By: Joey Liner
“We knelt and we prayed and I held the one’s hand, whose leg had been blown off and looked him in the face and I mean I…I can only tell you that I watched the life go from his body. As his eyes turned green he took his last breath and…I see that guy often. In my mind…I …I don’t guess you ever forget somebody who dies holding your hand looking at your face.” – Chief Petty Officer Bob Page
Much has changed since America involved itself in the Vietnam War. Technological improvements occurred tenfold and the nature of war changed so vastly that everything associated with war, including PTSD, had to evolve. For example we no longer require pilots to conduct bombing missions because we now have Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) that can do the same missions without putting a pilot’s life in danger. These type of technological improvements have allowed us to reduce the risk of danger to our soldiers. Yet even with this new technology, PTSD continues to be a prevalent condition seen in our military.
To understand PTSD, in present day terms, we need to acknowledge what separates this conflict from past conflicts. As mentioned earlier, the type of warfare conducted and technology changed dramatically since previous conflicts. There was no longer a need for trench warfare, colossal tank battles, island hopping, or armies numbering in the millions. But with these being sacrificed new obstacles jumped up. Instead of being able to determine who was the “bad guy” by just looking at his flag now it is almost impossible to tell if the those people by the side of the road are civilians or actual enemies dressed as civilians. It is crucial to realize that with the improvements in weapons and warfare technology the “enemy” had to evolve too in order to keep up while being at a disadvantage. Not being able to keep up with the industrial or technological strength that the United States possess the enemy had to use what it could to keep up for example using the land to their advantage, guerrilla tactics instead of open warfare, and even resorting to terrorism. This, being terrorism, has been the most haunting tactic seen in this modern conflict because civilians are not supposed to be targeted but because this is an unconventional war the enemy has to use every route of attack they can. This change in tactics, by both sides, meant a change in how soldiers experienced combat and this change meant that PTSD and the way it influences soldiers changed too.
Along with the obvious changes in warfare it is important to realize how the world at home views the conflict. In past conflicts the public support could vary from full support to vehemently speaking out against it. In World War II the public fully backed the war effort. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor it would have been hard to find someone who didn’t support going to war. Vietnam is a complete reversal of the zeitgeist that was present during World War II. The public spoke out against the war and the administration for supporting the war. Soldiers were treated miserably upon returning home. They were called “murders” and were looked down upon for fighting for their country. Today the conflict is more complex. The overall support for the war fell dramatically as time went by after the events of September 11th, 2001. But the public has never treated the veterans of the current conflicts in the middle east as they did with the returning ones from Vietnam. The troops are, mostly, supported fully and are treated as heroes upon their return even if the overall conflict is not.
For a long time PTSD was an issue that the military and the soldiers themselves wanted to avoid. For a soldier to train and learn how it is necessary to be able to depend on the man next to them and then for them to admit that they suffered from PTSD many saw it as a weakness and were ashamed. The work done by Kuehn (2009) shows that surprisingly it took a radical increase in suicides among veterans for PTSD to garner the attention it required and this led to the returning soldiers getting the help they needed. But regardless of the awareness and efforts made to remove soldiers from the field of battle as much as possible the rates of soldiers coming home suffering from PTSD is rising. According to the work done by Seal et al (2007) of 103,788 veterans of both Iraq and Afghanistan 25,658 or roughly 25% received mental health at VA health care facilities. While over half of them were diagnosed with two or more mental disorders. Another discouraging piece of information according to the research by Jakupcak et al (2007) is that in previous conflicts it sometimes took years after the conflict for soldiers to feel the symptoms of PTSD but with the recent conflicts in the middle-east it sometimes only takes a year or two before the symptoms are sighted. This means that it is crucial to spot the signs early and try and take care of them before they settle in. The truth is that even with warfare going through an evolution and the remarkable ability to remove soldiers from the field as much as possible we still have not figured out how to lower PTSD rates. But that does not mean that all efforts are in vain. In fact the VA has progressed over the years in trying to offer aid to veterans and they even have launched movements to raise PTSD awareness. The most clear example of this is the Make the Connection Movement that was launched by the VA in an effort to help veterans learn from other veteran’s stories about their ordeals with PTSD and to prove that there is no shame in looking for help. PTSD has cemented itself in our society by using the current middle-eastern conflicts as a jumping platform but without it being a national concern we may never have been able to help these suffering veterans returning from duty.
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Jakupcak, M., Conybeare, D., Phelps, L., Hunt, S., Holmes, H. A., Felker, B., Klevens, M. and McFall, M. E. (2007). Anger, hostility, and aggression among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans reporting PTSD and subthreshold PTSD. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 20: 945–954. doi: 10.1002/jts.20258
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Kuehn, B. (2009). Soldier Suicide Rates Continue to Rise: Military, Scientists Work to Stem Tide. The Journal of American Medical Association , 301 (11): 1111-1113 doi: 10.1001/jama.2009.342