SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) — On March 23, 1994, as it made its approach to Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina, the nose of an F-16 clipped the right rear elevator of a C-130 in mid-air. Although the stricken transport managed to circle around for a safe landing, the jet fighter crew had to eject as their doomed plane, on full afterburner, hurtled toward the base.
Upon slamming into the east-west runway, the wreckage of the F-16 continued to tumble toward a staging area where some 500 paratroopers were preparing for joint Army-Air Force maneuvers. The scattering debris ripped the fuel tank of a parked C-141 transport, which ignited a massive fireball that injured more than 80 soldiers and eventually claimed the lives of 24.
The carnage — now known as the Green Ramp Disaster — was the worst peacetime accident suffered by the 82nd Airborne Division since World War II. But for survivor Shawn O'Hara, the story didn't end there.
Adhering to a suck-it-up-and-move-on mindset, the Desert Storm veteran couldn't escape the night sweats, the ghastly dreams and re-runs of shrieking colleagues drenched in flames. The nightmare often ended on the same abrupt note, with a last-gasp appeal from a disfigured victim, lips and nose missing: "I'm thirsty; can I have something to drink?"
"It got to the place where I never wanted to sleep," recalls O'Hara, "so I was exhausted a lot, and to most people it appeared that I was lazy. But it was easier for me to shut down than to talk about it."
It was also easier for him to anesthetize himself with vodka until he passed out. Among the untallied casualties was O'Hara's marriage. He had no hobbies, participated in no social activities, shunned friends, avoided public excursions. "I was totally paranoid — I always had the feeling that something bad was going to happen."
And that's where it might have ended, in the burgeoning Department of Veterans Affairs database for post-traumatic stress disorder, where roughly 8,000 veterans from as far back as Vietnam find it easier to kill themselves each year than to contend with the past.
Then, last October, O'Hara, 43, met neuropsychologist George Lindenfeld in Asheville, North Carolina. Lindenfeld offered him a cushioned headset and plugged him into a hand-held gizmo called the Bio-Acoustical Utilization Device (BAUD).
For the next 20 minutes or so, Lindenfeld asked O'Hara to mentally revisit the Green Ramp Disaster. When the session ended, it sounded like a Hollywood script.
"It changed me. It was instantaneous; I've never slept so good in my life," he insists from his home in North Carolina. "It sounds too good to be true, I know. Believe me, when I first heard about it, you have no idea how skeptical I was."
It was as if the incapacitating emotions connected to the 20-year-old horror story had disintegrated. Today, O'Hara counts himself as a yet another one of Lindenfeld's success stories. And he is eager to talk about it.
"I'll do anything I can to help George spread the word," he said, "because I want to help other veterans the way he helped me."
The object is about the size of an old Palm Pilot, and lightweight. Approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a Class II biofeedback device, the BAUD has four silver knobs — separate left and right volume controls, one dial for frequency, and another marked "Disrupter." It retails for $479.
Its therapeutic applications are based on a brain-wave phenomenon, first documented in 1839, called binaural beats. A Prussian physicist discovered that when one ear receives an audio signal tone of, say 100 Hertz, and the other ear simultaneously is given a 120 Hz feed, the brain hears the difference, a 20 Hz frequency.
Nearly two centuries later, the exploration of binaural beats remains an infant science. But some mental health therapists claim that emotional scars created by acute trauma can be targeted through acoustical neuromodulation. And that those residual "fear circuits" can be blocked and reset to pre-trauma normalcy.
George Lindenfeld, who moved from Asheville to Sarasota's Pelican Cove neighborhood in late 2014, is one of BAUD's most passionate advocates. With 45 years of clinical practice under his belt, the Navy veteran says he's used neuromodulation to successfully treat more than 60 patients over the past five years for a variety of ailments, from depression to chronic pain.
"We used to think of memory as written in stone, but it changes constantly each time we recall it," said Lindenfeld, 75. "A triggering event has an effect on how memory is stored and restored, over and over and over again. But if we can disrupt the reconsolidation of that memory, then we can wipe out the emotional attachment to it."
Imagine a triggering event as a spark that fuses two limbic-system neural circuits together and traps the emotions it generated. That's called consolidation.
Years later, a therapist hooks a patient up to the BAUD's sound-wave generator and, adjusting the frequency dial, asks him or her to reactivate those damaged circuits by remembering the trauma. The patient will eventually communicate — either verbally or via non-verbal cues like labored breathing — that they're confronting the event.
The therapist then introduces a second "disruptor" tone which triggers a binaural beat to sever the link between the targeted memory and its emotional reconsolidation. "I use the analogy of a light switch," says Lindenfeld. "At one point, your brain was working fine until the trauma, and then it got stuck. Talking doesn't help turn off the switch; you've got to go in and reset it."
Lately, Lindenfeld has been focusing on military veterans plagued by PTSD. He says the Department of Veterans Affairs has ignored his appeals to investigate his research. The VA's public affairs office in Washington, D.C., did not reply to a Herald-Tribune request for comment.
But Lindenfeld's patients, many of whom have exhausted more conventional therapies, are beginning to speak out.
Something that works
"The weird thing is, no matter how hard I've tried to get back there, I can't do it," says 48-year-old Richard Carman, who claims to have purged his anxieties after just two of Lindenfeld's BAUD sessions in 2013. "I didn't get that choking feeling, or the pressure in my chest. I mean, it's just gone."
Carman, whose 26-year military career included a 16-month tour of Iraq in 2005-06, isn't complaining. It's just that he couldn't find a label for his pent-up anger until he left the Army in 2011. When the Asheville resident consulted the VA for help, it referred him to Lindenfeld, who rendered the PTSD verdict.
With Lindenfeld applying the disruptor frequency as Carman returned to Baghdad and Mosul, Carman says he felt the old intensities dissipate immediately. "And I wasn't even talking about it — I was just imagining it."
Carman says veterans with PTSD issues deserve a shot at neuromodulation therapy. His next-door neighbor had a nephew, a Marine, who recently took his life. "I don't think we can just sit back and ignore treatment that might've helped him just because it's unorthodox," says Carman, who teaches high school ROTC.
Ron LaPointe was in Vietnam during the worst of it, in 1967-68.
Except for May 25 — the anniversary of an especially intense firefight — LaPointe, a musician and high school social studies teacher, thought he had his flashbacks under control. Then he moved to western North Carolina, where the Smokies reminded him of Vietnam's Central Highlands. At that point, his wife told him he needed professional help.
Then came three sessions of BAUD therapy. The nightmares stopped. Helicopters and loud noises no longer jolted him out of his skin. LaPointe describes the results as "pretty amazing."
The BAUD was originally developed, in 2003, by psychologist Frank Lawlis to treat attention deficit disorders. His profile is high. Author of books such as "PTSD Breakthroughs" and "The Autism Answer," college mentor to talk-show host Phil McGraw, Lawlis is a frequent consultant on "Dr. Phil."
According to a report co-authored by Lindenfeld and associate Richard Bruursema, Lawlis' acoustical intervention therapy has been used more than 300,000 times in 16 countries. But from his PsychoNeuroPlasticity office in Lewisville, Texas, Lawlis says he has yet to get his work published in a peer-reviewed science journal.
Lawlis says he and other researchers have "used [electroencephalogram] brain maps to show the effects of BAUD therapy," but the missing link is sharper images through functional magnetic resonance imaging, which assesses brain activity through blood flow.
"The problem with EEGs is, they don't go deep enough. They can show the cortex lighting up but they can't get into the amygdala, where so much activity with memory retrieval takes place."
In fact, a recent study at the University of Kansas' Hogland Brain Imaging Center subjected an arachnophobic patient to an fMRI scan during BAUD therapy. While not a PTSD case, the photos documented dramatic blood-flow contrasts when the patient viewed controlled photos and spider photos.
According to the Lindenfeld/Bruursema summary, the "images show post-BAUD intervention changes and identify brain areas clearly associated with both trauma and memory encoding and retrieval, thereby adding support to our theory of this acoustical stimulation as a memory reconsolidation therapy."
Lawlis says a first-phase imaging study could be conducted for as little as $100,000, but that his applications for grant funding have been unsuccessful.
Bruusema, founder and CEO of Insight NeuroSystems in Olathe, Kansas, says acquiring the sort of data that would satisfy VA standards could be "extraordinarily expensive." But Bruusema, one of just a handful of BAUD distributors in America, says confronting PTSD with all available tools is a "humanitarian" imperative.
"The real tragedy," he adds, "is it also impacts their family, their spouse, their children, their friends. It's a ripple effect that affects all of us."
Retired and not licensed to practice in Florida, Lindenfeld says he hopes to consult with local professionals about establishing BAUD therapies for veterans in southwest Florida.
"For me, this is a quantum leap in the field of medicine," Lindenfeld says. "This is certainly not about money. I've made more money repairing houses than I've made as a practicing psychologist."