Sunday, July 29, 2007

War's Unseen Wounds

Soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Some months back I struck up an e-mail friendship with a 59-year-old Vietnam vet and he told me he has PTSD. I drew a blank. "`PTSD'? What's that?" I wondered.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he explained. "Ohhh. THAT." That I knew. Or so I thought. Years earlier, a psychologist told me rape victims frequently suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Makes you jumpy, she said. Prone to startle easily if, say, someone blows their car horn.

Beyond that, though, I've learned I really didn't have a clue. Didn't realize just how badly war's terrors can insinuate themselves into the souls of 18 and 19 year olds. Kids who watch buddies blown apart or burn to death, and wonder, minute to minute, if they'll be next.

Some, exceptionally sensitive like my friend, are consumed with guilt that men under their command were killed, but they made it back alive. Such relentless guilt and unremitting pain often seeks relief in alcohol or drugs. Even sober, the PTSD brain's capacity to feel goes numb – to keep the pain and guilt at bay.

The result: Destroyed marriages, estranged kids, lost jobs. In the case of far too many: Suicide.

At night, tangled feelings may re-emerge, manifesting as fitful sleep laced with frightening dreams. Panicked, drenched in sweat, the sufferer no longer sleeps. PTSD, the enemy lurking in the shadows.

For some, war's gory images are tattooed on their minds, the flashbacks an endless loop that constantly replays. Normal human interaction becomes something to avoid. That which is loved will someday die. Having lost emotional resilience, they have no faith they would survive.

In Washington, legislators are revisiting just what we, as a country, should do for veterans who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Wounded Warrior Assistance Act calls for better PTSD screening of those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Such traumatized soldiers, it's agreed, should not be sent back into combat.

If their civilian lives start to fall apart, VA and Dept. of Defense mental health professionals need to coordinate the soldier's care. Now, too many solders in emotional agony aren't getting the help they need.

If their PTSD prevents them from functioning normally, such soldiers need prompt financial help, without the added stress of seeing their disability check blocked by the VA.

Some estimates are that as many as 15 percent of the soldiers returning from Iraq have PTSD. Others suggest that all of the returning vets have it to some degree.

It does not serve this country well to have allowed a man like my Vietnam vet friend to fall through the cracks. Although brilliant, he struggles daily to transcend the hand our country dealt him. Forty years after Vietnam, he's still in combat: battling for his VA pension.

If you believe, as I do, that this country's wounded warriors from all wars deserve our steadfast gratitude, you can write your representatives in support of the Wounded Warrior Assistance Act. Go to and fill out the on-line form. Be sure to include your zip code. The site's sponsors will forward your letter to those who'll want your vote in the next election. To learn more about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, visit

Carol Bogart is a freelance writer/editor. Read her columns at and her articles at Contact her at

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