Mike Winnick, retired Director of Veteran Services, Jewish War Veterans of the USA, served for a year as a combat medic in Vietnam in 1966. He was twenty years old when he was drafted, and describes himself at that time as feeling “invulnerable. A twenty year old isn’t afraid of anything.” He sutured soldiers’ wounds while under mortar attack, delivered a baby, and continually risked his life to save others. He was awarded a Bronze Star Medal with a V (Valor) device for his heroism in ground combat.
It was not until more than 10 years after Vietnam that Winnick realized he had Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He suffered from nightmares and flashbacks. He went to see his son on visiting day at a summer camp in upstate NY and picked up a raft by the river and put it over his shoulder as he hiked in the heat through the woods. A helicopter passed overhead and all of a sudden he was right back in Vietnam. His son saw the noticeable change in him and he had to go into an air conditioned car to come out of this state. Winnick was also plagued by recurring nightmares of being on a river in a rubber boat and would wake up, startled, as soon as there came a bend in the river.
In 2001 and 2002, Winnick travelled to this exact river in Vietnam, hoping it would trigger him to remember what could have happened there that affected him so deeply, but his mind still won’t allow him to access certain periods of time. “A big part of my (problem) is amnesia,” he says. “Half my time in Vietnam I have no memory of….I had retrograde hypnosis…every time we got to the point where I have blockage, I would snap out of the hypnosis.”
When Winnick returned home to New Jersey after the war, he wasn’t able to feel anything at all. He remembers, “When I got out of the service, I had a cousin getting married and he asked me to march in his wedding…at the reception afterwards, one of the girls said to me, ‘How did you kill women and little children?’ and I answered, ‘Aim a little lower and give them more lead time.’” He explains that “total indifference or anger” were the only emotions he was able to experience.
After meeting with Winnick for an hour, a psychologist could sense the extreme level of stress his body was under and suggested he get treatment. He remembers, “When I went to one of the Vietnam vet meetings, one of the guys told me, ‘You’ve really got to get yourself some help.’…The fact was, I was in bad shape and never knew it…To me, my life was normal…It was everybody else who was in bad shape.”
Winnick’s wife, Gloria, describes seeing the change in her husband as his PTSD symptoms intensified over the years. “When he was numb, he wasn't like the loving person he was when I first married him… he was a happy-go-lucky, social person who played cards with the men, and then all of a sudden he became antisocial and angry all the time. He wasn't affectionate, He just didn't care about anything. He was like a broken down person… When his parents passed away, (there was) not a drop of a tear.”
In 1988, nineteen years after Winnick returned home, he enrolled in a drug study at the East Orange VA Medical Center, which was conducted by a psychiatrist, Dr. Hillel Glover, who specializes in PTSD. Dr. Glover administered an opioid antagonist called nalmefene (marketed in Israel under the tradename "Selincro") to Winnick and other combat veterans, with the idea that it could reverse emotional numbing or feelings of being dead inside. Nalmefene was a research drug that had only been approved previously by the FDA for the treatment of alcohol abuse.
The most amazing and surprising finding of this study was that all symptoms of PTSD reversed or were significantly reduced in the veterans who went up to the highest dosages. Results of the study were published in the Israel Journal of Psychiatry.
Winnick’s flashbacks and nightmares disappeared on nalmefene. He also started becoming emotionally connected to other people again, which he describes as “relearning emotions.”
One of those emotions was love, which he says he relearned from his wife and children. “Nalmefene helped me to feel it, to understand it.” He told his wife he loved her and began enjoying socializing with other people, rather than just wishing time would pass. He stopped drinking and lost the desire to drink.
Gloria reports noticing a gradual change socially in Winnick. “When he was on nalmefene, he was more emotional, he was more affectionate. He showed he cared about things….then he started going to the games with my son or my daughter with their Little League…He did a 180. I felt like I had my husband back.”
Winnick adds, “Her life was tough and rough and difficult because she had to deal with me, and I never saw myself as being the problem…We’re married now 52 years. There aren’t many Vietnam vets that have marriages that last that long.”
Unable to hold back tears, Winnick describes how he received his college degree at the same time that his daughter, Shari, graduated from Rutgers University. “If it wasn’t for the nalmefene, I wouldn’t have gotten to the point where I was getting a degree, “ he explains. “It helped me to relate to what I was studying…Nalmefene allowed me to see life from a different perspective. I wasn’t seeing it from Vietnam anymore.”
Even though Winnick stopped taking nalmefene after a year and a half, he recently reported to Dr. Glover that he continued to experience beneficial effects of the drug for twenty-three years. Although Winnick was on nalmefene for a year and a half, he only took the maximum available dose of 200 mg. twice a day for four weeks.
Winnick is looking to obtain nalmefene for compassionate use and record his experiences on and off the drug, so people suffering from PTSD can see firsthand the changes he experiences to give them hope.
Last year, The Media Line reported that “figures published by the World Health Organization suggest that almost 4% of the global population and 30% of combat soldiers develop PTSD. For Israelis who undertake compulsory military service, many of whom encounter combat in some form, these figures are likely significantly higher.”
Since Covid, the percentage of people suffering from PTSD worldwide has increased. A 2022 study titled, “Shared trauma during the COVID-19 pandemic: Psychological effects on Israeli mental health nurses” states that “Recent studies have demonstrated that the pandemic has characteristics consonant with a global traumatic event, with evidence from populations in Italy (Forte et al. 2020), China (Lai et al. 2020), and Israel (Lahav 2020).”
Nalmefene is available in Israel, and there is now available a faster way to administer the drug that enables the optimal dosage to be reached in less than two weeks. Dr. Glover is currently contacting doctors in Israel in the hopes that trauma centers will be interested in conducting studies to help IDF soldiers and Israeli civilians suffering from PTSD.