Warriors with PTSD should be honored by supporting them in seeking help.
December 15, 2008 – In my position as sergeant major of the Army Wounded Warrior Program, I see every day extraordinary men and women who have sacrificed so much and continue to proudly represent their country.
I had the opportunity a few months ago to tour a Combat Trauma Facility designed for treating veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. I share this experience in hopes that others may read this and seek help for themselves or a loved one.
As the psychologist was showing us around the facility, we came across several veterans watching TV in a common area. Their eyes lit up as they saw my uniform and we talked for quite a while. One of them said, “after 40 years, she broke me down like a …” I cannot remember the exact word he used, but I think the point is clear. He was referring to the psychologist who uses Exposure Therapy and Cognitive Processing Therapy to treat her patients with PTSD.
This veteran was not a soldier, but a retired Marine. As I shook his hand, I saw “the look” I see in so many of our young veterans’ eyes, an indescribable stare associated with PTSD. But this time, I caught a glimpse of something else. I saw a sign of hope, a sign of peace and a tear forming and rolling down his cheek.
I left that day not being able to get this Marine out of my head. I kicked myself for not giving this veteran a hug, a hug of compassion, an embrace of respect. I wonder what drove this veteran to a point where after 40 years, he finally sought help.
Was it periods of unemployment, broken relationships, substance abuse, trouble with the law, being tired of not sleeping, tired of the dreams, tired of not feeling right, what was it? Why did it take so long? Regardless, all I can say is good for him, as after 40 years, he looked to be at peace with himself and others.
To promote understanding of resources available and where those resources must be focused, I want to address this invisible wound of war. For the month of August, for example, the number of soldiers in the Army Wounded Warrior Program diagnosed with severe PTSD surpassed the number of soldiers with amputations, becoming the most prevalent injury among soldiers in the program.
Although this is a significant statistical mark, it means much more. Behind every number that is counted, a soldier and a family is affected.
The Army Wounded Warrior Program, or AW2, serves severely wounded, injured, and ill soldiers and their families, wherever they are located, for as long as it takes. We serve more than 3,600 soldiers, 75 percent of whom are medically retired.
This November was Warrior Care Month, designated by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as a time to increase awareness of programs and resources available to wounded, ill and injured service members and their families. Beyond that month and the holiday season, it is important to remember those who serve our country. Honoring the service of Americans may end for some after Veterans Day in November, but for others the lasting impact of having served one’s country will stay with them forever.
Like many who serve, I have seen the effects PTSD can have on our soldiers and families. I have seen veterans with PTSD lose their jobs, their homes and even their families.
I have seen them abuse prescription drugs, alcohol and illegal drugs. I have seen them have trouble with the law, tell stories of nights without sleeping, nightmares and lack of concentration. I have heard the families tell stories about their soldiers, describing outbursts of anger, being emotionally numb, detached and depressed. I have seen a couple of our veterans who were not able to overcome their struggles with severe PTSD, who thought death was their only option, and eventually took their own lives.
PTSD is real and it does not get better without proper treatment and care.
Unfortunately, many with PTSD don’t seek the treatment they need. Some resist treatment because they’re worried what others will think or they believe that they should be able to get over the problem on their own.
Help is out there. I have seen soldiers and veterans with PTSD get the help they need, get better and live happy, productive and meaningful lives. But to get there, they had to take that difficult first step of seeking help.
During my site visits, I always inquire about services available for soldiers and veterans with PTSD. I have seen vast improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of PTSD for all soldiers and veterans. However, I have to admit that our country and the military have a lot more to learn about PTSD and how to properly treat and care for our soldiers and veterans who suffer from it.
We need to reduce the stigma involved with post-traumatic stress. Leaders need to discuss the impact of combat stress with their soldiers. Recently, Gen. Carter Ham did that by sharing his experience with combat stress with the nation in USA Today.
It will be a difficult culture to change. As leaders we need to take responsibility, we need to take the first step if needed, and we need to encourage our soldiers and veterans to take the step and seek help. But we must also not forget about ourselves or our peers and even our superiors, as often our actions will help others that will follow our lead. The example may help other soldiers and veterans with PTSD.
I encourage our soldiers, veterans and their families to get the help that they need and deserve, to use the available resources out there, and to reach out to people who can assist them. They owe it to themselves and their families.
The writer has served in cavalry and armor units including Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 1st Squadron, 4th U.S. Cavalry, First Infantry Division in Iraq, where he was first sergeant and leader of Task Force Sabre. He also served as the noncommissioned officer in charge at Forward Operating Base Mackenzie. He was wounded in combat and stayed on active duty through the Continuation of Active Duty program.