Virginia Beach veteran writes children’s books to cope with PTSD – The Virginian-Pilot

An Iraq War veteran with invisible trauma has found a unique way to deal with his anxiety and post-traumatic stress: writing children’s books featuring his beloved dog.

Larry Wexler, a Virginia Beach native and former Army colonel, recently published a children’s book, “The Forest of Dreams,” inspired by his desire to escape the deployment anxieties he still carries with him. The book tells the story of a young boy who is led through an enchanted forest by his two parrots, Max and Maggie, based on Wexler’s real-life puppy.

Larry Wexler holds his parrot dog, Max, at his Virginia Beach, Va., residence on Dec. 8, 2022.Wexler is the author of this children's book "dream forest," and an Iraq war veteran. Wexler has begun drafting his second book, which will include a larger role for his dog in the story.

“It’s about escapism … some people ride horses. For me, it’s Max and Maggie and writing children’s books,” said Wexler, whose 3-year-old red cocker spaniel, Max, jumped on his lap.

While Wexler hadn’t written a book before, he said he loved writing growing up and even remembers winning an eighth grade writing competition. Before starting “Dream Forest,” he considered writing an autobiography or memoir about his time in the military, but says his favorite is literature for children.

“I choose children’s stories because children are innocent. They don’t have the baggage of adults,” Wexler said. “The whole world is open to them. They can dream about anything and in many cases make it happen.”

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Wexler joined the Army in 1978 and served active duty until 1989 when he left active duty to join the Army Reserve. But it wasn’t until he was deployed to Balad, Iraq, in 2009 that he began to experience serious anxiety. His first night in the unfamiliar Middle Eastern war zone was spent alone in his housing unit, without ammunition, as “coming, coming” warnings sounded.

Larry Wexler stands at his award-winning portrait at his Virginia Beach, Va., residence on Dec. 8, 2022.Wexler is the author of this children's book "dream forest," and an Iraq war veteran. Wexler served from 1978 to 2009 and retired as a colonel.

According to Wexler, this high-stress job was made worse by a lack of camaraderie. He lives alone, eats alone and has a private office, which he said was “completely different” from his first deployment to Iraq in 2005. He said he was further isolated when he was promoted to deputy program director of the Iraqi Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program.

After the command shared tips on how to recognize PTSD, Wexler self-referred to the Combat Stress Clinic to treat his suspected PTSD.

“I thought, yeah, I’m probably yelling at people I shouldn’t be doing, and I’m not sleeping well at night because I’m janitorial,” Wexler said.

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A psychiatrist said Wechsler had an “adjustment disorder” and prescribed him medication and scheduled regular counseling sessions. According to the Defense Health Service, adjustment disorder symptoms are a response to an identifiable stressor that occurred sometime within the past three months — this could include a new job, the end of a relationship, the loss of a loved one . These symptoms can range from anxiety to depression to mood swings and usually go away when the stressor is gone. Post-traumatic stress, on the other hand, is considered a long-term condition that develops after a traumatic event.

“I didn’t tell anyone because of the stigma associated with PTSD at the time and because I was a colonel — fearing that I would be perceived as weak,” Wexler said.

Wexler spent about eight months in Iraq before stepping down, effectively ending his 30-year career as an Army armor officer. Wechsler said his order took issue with his attempts to improve the program.

Memorial shells dedicated to Larry Wexler are displayed at his Virginia Beach, Virginia, residence on December 8, 2022.

“So I came home suffering from both PTSD and being isolated and punished for my work and trying to reform the contracting environment in Iraq. I was David against Goliath but without the slingshot Stone. My whole value system has been turned upside down. I’m lost now,” Wexler said.

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Wexler struggled with mental health for more than a decade after his last deployment. After being diagnosed with PTSD in the United States, he sought treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs and private mental health professionals, to no avail. He was unable to sleep alone at home for months, and the dark parking lot sparked memories of his time in Iraq. It wasn’t until October 2020 that he found an outlet that helped relieve his anxiety and gave him new purpose.

“The idea for this children’s book came to me one day when Max and Maggie and I were sitting in a chair while I was looking at (Chesapeake) Bay,” Wexler said.

Wexler puts the pen to paper, drawing inspiration from his super-but-everything-loving Cocappo. The dogs are littermates who spend their outside time romping on the beaches of the Chesapeake Bay, chasing ghost crabs and seagulls. Max and Maggie’s real-life adventures guide Wexler’s writing, just as they guide his protagonist Adam in the book.

“Adam is who I am. In Iraq, even in the apartment, I was as lonely as Adam. And ‘Dream Forest’ was my safe haven, where you need to hold on to your dreams and make them come true,” Wexler said, adding Adding that he brings the carefree, playful energy of dogs into the book.

Wexler published Forest of Dreams in October through Olympia Press, which illustrated the book. He’s already planning another book – one with bigger characters and deeper messages for Max and Maggie.

“I wanted to try and make the Forest of Dreams series help kids deal with life issues – like if someone lost their dad in Iraq, it would show them that their dad is still in their hearts. It would help them get through it , like how this book helped me get through it,” Wexler said.

For Wechsler, publishing these books wasn’t about making money—it was pouring his trauma into his writing.

“It’s about finding something to help with PTSD. It’s about coping in a positive way and not giving up,” Wexler said.

Caitlin Burchett, [email protected]


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