I am writing this on Memorial Day and my mind turns not only to the men and women who have died, but to those who are alive and are now, or have been, in combat.
I can’t even imagine what it would be like to fear for my life every minute of every day, always on the alert. To think the next person I saw I might have to kill in order to survive. Or feel that if I let down my guard just for a second, the people around me might die. And how would I cope with never knowing who was my friend, who was my enemy?
A friend’s son, whom I will call Mike, returned after his third tour of duty, torn up, depressed and angry. His wife finally left him and he felt alone and vulnerable, but he refused help because he thought that would make him appear weak. Mike never rekindled old relationships or went back to work after returning. Instead he hung around only with other veterans who had also served in Iraq. They understood and that comforted him.
Then one day a few of his friends met at his home and decided to play Russian roulette. As you have probably guessed, Mike shot himself. His death was officially attributed to a gun accident. I would have called it something else.
Whether we like it or not, this kind of severe stress, especially over a long period of time, greatly effects the body, the mind, the emotions. All three constantly work together, feeding back to each other. We are created in such a way that when we are in danger or even perceive danger, adrenaline and then the hormone, cortisol, are pumped into our body. This process is normal and essential for survival, and it gives us a boost so we can escape or fight. Terrific. But especially if this process is prolonged like it is in war, that normal response may well get stuck for what seems like no reason, like a honking horn or a doorbell, and the person can’t turn it off regardless how hard he tries. Often the person feels as though he is going insane.
This “stuck horn” is what we call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and it effects both men and women. Weakness has nothing to do with it and we need to get that out of our heads. As a matter of fact it takes great courage and strength to work with a psychotherapist to regain normalcy in life.
According to statistics 12%-15% of our forces are coming back with PTSD and if Vietnam is any indication, that will rise to around 30% within ten years after their return. Many soldiers are now serving three tours of duty which only prolongs the tremendous stress they experience and makes them more vulnerable to PTSD. Projections indicate that many, many men and women in combat will receive no help for their emotional pain, their sleeplessness, their flashbacks, their nightmares.
We as a nation have chosen to send the military to fight and therefore bear responsibility for the troops’ emotional as well as physical health. We owe it to them. Remember, there is help.
So what are we doing to take care of these men and women as they return? According to what I have read and witnessed, most troops ask for help because friends and family have noticed their distress and have convinced them to go. We can all do at least that much.
MORE LATER ON SYMPTOMS AND SOLUTIONS.