Saturday, September 24, 2005

A Story You Won't Read In The United States: The Trauma of Warfare

The executive director of Combat Stress, Toby Elliott, takes it as a warning that the charity is already treating so many veterans of an ongoing war.

"It takes an average of 14 to 15 years for a regular soldier to seek help," he says, adding that many more veterans are likely to find themselves experiencing Iraq-related PTSD in the coming decades.

But, he adds, there are powerful reasons for soldiers not to admit they are having mental health problems - doing so could jeopardise their careers.

"You know bloody well that if you say you are feeling wobbly in the head, the first thing is that they will take your rifle away from you," he says.

"Even if you are retained, you probably won't get promoted."

That's from the UK, which hasn't been in a war since the Falkland Islands conflict and not in a major war since World War II.

And unlike in the United States, where a generation of Vietnam veterans introduced the notion of PTSD to the general populace, there is still suspicion of the concept in the UK, not least among soldiers.

Which brings me to my point today. While the US armed forces and the mental health community are acutely aware of PTSD, and Vietnam veterans had a much harder time of it because not only were they in combat but the support system at home was non-existent for many veterans, the Iraqi vets aren't going to have it a whole lot easier.

In addition, the study on posttraumatic stress disorder found that the percentage of troops suffering from PTSD increased by between 7-10% after deployment to Iraq, which would represent 25,000 to 35,000 initial periodcases of PTSD among the roughly 350,000 U.S. troops who have served in Iraq.
That's as of July of 2005. That's nearly half the number of fatalities we had in Vietnam.

Why will this war be a challenge to the mental health of so many soldiers?

Simple. It's an unpopular war in which Americans are killing Iraqis by the thousands, much like in Vietnam. We were led into the war under false pretenses, so the responsibility for those deaths has shifted from a just cause (fighting terrorism, stopping a WMD from being launched at America) to one that is much ore nuanced (removing a dictator from power).

When a soldier questions his rationale for being in a combat zone, that soldier will call into question his own motives for serving. Even in a forced recycling such as we've seen in the Guard and Reserve troops sent to Iraq, the slender justifications for fighting are peeling away as each day's bad news....more American dead, undercover psyops involving shooting people supposedly on our side by British troops dressed as civilians...piles on.

The trouble with PTSD, as indicated above, is the length of time it takes for it to surface. You can be walking around normally one day and then something happens to trigger an emotional flood that you cannot control any longer. It comes out.

I've been there. I know what it's like. Fortunately, I had the strength and help I needed to fight back and understand it. (To be clear, I did not suffer from combat PTSD, but the mental health community doesn't make that fine a distinction in how you get it.)

But many of these soldiers do not and will never. Mental health is considered a "dark art", something reserved for pedophiles and other criminals, when in fact, it should be part of an annual health check-up. Society deems mental health disorders on the level of AIDS or the Ebola virus, something to be avoided at all costs.

Vietnam vets who suffered from "shell shock" ended up homeless, drug addicts, criminals, divorced, isolated, suicidal, psychotic, and irrational. Not all, but enough that it became an issue in this country, and is the only mental health condition that the government will pay to treat a veteran for.

That's how important it is.

An entire generation of young men (and now women) are fighting and dying for a cause that many of them don't understand and will carry the burden of having killed or maimed for an amorphous cause for the rest of their lives. Many of them will die at their own hands as the horrors of war, the ones our President refuses to let us see on the TV, inculcate themselves deep into their psyches like a ticking timebomb.

And when they go out!
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