ROY — Jason Velez knows the stark reality of returning to life away from a combat zone.
In order to heal after his two tours of duty in Iraq, Velez began modifying his Dodge Ram 2500 truck more than two years ago to look like the Mine Resistant Anti Penetrate he often drove during his deployment.
Velez chuckles when recalling how the idea began: He told his fellow airmen as a joke that he had gotten so used to using an MRAP that he wanted to go home and convert his truck into one — never thinking it would become part of his healing regimen after his counselor suggested he do something creative to deal with his post-deployment anxiety.
When Velez finishes the truck in the next couple of months, he plans to donate the truck to the Department of Veterans Affairs in hopes of using the vehicle to help veterans affected by post-deployment disorders.
When the idea of fabricating the truck started becoming a reality, Velez was determined to find a way of helping people understand the triggers that set off anxiety in veterans, such as certain smells, visuals, or even learning how to drive again in a noncombat zone.
Often, items such as wooden crates were used as decoys, Velez said, covering a hole filled with explosives wired to a detonation cellphone. “We were taught that every single thing is a threat and you watch for cues, so after many months of doing that, it is so hard-wired into your psyche, you can’t just undo it,” Velez said.
“For example, driving down the road to the mall and all of a sudden you see something roll into the street, you make a rapid lane change with no signal because you think you are going to be blown up, and you react by implementing evasive maneuvers, but we need to realize it’s just some debris that doesn’t need to cause a 10-car pileup.”
Velez believes that when veterans see vehicles resembling what they drove in a combat zone, it triggers their anxiety.
“You have to figure out how to reprogram your way of thinking that debris in the road is not a bomb, but put a positive thing to that trigger, so I thought if I took an insanely popular car choice and incorporated elements of an MRAP, then it might help bridge the gap between the negative and positive triggers,” said Velez.
“It may look like a pickup truck, but it has different warfare devices on it, so that when you walk up to the vehicle, you understand that it is not a rolling weapon or protective shell. Rather than seeing the direct representation of what the individual fears, they can try to get over that anxiety by processing the visual cues rather than having an emotional response by freaking out or breaking into sweats.”
The truck used to be Velez’s sole vehicle, so when he decommissioned the truck to begin overhauling it for the project, Velez contemplated getting a cheap vehicle for transportation. But his friends stepped up and offered their vehicles while he worked on his truck.
There were times when Velez wanted to give up, but he realized the project was getting the attention of people who supported his goal to help veterans. Not wanting to let anyone down, he persevered, even when it meant working out in the cold during the winter.
“If this could actually help people, then it has to get done. There is a stigma with PTSD, no matter how much people talk about it, you still feel shameful and broken, and the current treatments are so antiquated that veterans feel like it is not working,” Velez said.
“This idea, though, gets people excited when I talk to them. I can see the light going off in their eyes. Until now, this treatment method has never been considered. If one person can feel better and get back to being their normal self, or as close as they can, from the experience of being around this truck, that would be awesome.”