Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Soldier’s War Within
The art of war is more mental than physical and few soldiers are trained on coping with their experiences after deployment
by Tamara Warren Posted: March 28, 2012
he U.S. has been engaged in war for a decade. Thousands have been killed on both sides. The bill totals nearly $3 trillion. The objectives are murky at best, and have often faded from consciousness, as politics and economics took center stage in American media. While troops withdraw from Iraq and combat winds down in Afghanistan, the scars are still fresh. When U.S. soldier, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, was accused of murdering 17 Afghan civilians in March, the nation refocused attention on the psychological effects war has had on soldiers.
For many veterans who’ve returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan, their personal war is far from over. They must learn to readjust to the pressures of civilian life, and learn to cope with traumatic memories of combat. Veterans are at higher risk for mental health problems, including post traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], depression, suicide and substance abuse problems. Military suicide has also been in the news, prompting coverage and discussion over how the war has impacted those who engaged in combat. The number of suicides in the US Army rose by 80 percent after the United States launched the war on Iraq, according to figures asserted by American military doctors.
The circumstances of the recent wars are unique from previous periods of conflict like Vietnam and World War II. The dynamics of the military have changed. Women play a much larger role in military operations and a draft is no longer in place, so a smaller portion of the general population has served in combat. Of those who have enlisted, many soldiers, like Sgt. Bales, sign up for multiple tours with a large percentage remaining as reserves.
Tireak Tulloch was deployed to Kuwait in 2003 with the Marine Corps. He was called up again in June 2004 and left the military in 2008. “In a post 9/11 world, the reserves took on a whole new meaning,” he says. “Our reservists were deployed as much as active duty. As reservists we were civilians most of the time. You’re not on a base where you’re constantly training, you have responsibilities.”
As Tulloch returned to civilian life, things slowly began to unravel. “After I separated from the Marines in 2008, I hadn’t really taken the time to process the years of service, the multiple deployments and the changes that took place inside myself,” he says. “It started out fine. I was working, going to a school and I had a girlfriend. Things were going great. Over time everyday issues came up [that] I wasn’t addressing the way I would [when] I was still in the military.”
Tulloch sought support from veteran groups and attended a retreat for young veterans. “One of the things we do in the military very well is that we compartmentalize, putting thoughts in certain parts of your mind,” he continues. “The best way I can think of it is that out there in the field of combat you may lose a service member, but you can’t let that loss overwhelm you. You adapt to that environment. You address it in a way that allows you to survive. That same skill becomes problematic when you get out, because you’re not on a field of battle.”
Tulloch eventually worked his way through thanks to the help of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America [IAVA] and became a spokesperson for the organization. “After that first year of going through bumps and bruises, I felt that I needed to help myself and find ways to help others,” he says. Members of the IAVA are converging on Washington, D.C. this week on behalf of younger veterans for “Storm the Hill”. In a recent survey of its members, IAVA found that nearly 17 percent were unemployed as of January 2012. The survey also found 67 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans don’t think the mental-health care received by troops and veterans is adequate.
hile all veterans of war experiences adjustment issues, most do not develop PTSD. According to Stacey PollackPhD, the National Director of Program Policy Implementation for Offices of Mental Health Services at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, only 15 percent of soldiers experience develop the disorder. “Most people coming home do not develop PTSD,” she says. “All soldiers are going to be impacted by trauma; how can they not be? If I expose you to enough trauma it’s going to have an impact… The VA has increased mental health services in recent years with regular screenings for PTSD, depression, substance abuse and whether or not someone may have symptoms to traumatic brain injury. Some of the symptoms are adaptive in a combat zone. It becomes traumatic when you can come home.”
Another aspect that’s unique to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are the instances of traumatic brain injury. “People are surviving many injuries that do not survive in previous conflict,” says Pollack, who also notes a higher number of women have been impacted. “We need to make sure that there are services geared toward female veterans.”
The tricky aspect of providing mental health services to veterans is outreach, which also is tied to the stigma of seeking treatment by many. Gabe Tolliver enlisted in the military in 2007 and served in Afghanistan in 2009 as a broadcast journalist for the U.S. Army. He documented combat, but also had to rely on his military training in battle. He now makes films and sculptures about his recent service and the traumatic nature of war.
“The war has become like wallpaper to people, it’s a sound bite,” Tolliver says. “The military world and civilian world share commonalities, but they are two separate worlds. Kids who’ve grown up over the past decade at a military base have seen their parents deployed multiple times. They know kids who’s parents have been killed or wounded. There is a disconnect with the military. The culture says, suck it up and man up. It’s the culture within the military that has to change and that’s going to take a while until it’s accepted by everyone that as a soldier, you can feel vulnerable and that’s okay.”
Signs that family members of veteran should encourage their loved one to seek treatment include difficulties sleeping, nightmares, and withdrawal from families and children. Information for family members is readily available at www.ptsd.va.gov. The VA has also developed websites and apps designed to appeal to younger veterans, including MakeTheConnection.net, as well as a 24-hour veterans crises hotline 1-800-273-TALK.