I was chatting with someone at lunch today about President Obama’s commitment to bring home the majority of our Troops from Iraq by August of 2010. One of the biggest issues that our Veterans of Iraq will face in their transition back to the States is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as have Veterans who came before them. In a discussion I had a little over a year ago with a counselor at the Seattle Veteran’s Center, the counselor said that current stats showed that 1 in 5 Veterans returning from a combat zone had PTSD. However, he also noted that he thought that number was grossly underestimated due to the high number of Troops who feel a responsibility to handle their stress on their own and not complain when they feel that there were others who had it worse than they do. His best guess was that the reality was probably closer to 75% - 85%.
Admittedly, I am not an expert on PTSD. But in my observation with counselors and Troops who have experienced PTSD, it appears that PTSD can range widely from relatively minor changes in personality to severe stress, flashbacks, and acts of violence. In a documentary movie that I just watched this past weekend called “Brothers at War”, the girlfriend of one Soldier remarked at how different he was upon his return from Iraq. She said that he’s much more serious; that he doesn’t laugh as much; in fact, he doesn’t show any emotion at all. In fact, he gets irritated at her when she gets emotional.
In another conversation that I had recently, a woman told me of a personal friend of hers who was married to a Marine Veteran of Iraq. His PTSD led to vivid, violent dreams wherein he believed he was being attacked. During one such dream, he physically attacked his wife and snapped her neck. Fortunately, after spending ten days in the hospital, she recovered. Most unfortunately, she returned home to discover that her husband had hung himself.
At the risk of stating the obvious, this has to stop. Now.
Again, having no personal experience in combat or with PTSD myself, I asked a friend, a Master Sergeant with over 20 years experience and three tours in Iraq about his. I told him that, in my observation, today’s military is doing an excellent job of training our Troops to disassociate from their fear and rely on their training in stressful situations so that they can get their job done and survive. But where they are falling short is in training our Troops on what to do with that fear and stress when they are no longer in combat, when the adrenaline is no longer pumping, and when that fear comes back up from where they stuffed it. I asked him if he would agree with that analysis. He replied, in a nutshell, yes – that’s exactly it.
I asked my friend what I could do to help. I said, I’m not an expert at PTSD – I don’t know what to do, or how to be of any help. He replied that, aside from his therapy, the most important thing he can do to deal with the feelings is to talk about it. The most important thing I can do – we can do, then, is to listen. Don’t judge it. Don’t rationalize it. Don’t justify it, minimize it, or try to fix it. Just listen. Know that you’ll never truly understand it unless you’ve been there, and that’s ok. Try to as best you can. The most important thing is simply to be there for them – to create a safe space where they can let this stuff out.
There will be opportunities in the near future for us to take proactive steps to help our Veterans deal with the hell we’ve put them through, and to prevent future generations from having to experience combat-related PTSD. I hope that when that opportunity presents itself you’ll join me in taking action. In the mean time, let’s practice being there for our Veterans.