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The battle within: Fighting for mental health

IT analyst joins forces with a pup named Riley to support a loved one’s struggle with PTSD.

Editor’s note: Denver Water believes mental health is vital to overall wellness. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and Denver Water believes it is important to ensure that mental health, and the resources available to help, is part of the conversation.

Tracy Agrafas, an IT analyst in Denver Water’s Engineering department, grew up with many ties to military life, with family members serving in the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force.

“I’ve always been proud of my family’s contributions to our military, and I grew up understanding the sacrifices made by the men and women who were serving, and also the sacrifices their families face when they are deployed,” said Tracy.

Those sacrifices can continue — for both the service member and their families — long after a tour of duty ends. 

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 7% of all U.S. servicemen and women will experience post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in their lifetimes. That number rises to 29% for those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

This is the story of one of those families.

Tracy Agrafas with husband, Publio, and their rescue pup, Riley, in 2022. Photo credit: Mai Green.

With so many ties to military life, Tracy wasn’t surprised when the young man she struck up a conversation with on New Year’s Eve, as 2007 was just beginning, turned out to be an Air Force serviceman. 

The airman, Publio Agrafas, worked in telecommunications at Buckley Air Force Base and had returned the previous year from a four-month deployment in Kuwait at Ali Al Salem Air Base. 

Five months later, that conversation had grown into a relationship when Publio received orders to deploy to Iraq. He was among the more than 20,000 soldiers who were part of President George W. Bush’s 2007 troop surge into Iraq to increase security in the capital city of Baghdad and the surrounding area. 

Publio and Tracy began dating in 2007 after meeting at a New Year’s Eve party. Later in the year, they vacationed in Miami, the Florida Keys and Mexico after Publio’s deployment to Baghdad. Photo credit: Tracy Agrafas.

Publio was in a group tasked with maintaining security at Baghdad International Airport. 

“We were so lucky, thanks to the telecommunications work Publio did. Unlike others who were deployed, he was able to call home nearly every day thanks to his know-how and connections with soldiers running the telecommunications systems. Honestly, it’s probably what kept us together over the long distance since our relationship was still so new,” said Tracy.

While the couple was grateful for the opportunity to talk regularly, Tracy admits it was stressful at times. 

“Some of the worst calls were when I could hear air raid sirens going off in the background and Publio would have to hang up quickly. I always waited, holding my breath until the next time he could call,” she said. 

Publio in Baghdad in 2007, maintaining security at Baghdad International Airport during his deployment. Photo credit: Tracy Agrafas.

Tracy did what she could to stay busy, writing him letters and sending him care packages. 

“In the packages, I’d include a lot of really practical stuff that you wouldn’t normally think would be fun to get as a gift, but those were the things that meant the most to him,” said Tracy.

She would fill boxes with socks, undershirts, eyeglass cleaner and some of Publio’s favorite snacks and treats to remind him of home. 

“The weirdest thing I sent him was probably the packets of Taco Bell mild sauce I saved from trips through the restaurant’s drive-thru. Fresh food was limited, so they often had to eat MREs (meals ready to eat, which are the main operational food ration for the military). He’d use the hot sauce to camouflage the taste of some of the food to make it palatable.”

After his tour in Baghdad, Publio returned home, but Tracy knew almost immediately that he was not the same man who left.

“When I picked him up at the airport, the first thing I noticed was that he was very thin — he’d lost at least 30 pounds. He seemed fixated on trivial things and was easily agitated,” she said.

“That was my first clue that he had been greatly impacted by what he’d seen overseas.”

Read more about veterans at Denver Water.

Publio had witnessed many acts of violence in Baghdad, and he saw many fellow soldiers lose their lives. Those experiences had taken their toll on Publio’s mental health. 

Over the next few months, Tracy watched PTSD consume her boyfriend.

“The things he experienced were absolutely terrible. He was trying to cope the best way he knew how, but he was withdrawn, moody and very angry. He was adamant that he didn’t want to take medication, and he didn’t want to talk to me about what he was going through,” said Tracy.

But she was persistent. 

Tracy began searching for resources inside and outside the military, setting up appointments and encouraging Publio to talk about his experiences with counselors while he finished his military service back at Buckley.

“It was one of the toughest times of our lives. I worried about his safety, and sometimes asked myself why I was there, why I was staying with him,” admitted Tracy. 

“But our love for each other was strong. I believe it’s what sustained us through those really hard times. He was my best friend, and I desperately wanted to see him get better. That’s what kept me going,” said Tracy. 

The couple were married in 2010, and things slowly started to improve as they learned how to tackle Publio’s PTSD challenges together. 

Tracy and Publio were married Oct. 2, 2010, at Two Rivers Winery in Grand Junction, Colorado. Photo credit: Lisa Case Hill.

In 2011, the newlyweds hit a major turning point when they made a trip to the Humane Society to adopt a dog.

“Publio squatted down in front of a small terrier-mix puppy to say hello, and she climbed right up into his lap and started licking him all over. Without question, we were sold,” Tracy said.

Their new dog, named Riley, gave them a ray of hope. 

“I knew the minute she jumped into his lap that everything was going to be OK — that Publio would be OK.”

Riley gave Publio something to focus on other than the memories that haunted him.

“Riley helped him in ways that I couldn’t,” Tracy said. “She helped distract him from thinking constantly about the things he saw overseas. She helped him think about the future and sort of gave him a renewed purpose.”

Soon after Riley joined the family, Tracy saw a change in her husband. A purpose and passion was reignited. 

Riley in 2021. When they adopted the small terrier-mix puppy from the Humane Society in 2011, she had an immediate positive impact on the family. Photo credit: Tracy Agrafas.

After completing four years of service, Publio left the military and used the GI Bill (a program that helps veterans and their families pay for college, graduate school and training programs) to get a bachelor’s degree in computer science, easing into civilian life while focusing on his mental health with his wife by his side.

After more than 16 years together, Tracy admits their journey hasn’t always been easy. 

In 2022, they lost their beloved Riley to cancer. What could have been a crushing blow to Publio’s progress brought the couple together as they worked through their grief. 

“When we said goodbye to Riley, it was devastating. Publio and I had learned lots about each other over the years, and we were able to rely on each other to get through it. But it wasn’t easy. We still miss her so much,” she said.

And they continue to rely on each other with each passing milestone.

Tracy and Publio explore Denver’s Seventh Avenue Historic District in 2022. Photo credit: Tracy Agrafas.

“I can’t ever know exactly what it feels like to go through something traumatic like Publio and other servicemen and servicewomen have gone through, but I do know what it feels like to watch someone you love struggle with PTSD,” said Tracy. 

“It impacts every aspect of the entire family. It’s not just about getting help for your loved one, you have to seek support for yourself, too.”

At Denver Water, where Tracy started working in 2014, she found an understanding and supportive community that included other veterans and relatives of service members. 

Tracy teamed up with Denver Water’s Veteran’s Network in 2015 to hold a care package drive for military members serving overseas. Photo credit: Tracy Agrafas.

Tracy encourages anyone dealing with PTSD or other mental health challenges to ask for help. But she admits it’s not easy.

“There is such a strong stigma, especially for people in the military, that you’re weak if you ask for help. I fought against that stigma with Publio for so long,” said Tracy.

“Our soldiers shouldn’t have to want for anything, they have made tremendous sacrifices, and they should be taken care of — especially when it comes to mental health services.”

Her biggest piece of advice for anyone watching a loved one go through similar challenges? Be relentless. 

“Don’t let them give up, and don’t give up on them.” 

Tracy joined Denver Water in 2014, where she works as an IT analyst in the utility’s Engineering department. She encourages those dealing with PTSD to ask for help and lean on others for support. Photo credit: Tracy Agrafas.