The Plague of PTSD

As a peace activist, I am disturbed by how little attention the media and the public give to the plague of PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder.

I’ve had a partially written post about PTSD in my Drafts folder for months. I’m moved to finish it after reading a New Yorker magazine article to which I was linked by Karen Porter, founder of Chester County (PA) Peace Movement, in an email to the movement’s mailing list. The article, published this past Monday, is “The Last Tour: A decorated marine’s war within” by William Finnegan.

My regular readers (all half dozen of you), I suspect, know what PTSD is. Here’s how Finnegan describes it:

It has been called by different names—shell shock, battle fatigue—in different eras, but P.T.S.D., in its combat form, has been around for as long as war has. Odysseus and his men had it. Although [PTSD sufferer Travis] Twiggs used the word “paranoid” to describe his mood when he was Stateside, the more accurate term, used by P.T.S.D. researchers, might be “hypervigilance”—a normal adaptive strategy for surviving combat, except that the “on” switch is not easily turned off. Dr. Jonathan Shay, a P.T.S.D. specialist, thinks that even calling it a disorder is misleading: P.T.S.D. is an injury. There are degrees of damage, ranging from standard combat stress, which can be treated with a few days’ rest, to full-blown complex P.T.S.D., which is very difficult to treat, let alone cure. It is best understood, though, as a psychic wound, one that can be crippling, even fatal, in its myriad complications.

A CBS News study in 2005 found the suicide rate for veterans is twice that of other Americans.

How many of us have truly suffered stress that reaches the traumatic threshold? Hard to say. Each one of us would define that threshold differently. The cliché “it’s all relative” is apt. From my experience I would cite as traumatic stress a day cruise on a small craft ill-equipped to handle Hurricane Agnes-whipped Chesapeake Bay waters in 1972. I would also cite the births of my sons, especially the first and the third. My oldest, having apparently realized it was his appointed due date, all of the sudden opted for an almost too quick exit from the womb, scaring the bejeebers out of his mom and me, a first-time dad. My youngest ended his gestation in breach position and was therefore surgically extracted from his mom’s belly.

But those instances of stress, whether traumatic or not, were fairly short-lived — over in hours and minutes, respectively — and, let’s face it, pale in comparison to the stress of combat (as I perceive it).

Let’s think about combat stress. Imagine you’re a soldier. You’re in a strange land, interacting with a vastly different culture than that which you are accustomed. The weather is ungodly hot. In this weather you’re wearing a bulky combat uniform and carrying a heavy, unwieldy firearm You’re teamed with soldiers you’ve known for only a short time. With some you’ve developed a strong bond. Others you do not like or even trust. Danger lurks not only around every corner but also right out in the open. You could be shot or blown to a bits at any second. The same goes for all of your fellow soldiers. You could be called upon — likely with only a moment’s notice — to discharge your firearm. Your target could be bent on doing you harm … or they could be an innocent civilian. You might not have time to decide which. Because in your heart you believe in the righeousness of the commandment “thou shalt not kill”, the distinction is irrelevant. You watch people die … and as you watch you are conflicted as to whether your “mission” is ill-conceived.

Now that is traumatic stress … and no doubt there are additional aspects it didn’t occur to me to mention. I’m reminded of the old public service announcement “this is your brain on drugs“. How can the effect on one’s brain — indeed one’s whole body and being — of being “on” PTSD — that is, in the aftermath of expsoure to combat stress — be anything but horrid? From Finnegan’s article:

What is broken, what is lost, above all, with complex P.T.S.D. is social trust, according to Jonathan Shay, one of its most astute analysts. Wounded warriors come home and feel that they can trust no one—not even their spouses. Under the pressure of constant, violent, involuntary psychic contraction (terror, self-loathing) and expansion (rage, grandiosity, mania), character itself shrivels.

There is much more to Finnegan’s article. It is, for the most part a case study of soldier Travis Twigg’s losing fight with PTSD and the collateral damage inflicted upon his family and friends. The article, like many New Yorker pieces, is quite long but well worth reading and guaranteed to provoke an emotional response.

Why do I refer to PTSD as a plague? Consider this:

Nearly one in five service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan (approximately 300,000) have post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms or major depression.

The above piece, originally published as an op-ed in the Hartford Courant, also tells how the Department of Veterans Affairs has been engaging in a coverup of the extent of the problem.

For this plague — and coverup — we have our ongoing occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan to thank. What’s worse, as Daily Kos user Winston Sm1th points out in his comment on mcjoan‘s post commemorating Memorial Day 2008:

Because of recruiting pressure, the military is accepting people who should not be accepted due to psychiatric illness. While PTSD alone will raise suicide rates, young people with psychiatric history will significantly raise the rates of suicide among veterans.

As you evaluate the costs of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy blunders — and decide whether and how to take action, I implore you not to neglect the plague of PTSD.

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4 comments so far

  1. Gina on

    May I share this?

  2. QC on

    @Gina:
    Certainly. Thank you.

  3. Served on

    “What is broken, what is lost, above all, with complex P.T.S.D. is social trust”

    Medivacced in 03 – PTSD Diagnosis in ’08’ –

    War changes man – the return to who you were is only a dream –

    PTSD rewires the brain – it is a disease from which there is no recovery – only a path away from the worst of it.

    First Medical text is out – “Handbook of PTSD” – read it!

    Read Francis Fukuyama “Trust” – the breakdown is going to be beyond just us guys..

    Thanks for writing this – It helps!

  4. QC on

    @Served:
    My heart goes out to you.

    Thanks for the book recommendations. I hope to post more about this. In fact, my microscopic cranny of the ‘net here at QC is yours should you wish to write a guest post. For one, I’m curious to know why the diagnosis took five years. If you’re interested, contact me at the email addy on the About page.

    May you find and stay on a path away from the worst of your disease.


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