Christian Values | PTSD: The silent casualty of war

I’m writing this column in direct response to some comments that emanated, like stench from raw sewage, from a story appearing our story last week about Danish soldiers obtaining compensation for suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) six months after returning from conflict.

The said comments suggested that the soldiers returning home complaining of PTSD symptoms were pathetic weaklings and that previous generations rarely complained about PTSD. One commenter, who boasted that he had “been there, done that”, contended that soldiers were using PTSD as a scam to gain financially and “stay at home in pyjamas”.

I was disgusted and angry, and my first instinct was to call them out for their display of disrespect and ignorance. But instead I thought I would take the opportunity to write about it here.

PTSD, in name at least, is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was first used in 1980 in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. But, the effects of the disorder have been around ever since the horrors of war have existed.

Symptoms similar to PTSD were referred to as ‘nostalgia’ back in the 17th and 18th centuries, ‘soldier’s heart’ during the US Civil War and later ‘neurasthenia’. During the First World War, ‘shell shock’ was used – a term that developed into ‘combat exhaustion’ or ‘combat fatigue’ in the Second World War and the Korean War. ‘Stress Response Syndrome’ was the condition that Vietnam War soldiers were diagnosed with before PTSD became the preferred term five years after Saigon fell in 1975.

According to the national PTSD association in Denmark, PTSD is “a psychological condition that occurs based on one or more traumatic experiences that affect the individual’s ability to complete even the most basic daily tasks. PTSD catalyses mental and physical reactions that often manifest themselves as if the person is re-experiencing the traumatic experience.”

Since 2002, over 9,000 Danish soldiers have been deployed to Afghanistan. Some 43 soldiers have been killed and about 180 have been injured. Since 2007, about 75 soldiers have been sent home due to psychological issues, according to a report from the defence personnel service.

Many turn to suicide. War veterans currently account for 25 percent of all suicides in the US, and it’s a problem in Denmark too.

But while PTSD cases have increased among soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan compared to previous wars, it is wrong to compare the number of cases and call the current generation weak. Many of the previous generations came back with the same problems facing soldiers today.

But society at the time was unable to diagnose or tackle the issue. Besides, any kind of mental illness was taboo and could stigmatise the sufferer and ostracise them from society. The world at that time lacked the language to describe the symptoms. It was not a question of being tougher, it was a question of fewer resources and options.

A recently re-released and uncensored documentary made by the esteemed film director John Huston in 1946, entitled ‘Let there be Light’, followes 75 returning Second World War veterans suffering from ‘psychotic neurosis’, and it provides ample evidence of the issues veterans faced at that time.

The example set by General George Patton, who famously hit men in military mental hospitals and called them cowards, showed the kind of response soldiers could expect for seeking help.

But even today, society is judgemental when it comes to dealing with mental illness, and it is extremely difficult for people to reach out for help – particularly in the military where mental illness can be viewed as a sign of weakness.

Furthermore, PTSD is not reserved for military personnel who have faced trauma in war. It can result from a variety of traumatic experiences such as traffic accidents, muggings, rape, torture, kidnapping and natural disasters. According to the National Centre for PTSD in the US, about eight percent of men and 20 percent of women will develop PTSD during their lifetime, and about seven million people in the US currently suffer from PTSD. Are they weaklings too?

Are some of the soldiers misdiagnosed? Sure. Are there soldiers illicitly utilising the PTSD compensation for a payday? Probably, yes. Should the soldiers who actually suffer from PTSD be forsaken because of an imperfect diagnosis system? No.

But these men and women who endure the horrors of war should not have to come home with scarred souls and broken spirits only to face ignorance as well.

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