A QUIET INJURY: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Most people have heard of PTSD.  This is a common response to an event like being in a battle in Iraq, being shot by a criminal, being raped or surviving a serious car accident.    For many people these types of events begin an extended period of pain and require a lot of recovery.   PTSD can take months, years or decades to subside and can lead to innumerable of problems with relationships, careers, marriages, alcohol abuse and life.

What many people do not know is that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial basically evolved due to PTSD.  I was in Vietnam as a teen ager with the Army.  I saw some combat and tragic deaths there from accidents , including an explosion in 1970 that killed a dozen of my fellow soldiers who were unloading a truck filled with ammunition.  I was troubled by many memories of my year there.

After the military I went to college and began to investigate what was then not quite accepted as a disorder.   I did some research independently and testified before the Senate on the subject in 1977.  My research found elevated rates of divorce and other signs of mal adjustment among veterans with heavy exposure to combat.  I wrote an article on the subject for the Washington Post and a journal known as Military Medicine.

The House and Senate ultimately developed the Vet Centers to reach out to veterans struggling with psychological injuries.  Veterans of Vietnam were the primary users.  Yet veterans of World War II and Korea also took part.  Today the Vet Centers are helping vets especially from Iraq and Afghanistan

I had an interesting idea  –  suppose there was a memorial on the Mall in Washington DC engraved with the names of those who perished in the Vietnam War?   Would this help those suffering from PTSD? Would the survivors guilt felt by many be helped by seeing the names honored there?

In 1979 the idea became more than that.  I took two weeks off of work and developed the idea working day and night .   I came upon some thoughts  from college-  writings of Carl Jung, a student of Sigmund Freud.  Jung theorized that Collective Psychological States exist among communities, schools and nations.  My theory developed further.  There were profound societal impacts from that divisive era.

Just as the veterans needed healing, so too did the nation.   The Memorial, I hoped, would do something to help both.

I began the effort in 1979.  I will spare you from reading a long and boring story of how the Wall  got completed in only three years.  Many people helped.    But this Blog is about PTSD.

PTSD usually begins by observing or being a victim of violence.   PTSD occurs when certain symptoms, such as reliving the event, loss of sleep, hyper-vigiliance, last for over a month.   Soldiers, journalists, police officers and convenience store clerks are among those who come into contact with traumatic events.    Yet this can happen to anyone.  I know someone who had to defend himself and mortally wounded , legally I should add,  his attacker.  Most people do not recover from this sort of thing quickly.  These types of events come out of nowhere and can many times take a toll on our lives.  Think about the students who survived the carnage of Virginia Tech.  All were experiencing a normal day of college when a mad man brought about chaos.

A famous statue which shows soldiers who have seen a fair amount of combat that they will never forget.

Many  thousands  of soldiers are now returning who have witnessed graphic and bloody scenes with  civilians and/ or US soldiers killed by terrorist bombs or other causes.  Many have taken lives in combat and struggle with the memories.   War is gruesome.  Experiencing horrific scenes leaves an indelible mark on the psyche.   Some are debilitated by the trauma that did not have the same impact on other soldiers who saw the same thing.  The science of the mind is not as scientific as we might like it to be.  There is much that those in the area need to know about the causes.  Yet there is plenty known about ways to aid recovery.

Veterans of Vietnam and, more recently, Iraq, have taken their own lives from events flowing from PTSD.  And many of these people could have been saved by seeking help.

Whatever the causes, there is good treatment available from civilian and government mental health professionals.   Some of the best research done on PTSD is by the National Institute for Mental Health.  I like this poem by Veterans Administration psychiatrist Mary Rorro.  She treats many veterans with PTSD. She also encourages them to do what she does. Mary enjoys playing musical instruments.

Clean Slate
Years not long
a story untold
all that remains
is a name
etched in stone

My fallen brother
you answered the call
If only I could
erase your name
from this wall

Written by c. Mary C. Rorro
November 2010

If you know someone who seems to be experiencing PTSD please encourage them to get help.  There is plenty available.  And get them to do something like learn to play the guitar.  That is my advice!

To learn more about the Education Center at The Wall and to help us build it, go to: www.buildthecenter.org

By Jan Craig Scruggs, M. Ed and Esq.