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writing for godot

When PTSD Calls

Written by Dennis Perkinson   
Monday, 28 May 2012 11:43
After the War Between the States, it was called “soldier’s heart.”

After WWI, it was called “shell shock.”

After WWII and the Korean War, it was called “battle fatigue.”

Since Vietnam, it has been known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—PTSD for short.

In Iowa, two men, ages 21 and 23, attempted to rob a farm. When caught in the act by two farmers, the younger men savagely beat the farmers, inflicting skull fractures, facial fractures and a broken arm. The two men were arrested.

In Tennessee, a 25-year-old man kidnapped his girlfriend at gunpoint, forced her to drive to an ATM machine, took the money, drove her back to her home, and then raped her. The man was arrested.

In Colorado, a 35-year-old man shot his pregnant wife five times in the head and neck, then turned the gun on himself.

In Washington State, a 19-year-old man stabbed his 18-year-old wife to death. He was arrested.

In Oregon, a man was arrested after the body of his wife was found in a van. She had been shot through the throat.

In Missouri, a 25-year-old man hanged himself in his residence after he had been arrested for a domestic disturbance involving his wife.

In Lexington, KY, a 59-year-old former Navy hospital corpsman who had served with the marines at Khe Sanh wrote about his horrific experiences in a book entitled Red Clay on My Boots. He later earned a doctorate in history and taught at Eastern Kentucky University. He started a second book based on his study of the Vietnam War, veterans’ issues and the effects of Agent Orange. In August 2008, he took the manuscript for his second book, checked into a hotel, and killed himself. Friends believe his second book was just too painful for him to finish.

These are just some of the thousands of stories that have been taking place all over America. What they all have in common is that all of these are actions were carried out by men who have served in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. This is a portion of the toll of PTSD. Add to this the untold thousands more who suffer from PTSD but have not, at least not yet, carried out an act of violence and you begin to see the picture taking shape.

Now, add in God only knows how many more that have been driven to drugs, drink, and homelessness; those who have fallen off our social radar and have perished in a gutter somewhere clutching a bottle or with a needle stuck in their arm. The grim picture begins to come into focus.

Studies that go back to World War II have found that combat veterans are twice as likely to commit suicide as people in the general population, and official estimates say that veterans now account for 20 percent of the 30,000 suicides that occur in the U.S. each year.

But beyond those who choose to end it all, there are even more statistics we need to consider. Exposure to combat has been cited as the cause for:

* Nine percent of all unemployment in the United States
* Eight percent of all divorce or separation
* Twenty-one percent of all spousal or partner abuse.

The impact of all this extends to behavioral problems in children, child abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, incarceration and homelessness, all of which have implications that go well beyond the individual and reverberate across generations.

Forty-two years ago I returned from 379 days in Vietnam. I struggled for ten years before I was diagnosed with PTSD; I’ve been in treatment for it ever since. Because PTSD never goes away—the patient either finds a way to cope with it, or becomes one of the innumerable statistics.

PTSD is defined by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs as “A psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experiencing or witnessing of life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, abuse, and violent personal assaults like rape. People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person’s daily life.” This definition, although highly descriptive and largely accurate for many instances of PTSD, overlooks a key component of the disease for many combat veterans.

Most who have served in combat were raised within the structure of some sort of moral code, and one component of that code was most likely the ethical construct that killing is wrong. When we go into combat, we are forced to violate our moral code—not just once, not just twice, but over and over and over. We are told this violation is justified, that what we are doing is right and needs to be done. But for many of us, no amount of sermonizing or government propaganda can ever assuage the guilt we feel over taking the life of another human being.

When we return home, we are expected to immediately reintegrate into a society that has become alien to us. On day 378 of my tour in Vietnam, I was enmeshed in an environment of violence and killing. On day 380, I was on the streets of San Francisco, part of a societal structure that banned that which had formed my world and driven my actions for over a year. I was expected to, on a moment’s notice, turn the faucet from full stream to off. I was expected to accept all the violations of my moral code which I had committed during the previous year as being justified and return to “normal” society.

The human psyche simply isn’t built to work this way. Forty-two years later, I still have nightmares of Vietnam. I sometimes awake at night feeling surrounded by the essence of those whose lives I took. Were I of such religious persuasion, I would wrestle with worry over whether or not my immortal soul is condemned to languish in the fires of Hell for all Eternity because of the lives I took. It is this struggle to try to come to grips with the violation of our ethics that weighs on many of us who return from combat.

PTSD has many facets – the aftermath of the sheer violence of combat, the grief over comrades who didn’t make it home, survivor’s guilt, inability to let go of the fear that engulfed us on the battlefield, addiction to the adrenalin rush that provided the almost euphoric high during the heat of battle, and much, much more. Medical science has made great strides in helping veterans cope with the physical and psychological effects of combat, but we have yet to address the ethical struggle many veterans face once they come home. I would venture to say we don’t yet even understand just how pervasive it is. Until we equip our government and our society to deal with this face of PTSD, we will continue to have large numbers of veterans who are unable to make a life for themselves that bears at least some semblance of normality. your social media marketing partner
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