Soldiers deal with many challenges during deployment, but the battle often does not end once they return home. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affects 1 in 5 of those who deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. Battlefield injuries, close proximity to explosions, witnessing death, and the constant fear of being attacked, coupled with the adjusting to being back home, places soldiers in precarious positions.
Exactly what is PTSD and what are the symptoms associated with it?
At one time, PTSD was viewed temporary battle fatigue requiring rest, or even as malingering, and soldiers were told to “get over it.” Now we know that PTSD is a very real albeit invisible injury resulting from trauma that does not heal on its own. Trauma occurs when an individual experiences, is confronted by, or witnesses a situation that involves death or the possibility of dying, or of being seriously injured, which would include a perceived real threat of injury. Some examples are combat, friendly fire, being fired upon, being wounded, captured, driving a road with an IED threat, flying in a helicopter through a hot zone, or seeing another soldier injured or killed. PTSD also often results from handling corpses, or seeing those we consider vulnerable or needing protection, such as children, women, and the elderly, who had been killed, tortured or otherwise seriously wounded.
Symptoms include difficulty sleeping, nightmares, responding with fear or increased anxiety to memories or triggers, such as sudden loud noises, dissociation, persistent negative emotions, such as guilt or fear that cannot be shaken off, irritability, short tempers, abusiveness, restlessness, hypervigilance, difficulty concentrating, feeling alienated from others, significant loss of interest in previously-enjoyed activities, difficulty recalling details from the traumatic event, avoidance and difficulty making or maintaining relationships. It is common for the onset of symptoms to be delayed and to be chronic.
A soldier who has other stressors, such as going through a divorce or worrying about things going on at home, is at a higher risk for developing PTSD. The mind can handle only so much stress. Those who handle stress well and have a generally positive outlook on life are at a decreased risk.
It is common for soldiers struggling with PTSD to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs, or to simply deny the existence of any problem because to do otherwise would compromise their toughness. Not so. Soldiers sacrifice way too much for their country, and they owe it to themselves, and those close to them, to confront the illness and get a handle on it.
If you suspect that you have PTSD, or you have been diagnosed with PTSD, how do you deal with it? Below is a list of key suggestions and resources based on research and real soldier experiences.
- Do not avoid seeking help because you are afraid it will hurt your military career or because “real men don’t have issues like this.” The military now recognizes the seriousness of PTSD and offers a number of resources for help. Counseling, therapy and even medication is effective.
- According to the Veterans Administration, 18 soldiers commit suicide every day. It is important for soldiers, their families and close friends to know the warning signs, and to seek help immediately.
- Talk to a pastor, the VA, Tricare, your healthcare provider or Military OneSource at 800-342-9647 for a referral to counseling services in your community. Find a fellow soldier, a friend, your spouse, or your pet—just talk!
- It’s often preferable to talk to someone who has “been there, done that,” and soldiers are now reaching out to help soldiers. Organizations such Military With PTSD, started by military spouse Shawn J. Gorley, provides peer-to-peer support, including coping strategies, as well as suicide crisis support for veterans, spouses, families, and caretakers.
- Learn your triggers and note how you respond. This information is important to planning a course of action for successful treatment.
- If you or a loved one is deploying or returning from deployment soon, talk about PTSD and be prepared for the possibilities.
- Service dogs have proven to be effective interventions for soldiers with PTSD. More information can be found at Paws for Wounded Soldiers.
Most soldiers experience some stress when returning home from deployment; this is not automatically considered PTSD. For many, these symptoms subside after a few weeks; however, those that don’t need to be addressed. Don’t wait until it is too late.
The toll of PTSD on our soldiers has increased since Operation Enduring Freedom began. If you have stories or information to add, please share them in the comments section.