03FEB2010 PTSD Skepticism

I'm skeptical about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is a bold statement from someone who has sought counseling and was told I could receive a diagnosis to this effect if I needed to. Why would I need to? My combat experiences left me feeling incredibly lucky and blessed that I'd avoided the worst experiences Iraq could have thrown at me. Sure, we took loads of rockets and mortars; but that was more of a nuisance intended cause terror and interfere with our daily operations. To deny my enemy that, I just treated it like steel rain and got angry when it happened; there was no reason to be scared (except for the two or three times in which the rain landed sufficiently close enough to cause me actually jump into a bunker), in fact it just became a part of the background noise of life in Iraq.

I'd been fortunate enough that the only time I fired my weapon in Iraq was two warning shots into the pavement of a highway. We were the rear Stryker in the convoy, and I had the left rear hatch and therefore rear guard of our convoy, a local citizen in a hurry (do Iraqis even have speed limit?!) came flying down the highway toward us and didn't see me point my rifle and put my hand out (palm toward myself, back of hand toward him; the Middle East version of 'STOP'!), so I did what ROE (Rules Of Engagement; specifically escalation of force) required and put two warning shots into the gravel shoulder. Needless to say, he and his passenger stopped abruptly, got out and put their hands on the roof of the vehicle, and then got in and turned around and sped off back the way they came. My exact words were “SHIT, I've got to clean my rifle!” right afterwards... From what my JTAC who was in the Troop Commander's hatch facing forward, and our gunner said, the Squadron Commander (SCO) and S-3's soldiers immediately ducked into their Strykers when they heard gunfire! Then we radioed that it was just warning shots.

Our Stryker might have taken some small arms fire when we did a raid on a small village near Rawah Iraq in Al-Anbar, but then it might have been the Iraqi Army and their wonderful sense of trigger control! You can tell by the reaction of the children. When Americans man a weapon, they'll jump in front of the muzzle without thinking, when the IA mans a weapon they scatter from the direction of the muzzle... Other than that, I did come across the scene of a Suicide Vehicle Born IED (SVBIED) in Mosul that blew and Engineer Stryker off a bridge. There was so little left to of the car that I couldn't see any gore, that and I was in my hatch pulling security, I had to just about beat one of my Airmen down to keep him from climbing into my hatch and taking pictures; and I almost did in fact beat him for that. CSM Shaylor, the Command Sergeant Major of the 172nd Stryker Brigades Engineer Battalion was board that Stryker, he suffered terrible injuries to his skull but survived (as did all the crew if I recall). This incident above all else is probably one of the most memorable for me, mainly because the bridge they got hit on, our formation (the 172nd SBCT TAC) had crossed four times looking for trouble trying to draw them out, and we were on our way for a fifth crossing when we heard the explosion and got the radio call about two minutes later. 2-1 Infantry's Battalion TAC also responded to the scene to secure it as it was their Area of Operations. We had the scene very secure with two teams of JTACs with their respective TAC's and a couple of F-14 Tomcats at our command overhead doing overwatch (yet this was a bullet for the MSGT. Sitting in the Tactical Operations Center on the FOB? WTFO?!).

I sought some counseling about a year ago. Part of it had to be the stress of not having dealt with the death of a friend of mine during my time in Iraq all the way. Funerals help with closure, and when you have a friend die and you cannot partake in such things, it doesn't allow for closure for you. But thats combat. I found out my friend SSG Sutherland (no relation that I know of, maybe a very distant relation from back over the Pond in Scotland!) had died in a rollover while I was on TOC shift in Mosul. I did get the opportunity over the next couple days to catch a Staff Duty Convoy to FOB Marez and talk to my Priest Fr. Greshel. That helped incredibly, and I can't imagine what my reaction would have been like without that conversation. I thought it would be enough, but coming back stateside I was never able to talk to his widow because I could never find the words until recently.

On the other side, there were some immense assaults on Veterans coming from the US Government and various law enforcement agencies within the United States. This was the time of the MIAC Report on a resurgence of 'militias', and the Dept. of Homeland Security Report on Right Wing Extremism. Both these documents clearly targeted the Veterans who were coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan who didn't agree and were critical of the Obama Administration. Apparently, we were 'high risk' and likely to go join an armed mob of white supremacists because we had a black man for President. We were getting profiled as terrorists in the midst of a war on terror having fought real terrorists. Yes, this is rather disturbing to us. This actually was a big stressor on the ENTIRE Veteran community, not just Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans (though it certainly hit us differently than other groups, but I know for a fact many Vietnam Vets were thinking BOHICA!).

Luckily, I'd hardened myself prior to going to Iraq. Sometime shortly after I'd moved to Alaska (JUL04), I went to a fantastic local book store, Gullivers, and picked up a fantastic book called “Stolen Valor” by B.G. Burkett. Prior to reading this, I had the same notion everyone else did about PTSD and the effects of combat on Americans. After reading this book, my opinion changed incredibly. I'm going to venture to say we need to trash everything we think or thought we knew about PTSD and start over again. Why? Politics and the Anti-War movement have tainted our knowledge of PTSD. We need not start over completely however, because in 1952 when the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-I) was released, the experiences of WWI, WWII, and the active shooting part of the Korean War (still going on at the time) covered a “gross stress reaction” that was the result of exposure to the more gruesome aspects of combat. Some of those studies even indicated that this reaction could occur years after the battlefield, and the DSM-I described as a temporary condition caused by extreme environmental stress, which should disappear after the patient was removed from the anxiety-producing situation (I'm quoting from the book, get a copy!).

Burkett goes on to extrapolate on the political influence of the Anti-War movment and Robert Jay Lifton on the DSM-II and the creation of PTSD. Its so full of blatant politics that I scarcely can accept the idea of PTSD in the form that was created by these individuals, more specifically applied to myself. There certainly is a such thing as Combat Stress or War Neurosis; which has been observed, studied, and treated for hundreds if not thousands of years. All it takes is a good solid look at history and the improvements made by both psychology and the military are astounding. Civil War records show 20 per 1000 soldiers suffering paralysis and 6 per 1000 suffering insanity from combat. During WWII, draft boards turned away over a million men as mentally unfit for service; and during the war the Ist Army in Europe suffered from 102 psychiatric casualties per 1000 (some of these were hardened combat veterans who'd seen a few battles!). During WWI, the “Salmon Plan” was introduced to provide each unit with a psychiatrist, and in 1944, the Korean War, it was re-introduced. When Vietnam started, it was already in place, with only 5 psychiatric casualties per 1000. I wonder what the rate is today in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Burkett's study of the creation of PTSD doesn't just stop at the views of the biggest PTSD advocate Robert Jay Lifton, he has uncovered and revealed a bias that inserted itself within the VA and Vet Centers across the country during that time. Almost NONE of the Veterans which were treated by the “rap groups” started by Lifton were proud of their service. Every single group specifically sought anti-war veterans who'd supposedly committed or witnessed 'war crimes'. There was NO attempt to verify actual service in any of the armed forces, much less any tours in Vietnam. It was a rigged pool of patients that led to the creation of PTSD in the first place; a mockery of the scientific method if I ever saw it!

There in lies my skepticism. Why should I believe everything a psychiatrist or counselor tells me when the baseline study for the 'disorder' they are attempting to diagnose if flawed to begin with? I do like the folks at my local Vet Center, and having conversations with them I don't doubt that they are 100% supportive of the current Veterans and strong advocates for the older generations of Veterans. In fact, our Veterans Advocate is FEARED by the Veterans Administration and has the highest success rate of getting disabled Veterans the benefits they NEED than any other in country. Our Vet Center has exposed Stolen Valor when they've found it, and several times made sure that phony Medal of Honor holders get dealt with and exposed. Yet it seems there is still the under current of Vietnam Era anti-war politics in the Vet Centers across the rest of the country in some places. I'm a member of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) Community of Veterans (COV) social network; and in those forums I run across a lot of veterans running into problems with the VA and even some Vet Centers. Sometimes I wonder if half the problems all Veterans experience with the VA isn't caused by the sentiment and ghosts of the Vietnam Anti-War movement working in a malicious fashion within the Veterans Administration itself. Department heads my change, but the rank and file bureaucrats are union employees with secured jobs and pensions who will work for decades at a time and cause no end of problems within the bureau they serve if they choose to.

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