The Veterans Day observance in Zachary was filled with the often-heard acknowledgment “thank you for your service.” Ursula Shaw, standing in the back of the crowd, was a reminder that a soldier’s service was not a mere instance and the price of that service is often paid long after the military service has ended. She is still paying the price as she battles PTSD.
Thirty years have passed since the young mother from Ethel found herself in Saudi Arabia dodging the carnage left by Scud missiles and gasping to breathe through gas masks protecting her from the toxic chemical residues of warfare. The trauma left her first with post-traumatic stress disorder and later gave her a calling to help other veterans find treatment and support for PTSD and a wide range of other mental illness tacked on to the price tag of service.
Shaw is proud to have served her country, but when war came knocking, she was surprised. The Middle East is a long way from the Spears community where she started school. She found a love for service activities, public speaking and 4-H before graduating from Clinton High School in 1984.
“Before I left to go to high school, I was a member of 4-H and that's what really got me started in doing a lot of service activities because of what 4-H stands for,” Shaw said. “I started in public speaking and from there my agent just opened the doors for me. When I got to the 11th grade, I decided I wanted to go in the military.”
Shaw qualified for the delayed entry program that allowed her to take continue classes, win a summer public speaking contest and participate in the first Clinton Peach Festival. She took her role as an Army reservist seriously, but she didn’t think serving her country would lead to being called into battle. In 1989, she had a daughter, Bianca, and continued to enjoy life in the Army Reserves.
When her baby was 9 months old, she got two calls that signaled a major change in life. Her unit’s major called and told her the unit was being called into active duty. She said she thought it was some type of joke. She got another call giving her reporting specifics and reality hit. “I was like, ‘I got a baby,’ ” Shaw said. “No, that didn’t matter; none of it mattered.”
Shaw’s unit prepared for three weeks at Fort Polk before they shipped off to an expo center in the Middle East that housed troops several countries. The tent city conditions were crowded and rough, but Shaw’s unit received an invitation to stay at a hotel owned by a prince in Saudi Arabia.
The unit was then living in the lap of luxury with good living arrangements, full kitchens and the best provisions. If it seemed too good to be true, it's because it was. The multinational troops were tracked and attacked by Scuds — one of a series of tactical ballistic missiles developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. They were deadly and accurate from long distances.
“The Scud missiles started coming by, and you didn't know when and where,” Shaw said. “And that's when you had to put on those masks. It was at that point where I think PTSD really started to kick in a lot.”
PTSD helps connect elements of Shaw’s past to her present. Fireworks, gun shots or loud noises open wounds and terrifying memories. Shaw was grateful for the military-grade gas masks that saved her life, but the claustrophobic feeling led to her sleeping with a fan blowing excess air in her face.
The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has brought a non-battlefield use of masks into her everyday life. She is compliant and grateful for face masks, but the need for excess air returned with the need for protective face coverings.
The pandemic has brought both the fear and relief back into Shaw’s life because both instances are related to some form of protection. This Veterans Day is unlike any other she has experienced.
“We went with the masks and this Veterans Day is so important to me is because I just lost my mom a couple of months ago to COVID,” she said. “We were using masks and the whole nine yards because she was an older lady with underlining conditions, and we did everything we could to protect her.”
Shaw feels her mother began to prepare her months before she died. As expected, grief fueled with anxiety brought the symptoms of PTSD back, but she had the experience of how to get help and where to find support. She advocates for other veterans and leads by example in seeking help.
“I embrace this season; it's hot,” she said. “I embrace it. Yeah, I'm crazy. I'm crazy in love with my country and those are my people. I'm crazy in love with the military and I know it represents and what it's done for me.”
Shaw is a maintenance clerk for Zachary now, but she still advocates for other veterans as a way to help her deal with PTSD. She’s busy in another battle in both May and June. May is National Mental Health Awareness month and June is set aside to raise awareness of PTSD. She battles the misconception that Department of Veterans Affairs facilities will provide little to no help.
“In the past five, six years, I have been advocating and telling people go to the VA,” she said. “When I go to the VA, I tell them ‘people don't want to come here because of such and such’ and the VA has improved, you just have to get out there, those veterans have to get out there and do it.”
The journey from East Feliciana 4-Her to Army Reserve Specialist Shaw didn’t end at veteran and PTSD victim. When Shaw is thanked for her service, she sees herself as not just a survivor, but a victor.
“I had learned some lessons over the past few months and became victor not a victim,” she said. “Because if I kept letting myself be a victim, I'm always going to stay down there. No one is gonna treat me like a victim.”