed at for four years.
In early 2012, Harris attended Lehigh Valley Hack, a weekend-long session of technology brainstorming at Ben Franklin TechVentures' entrepreneur startup hub in Bethlehem, hosted by Lehigh Valley Tech. There, Harris met military veteran Michael Hawkins, CEO of Netizen Corp. of Allentown.
“This was my first introduction to the entrepreneurship community, and I loved it,” Harris said. “The generosity of spirit and seeing everyone help each other to learn; it had a very positive impact on my life.”
Harris found that 40 percent of returning veterans want to start a business, but he also saw there was little veteran-specific education available for vets seeking to become entrepreneurs.
“It's important to be able to connect with business leaders without mentioning PTSD,” Harris said. “And show what veterans bring to the table.”
Hawkins kept in touch with Harris and eventually asked him to work at Netizen. As capture manager for Netizen, Harris is develops the pipeline for future business, writing information technology proposals to government agencies for federal contracts.
After a blog Harris wrote went viral in early 2013 – about his experiences with PTSD – he formed Support No Stigma, This May, it became a nonprofit whose mission is to ensure, through empowerment and education, that veterans with PTSD are treated equitably by reducing the stigma associated with the disorder.
At the encouragement of his blog readers, Harris bought an Internet domain in March 2011. The website, combatveteranswithptsd.org, is now a successful and identifiable brand in the PTSD advocacy community, Harris said, and features his continuing blog posts and other useful resources.
“I call it coping through the service of others,” he said. “To help other veterans to improve their lives.”
To piggyback on his nonprofit, Harris is rolling out the Lehigh Valley Veteran Entrepreneurship Initiative, which provides education and support to encourage veterans to start businesses.
"Because of the stigma, employers have a tendency to view veterans as a destabilizing factor in their workforce," Harris said. "My goal is to break that stereotype."
Harris also is a member of the Lehigh Valley Military Affairs Council, which offers a forum and a focal point for veterans and civic organizations, businesses and governments to support the Lehigh Valley military veteran community.
“From an economic standpoint, PTSD is a mental health issue, and there are others out there,” Cunningham said. “It should not be an obstacle in any way in using their talents, as long as they are under treatment for it.”
LVMAC provides mental health services for veterans with PTSD, and teaches others to help by advocating on issues of importance to the local military veteran community.
“I have a passion to help other veterans,” Harris said.