Invisible Wounds Require Visible Support

It’s hard to imagine what the top enlisted man in the Army and a 10-year-old girl have in common.

On Thursday morning, those two joined many others to mark National PTSD Awareness Day during a ceremony a block from the U.S. Capitol.

Barbara Webb, 10, told the audience that included each of the service branch’s surgeons general and Congressmen that her father was a disabled Marine coping with post traumatic stress. She said she didn’t know anything was wrong at first since her dad looked fine. But things got worse. He tried to get help, he said, but the wait to get into the program was many months. Her father tried to commit suicide during that time, but was unsuccessful. He’s now in a program in Florida and Barbara gets to see her father when he’s having good days. She and her mother live in Maryland.

“He does better when he lives alone,” she told the group, who gave her a standing ovation. “It’s hard to talk about my family, but if it helps another family, that is my hope.”

Post traumatic stress can happen to anyone, not just service members who have seen combat. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, about 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women experience at least one trauma in their lives nationwide. But traumatic experiences don’t mean you’ll develop PTSD, according to the VA. In the U.S., 7-8 percent of the population will display symptoms of PTSD during their lifetime; about 5.2 million adults suffer from PTSD in a given year, many more have experienced trauma; about 10 percent of women develop PTSD compared to 5 percent of men.

Within the military, experts think that 11-20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have or will develop PTSD; as many as 10 percent of Gulf War veterans and about 30 percent of Vietnam veterans experience PTSD.

Post traumatic stress can affect individuals in many different ways and in some cases can lead to destructive behavior or suicide. Part of the challenge, the surgeons general said is to eliminate the stigma attached to PTSD and mental health, both in the military and the civilian world.

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler said soldiers are all about the “hooah factor.”

But in 2004, he was the command sergeant major for a unit in Baghdad. On June 30, 2004, he had just come off patrol and was in his room when a rocket came into the room and exploded.

“I was faced with my own mortality,” Chandler said.

That event caused a downward spiral in his life, he said, but he opted not to talk about it and to act as though everything was fine. A year later, he was returning stateside and had to do a post-deployment health assessment. Worried about the stigma, he didn’t answer honestly how he was feeling or address what was post traumatic stress. From 2005-2009, he continued to ignore the problem and by 2009, he was on a steep downward spiral, he said. That year, he asked for help and spent the next two years in a  weekly behavioral counseling program.

When he was interviewed to be the sergeant major of the Army, Gen. George Casey, who was then the chief of staff, asked him if there was anything in his past that he should know about that could embarrass the Army. Chandler answered honestly about the behavioral counseling and said that Casey told him that wouldn’t hurt his chances for the job as it made him the right person to talk to troops about the issue and improve awareness and resources.

Progress has been made, he said, but there’s more to do.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Chandler said. “We can’t do it alone.”