Wednesday, May 7, 2008

PTSD and Going Home

According to a study released by RAND Corporation last month nearly 20 percent of those in the military returning from Iraq and Afghanistan reported symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder or depression. That's about 30,000 people -- imagine 9/11 happening everyday for one month straight but instead of victims dying they all receive debilitating psychological injuries.

Now I'm not trying to jockey up some political positioning here, I'm just stating the facts. The fact is post-9/11 war has not only sent over 4,000 men and women to their graves, but it's injured others as well -- the injuries that aren't visible.

There's a social stigma to seeking a mental health treatment. In fact, only half of the 30,000 uniformed troops that have suffered psychologically have sought psychological assistance. Some of my closest friends have seen VA psychotherapists, some others should, but I doubt they will. For one thing, it has been believed that a person could lose his/her security clearance. As a response to that, and to try and steer clear of the social stigma surrounding such psychological treatment, the Department of Defense announced last week that applicants for government security clearances will not have to report mental health treatment for injuries related to combat, posed on question number 21. I think that's a positive change.

The other reason I doubt some of my close friends will seek mental health treatment is because they fear they'll be viewed as less capable, or weak, by themselves, their colleagues or commanders. I can think of one of my friends in particular. He's been fighting every year since 9/11 as an Army Green Beret. I doubt he goes to regular counseling. He told me, however, that he has had some real terrible experiences, experiences that most people would never understand. I think one of the reasons he keeps volunteering for deployments is because it's nearly impossible for anyone, including his family, to understand him. Surely, he feels at home now among his brothers-in-arms, fighting day-to-day.

Adjusting from continued stress and pressure experienced in war, or trying to learn to re-live again after experiencing combat, has been a trial for human beings since the beginning of time. Let's just consider America's past few wars and the terms used to describe what military personnel had been through. Today the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is prevalent. Here's what the overall stress and the 'disorder' -- a stigma by name itself -- has been labeled in the past:

Civil War -- "Soldier's heart"
WWI -- "Shell shock"
WWII -- "Battle fatigue"
Korean War -- "War neurosis"
Vietnam -- "Post-Vietnam syndrome"

PTSD is different than being worn out through the overall war experience, which has simply been referred to here as "Combat stress." Dave Grossman suggests one aspect of PTSD is like when you put your hand on a hot oven as a kid. You'll do that only once. You learn. It's deeply embedded into your brain. Likewise, you also learn in combat that some things aren't good and you don't want to experience them again. That's one of the reasons when a car backfires some war veterans have flashbacks or reactions. In short, those responses are "normal reactions to abnormal circumstances."

I'll never forget when my friend told me his dad, a Vietnam veteran, dove out of bed and hit the floor screaming one 4th of July when being awakened by fireworks.

I flew in a Blackhawk helicopter over Iraq today and I reflected on past wars, carnage and bloodshed. I said a little prayer of thanksgiving for the great peace that has come to Iraq in the year I've been here. I hope it stays that way, because I'm ready to leave it all behind.

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