December 20, 2007 – There’s a war inside the military over how to treat a not-so-new enemy: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“I’ve never had a guy in my unit develop PTSD,” one senior general from Iraq told me. ‘It’s nonsense.”
“You’re only scratching the surface,” of cases from this war, another senior general told me. “Keep looking.”
Simply put, PTSD is what happens when you put a combatant in the pressure cooker of Iraq or Afghanistan, and tell him or her, “No matter what you see or feel, tough it out. Lock it down. Keep it to yourself.” After multiple tours living on high boil, with no relief valve, some U.S. troops are breaking. Make that thousands.
The largest military employer, the U.S. Army, has rolled out new programs to teach troops what PTSD is, to try to reduce the stigma. It can be as simple as asking a patrol that saw something traumatic to talk about it out loud. That way, the incident on the battlefield gets tamed by a jawing session with your buddies, instead of becoming a nightmare that wakes you sweating at 4 a.m. with visions of the dead and maimed that won’t leave you.
They also teach the troops what to watch for, as PTSD can show up as a host of different symptoms. People withdraw from their loved ones and become antisocial; or maybe go to the other extreme of promiscuity; or hide in drugs or alcohol; or fly into violent rage.
But more “traditional” military commanders believe PTSD is just a catchall excuse for someone who is too weak or too cowardly to serve.
They label them “malingering” trouble-makers, who need to shape up, or get out, lest they get someone killed on their next combat tour.
Veteran activists believe that attitude is responsible for an epidemic number of expulsions from the military. Some 22,500 troops have been kicked out since the start of the Iraq war for “pre-existing personality disorder” a psychological problem the military said the troops came in with, which allegedly surfaced in the heat of battle. That’s up 40 percent since 2003. Another 5,500 were expelled for ‘misconduct’ like drug abuse — up twenty percent from 2003.
These diagnoses get the soldier off the battlefield faster than a medical discharge for PTSD, which can take months, according to writer Joshua Kors who conducted a year-long investigation of the issue for The Nation. “By discharging them with a personality disorder, not only do they prevent them from collecting disability or medical benefits for the rest of their lives, but they also get them out the door in just a few days.”
To add insult to injury, had to then pay back part of their sign-on bonuses, because they weren’t able to complete their military service.
Kimberly Dozier is a CBS News correspondent based in Washington.