21 May 2010


Most of my television viewing is limited to shows on PBS. This week a Frontline episode, "The Wounded Platoon," examined the incidence of PostTraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as it manifests in military personnel returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The picture isn't pretty. Even with psychological counseling and decompression which weren't offered to Vietnam vets, there remains a stigma of perceived weakness attached to those who seek help in dealing with the trauma, anxiety, paranoia, depression and flashbacks associated with PTSD. The result is an incidence of suicide, murder, substance abuse, isolation, hypervigilance, inabiity to maintain stable loving relationships, inability to hold down a job, and resorting to crime among returning war veterans, substantially above either military or civilian norms.

Combat stress reaction is nothing new. One of the first descriptions was made by the Greek historian Herodotus in 490 BC. In the 1800s it was called "exhaustion". During World War I, "shell shock". During World War II, "battle fatigue". It was only during and following the Vietnam War that comprehensive psychological research identifed the symptoms and causes of what we now call PTSD.

I am a member of the generation of Vietnam veterans. As one of 830,000 vets who have experienced PTSD symptoms, my heart goes out to the young men and women (impossibly young, barely older than children, but then so was I) returning from today's wars. The entire Frontline episode may be viewed here. And here is a list of support and services for vets.

My own symptoms have abated somewhat. I still go through panic attacks on the 4th of July, and startle at sudden loud noises. Each of my visits to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, has been a harrowing and cathartic experience. Relationships continue to be a wicked stretch of whitewater to navigate, though I've gotten better with practice. I wish there were some way to make it easier for Iraq and Afghanistan vets to transition to life outside the war zone. Perhaps one answer is public awareness, which can be achieved in part by programs such as Frontline.

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