Opinion » Bill Cope

America's PTSD

Every day is Veterans Day for veterans


Let me tell you about the process that resulted in this week's feature story—Page 11; please read it—on post-traumatic stress disorder in military veterans. I got the idea for it about a year ago, after hearing one of those reports on how many of them were coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with disruptive, even debilitating, emotional problems. Or possibly it was a report on how many veterans in America are homeless. Maybe it was something on the increase in divorce among returning soldiers, or about how many of them are killing themselves.

Frankly, I can't remember exactly what one thing made me start to wonder what the hell was going on with these men and women, as there is no shortage of reports indicating something is indeed going on with these men and women. Whatever it is, it's clearly not healthy, and the common thread running through the alarming statistics within those reports, like a string through beads, is that nebulous factor, PTSD.

At least, to me, at the time I started this, PTSD was a nebulous factor. We have all heard about it, of course. We throw the acronym around as though we know what we're talking about.

I really didn't, though. Not then. I could guess why so many ex-soldiers were suffering from PTSD—bombs and bullets, death and destruction, the horrific sights they've witnessed, the comrades they've lost, the fear and the rage—all the things that war is famous for—how could they not be scarred by such things? But it was all just a guess. And the biggest guess of all was my assuming that right up there on the top of the PTSD-inducing heap was the act of killing, of knowing you had taken the life of another human. Having never been to war—having in fact been a conscientious objector to my generation's war—I'm still only guessing, but I'm pretty sure that alone would be something I would never shake off.

So I decided to write on what effect killing had on soldiers, to find out if it was a major cause of PTSD. I had barely heard it discussed, what killing did to the souls of soldiers. Understandably, it's not something military recruiters are going to tell a young man about as they solicit him to sign up—that by killing the enemy, he risks a lifetime of nightmares, emotional problems and social maladjustment.

I admit I had ulterior motives. Yes, I believe strongly our country owes our veterans all the support we can give them, long after a war as much as during that war. But I also believe that if we are going to send people into war, we should be honest with them about everything they may face, whether it be in battle or after the battles are but distant memories.

And I believed that by writing about such a little-discussed aspect of war—the aftermath in the lives of warriors—it would cause a few flag-wavers and "bring-it-on-ers" to think twice before being so eager to send our babies into war. I never intended to be overt about it. In fact, I promised the people I interviewed I would keep my personal opinions out of the article. But I figured that by simply exposing the realities, it would add something, however small, to the arsenal of sentiment that war is to be avoided, period, unless all else fails.

I suspected from the beginning that finding vets willing to talk about their killing experience as it related to their PTSD wouldn't be easy. I also had to consider the possibility that, if indeed killing is a significant factor in inducing PTSD, then maybe I wasn't qualified to discuss it. I turned to mental health professionals for advice. Dr. William Hazel, a psychiatric specialist in treating PTSD, confirmed my worst fear: that sometimes, talking about what brought the condition on could make the condition even worse. Dr. Larry Dewey (quoted in the article) explained that in many cases, it had taken him years to get vets to open up about what they had done in war, and he is the chief psychiatrist at the Boise Veterans Affairs office.

At that, I gave up on the idea of how killing relates to PTSD. It was clear I was not qualified—even if I could find vets willing to talk to me about it—to talk with them about it. The last thing I wanted to do was bring more pain to people who were suffering. I decided to stick simply to learning about PTSD, regardless of the cause, and passing what I learned on to you.

But when I told "Rudy" (one of the three vets profiled in the article) what my original intent had been, he told me I should have gone with my first instinct. It is his opinion that we cannot separate the subject of PTSD in combat soldiers from the duty combat soldiers are assigned to do. So I ended up with something in the middle. I can only hope it gives a sense of what we ask of our soldiers, and what that does to them as a result.

There is another side to PTSD that, except in an oblique way, isn't in the article. We must ask what PTSD does to us. America. Our families, our wives, our children and everyone within the concentric circles of emotional scars that soldiers bring home from war. It even has a name—"secondary PTSD"—and it implies that, just as a great teacher's influence never ends, neither do the expanding ripples of damage done by damaged people. The more I learned of the symptoms and manifestations of PTSD, the more I thought back to particular people in my life, and for the first time, I came to understand why they may have behaved as they did and how it spread through their families like a communicable disease. I'm speaking of older vets who, in retrospect, probably had PTSD 40 years before the diagnosis of PTSD was invented. I'm speaking of bitter wives who couldn't grasp what had become of the men they loved, of hurt children, now grown with children of their own, who never knew why their fathers were so distant or volatile. I came to see PTSD as an epidemic that spreads as silently as any virus, and we have yet to recognize the extent of how greatly it harms our humanity or how many casualties it involves.

Don't misunderstand. PTSD isn't a disease, and its victims aren't diseased. PTSD, itself, is merely a symptom. The disease is war, as surely as small pox or AIDS. The difference is, it's the only disease I can think of that, not only have we never made any serious, common and dedicated attempt to eradicate from our world, but many of us actually promote it. Exalt it. Willingly, willfully, over and over, send our sons into it, in hopes it will maybe—this time—make things better ... in spite of the evidence that in all of human history, it has almost invariably made things worse.