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Friday, April 14, 2006

ePluribus Media Interview with PTSD Combat Editor

You're invited to be one of the first to listen in on an interview I gave to ePluribus Media's Kay Shepherd. We discussed all things combat PTSD: How the PTSD Timeline came to be. My work with D.E. Ford and Commander Jeff Huber on the 3-part series, Blaming the Veteran: The Politics of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Fox News and Playboy, too (that should get you interested...). But, more importantly, I did my humble best to advocate for our wonderful returning veterans and their families.

Please give it a listen, or take a look at the commentary thread -- and feel free to let me and ePluribus Media know what you think. Consider supporting their fine organization's work, as they support ours. And have a Good Friday...

Click on 'Article Link' below tags for full interview transcript...

Thank you to Kay Shepherd and ePluribus Media for giving me permission to reprint and share the entire transcript with you:

Kay Shepherd for ePMedia: Greeting Citizens, Welcome to another edition of ePluribus Media podcast and I am your host Kay Shepherd. Our topic today is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Not a new phenomenon, certainly. It’s been known as shell shock, combat fatigue, any number of other names, but the facts and figures coming out of the Iraq war are fairly startling to say the least. One in six soldiers returning from Iraq is suffering from PTSD according to a 2003 study published by the New England Journal of Medicine. A Defense Department study says that six in ten of these same veterans are unlikely to seek help due to the extreme social stigma attached to this disorder.

With me today is Ilona Meagher, who came to this issue as a concerned citizen and who is now well known to ePMedia readers for her PTSD diaries. She is also the editor of the online Journal PTSD Combat: Winning the War Within which provides resources for returning veterans and their families. Ilona, thanks so much for your time. I appreciate your being with us today. I wanted to ask how you got involved with the issue of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Do you have personal experience within your family with PSTD?

Ilona Meagher: I don’t have any specific experience that is very close personally as far as combat experience. I don’t have anyone in my family at the moment that is serving, though I do have some extended family. But I was drawn to this topic due to about 5 and a half years ago I lost a sister to suicide and that experience. After reading a report of a decorated soldier who had returned from Iraq, shortly he killed himself after returning, it touched me personally in that way. Once you have lost someone in your family to suicide, you’re uniquely aware of that darkness and that stigma that still exists in our society. So I had a very deep empathy for those military families who are having to deal with that.

And as a researcher of course I became interested even more so in this topic because I hadn’t really seen much being reported in our national media on this issue of reintegration of our soldiers after they have been returning. How are they are doing? Really, if you look around, you still even today don’t see much reporting. You don’t see the faces of our soldiers. You don’t really hear much about how they are doing, how they are adapting; and so I began to wonder why and I started to do a little bit of online research to see what was going on to see how the troops were faring.

Initially, it was more of just a personal quest. But the more that I dug in deeper, I really realized that this issue isn’t just an individual issue that only military families should have to worry or deal with, because, of course, the veteran returns from combat and he has to fold back into his own family life, but he also has to fold back into his community’s life and he also folds back into our society, the fabric of society. And so it’s imperative for all of us to, I think, follow this issue, be interested in it, and advocate for it.

So as a researcher that’s what I began to do. I decided that that was one way that I could help to bring this issue a little bit more focus. So I began googling and searching for data on suicides, yes, but other types of combat post traumatic stress-related incidents. Generally police blotter incidents; the smaller incidents of personal struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder aren’t often reported so you aren’t going to find those.

I began recording this data and began posting it online in different community areas for review and for people to look over if the data was significant. If there was any need for it. And there was a need for it. People, certainly, they were drawn to this topic because it was something that hadn't been getting covered.

So I began to compile this information and ePluribus Media spotted my work. And that kind of started the whole thing as far as really increasing the spotlight on this issue. They have been really trail blazers, I think, in this. They offered to house the data I had began collecting into a database and that’s now become the PTSD Timeline; you can find that online and it gets quite a number of hits from veterans and their families. We’ve received email from them thanking them, rather thanking us for our work on this as well as the VA, the DOD, house staffers, news organizations, reporters, educational institutions are using this data and it’s a really good feeling to know that at least there’s one place that everyone can go to to take a look at some of the incidents.

The incidents -- we really aren’t able to make an analysis of the data, of what can be conjectured from it or extrapolated from it because we don’t have full figures of what is going on with every single soldier. But it is a good example of some of the events that are happening as our soldiers return home to us.

KS for ePMedia: You mentioned that as a researcher you became interested in this. I think it bears mentioning that this is not your full time job, working with veterans or working with these issues. You are pretty much self-taught on this. You have put together this research yourself and now other people are referencing it and it’s become something of a mecca online for people who need to know more or want to know more about this issue. I guess my next question is: Are vets experiencing PTSD at a higher rate or of greater severity than in previous wars. Is there any data on that? And if it is true, does any one have any idea why?

IM: That’s a great question. The specific numbers are actually difficult at this point to nail down because, frankly, it’s a little too early to tell and to be able to compare it to previous wars. Often, PTSD doesn’t even reveal itself for a number of months or even a few years after a solder returns home, so that’s one issue.

Generally, in the early months the soldier returns home, is excited to be home, and they have local events that welcome them home. The family members get together; there are reunions. There are a lot of exciting things that happen when the soldier first returns home to delay that return-to-normal routine. But once that normal routine is what the veteran has to be faced with, that’s generally when they begin to -- those who are predisposed or those who had certain combat experiences that lead them to having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder -- a number of months after they return, that’s when they begin to see some of the signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

One quick explanation of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The soldier or veteran does have experience, they experience both biological and psychological symptoms. They have nightmares and flashbacks. They might have difficulty sleeping. They may feel detached or estranged from society, from family members. What complicates the diagnosis and treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is that it frequently is bundled together with a whole host of other related disorders, depression, and substance abuse. And usually the substance abuse is done to self-medicate and to dull the pain. They have problems with memory and cognition and all of these things work together to make it really difficult for the returning soldier to function in social and family life without adequate help, without counseling, without a good support network.

And this is where, of course, we come in and I know we will talk about that a little later, but this is where our advocacy and shining a light on this condition helps. Because that will ensure that they are going to get the help and the counseling, and the funding will be there to help support them during their transition.

Getting back to the statistics: One of the things. If you look at what I just explained, what some of the examples of what a person dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has to deal with, you can see it would be difficult for them to hold down employment; it would be difficult for them to maybe maintain a stable marital relationship; they might have problems with child rearing. And unfortunately often what many of our soldiers, and the Vietnam War is a perfect example of what happened, they kind of just checked out of society and became homeless. They couldn’t deal with society and family and those pressures.

One horrible statistic, if you ask me, is that the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans are already conservatively estimating that we already have five hundred Operation Enduring Freedom, those who served in Afghanistan, and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans who already confirmed homeless. And that is a conservative estimate. So we can already tell just from that -- we have about five hundred thousand homeless American veterans, half of those from Vietnam, and now we have five hundred at least that are from the current wars. So this is definitely a serious topic. And as far as the specifics as to whether Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is different today than it was in the past; of course it is. Every war’s battles are different. There are unique similarities between the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder of Iraq and Vietnam versus that of World War II.

Although World War II veterans did have shell shock, they didn’t experience the really intense type of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that the modern combat veteran from Iraq is experiencing because of the type of battle: guerrilla warfare, going house to house, insurgent warfare where our veterans really don't have any safe place. I have seen this in many reports where people more intimate with the details and more intimate, have a higher rank and definitely have their fingers on the facts, say that there is no safe place for our veterans to go to. And that, in combination with many redeployments -- they are serving two, three, four times, returned back into the combat zone -- that cumulative introduction of their body into the battlefield is what increases the incidences as well as exacerbates, makes more intense, the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. So those are some of the statistics that we can look at.

KS for ePMedia: Partly because of the culture of the military, partly because of the nature of the illness, there’s a big shame factor attached to this disorder. How does that affect the reporting? Do we even know if we are capturing all the incidences that are coming in? Are the available statistics reliable?

IM: That’s another excellent point. We, again, don’t know if the statistics are reliable. We do know from a FOX News article -- which I was very, very pleased to have been involved with -- that it offers us a little bit of...some more glimpse on, on some of the statistics. The VA currently says approximately 14% of the soldiers who have left, who have returned home from combat and have left service, have already have been confirmed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And the figure is 20,638. Of course they are saying this is conservative, this is just a small glimpse at, at what the statistics currently are.

The Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense, they obviously...well the Department of Defense I can say. Now the VA, they have actually been wonderful and I think that they try to do the best that they can do. They don't have the funds to be doing a lot of study I think in this matter and this is where the Department of Defense probably should. But they, they really aren't doing any publishing, for example, of the number of suicides that occur both in the combat zone -- because we have had a number of those cases -- and they don't do any reporting of how many soldiers have committed suicide once they've returned home. How many soldiers have committed murder-suicide once they've returned home? There have been cases of that. How many have returned home and are committing other types of violent crime, either harming themselves or others?

So they're not reporting these cases. I'm assuming that they may be collecting the data but they really are not. Politically it's not advantageous for them to realease that data. And we can understand why: it's not in their favor to, to show that face of combat. In fact, one thing that is interesting that has happened here is that, that those soldiers who have returned from combat and commit suicide, of course they're not on the KIA casualty list. They are not included in that list. And there are families who are trying to change that, saying that of course they are directly -- their injury, mental injury is directly -- related to the combat experience; so, certainly that would not have happened had they not gone to war. And there is my understanding, I have seen one report of one family who actually was victorious in receiving a KIA casualty count where their soldier, the troop, was included. He was actually physically airlifted from Iraq and later committed suicide at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. So, other families have not been sucessful at doing that.

And so, we'll get back to the issue of, you know, the politics of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It's not anything new. You know, we've seen this in other wars and its understandable how there are powerful forces that collide here. We have those people who need, who can benefit from a broader public discussion on this issue. And those people are the military families, the troops themselves. The more people who understand and know this issue will all the more advocate for proper funding, for proper care for our veterans.

But, of course, we've got the other side. Of course, this information is inconvenient. It's inconvenient because our budgets are busted. It's inconvenient because, of course, it's not a good topic for them to continue to try to reclaim public support for the war once people see it can have a very negative effect in society.

There's a lot more of this and I'm certainly not the expert at this. I was fortunate enough to include my name along with Commander Jeff Huber to a recent ePluribus Media Journal piece which I would recommend everybody to read if they have not already. D.E. Ford definately did the heavy lifting on that one and the article's name is Blaming the Veteran: The Politics of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It's a three part series that explores this tension between the needs of our veterans and the desires of those who wish to cast the war in a more favorable light. It's an excellent piece. And it has been receiving some wonderful attention which has us all thrilled, of course, because the more that we can talk about this with other groups, with people perhaps that aren't generally finding this information easily themselves...

For example, Chronogram Magazine is just going to be reprinting a large part of the piece for its readership. And Playboy magazine has recently contacted us. They are also going to be writing a piece on the politics of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and really, really thought that this, this work that we did with Ms. Ford and Commander Huber is a really good place for them to start. So we're excited about that, to see that happening.

KS for ePMedia: Nice plug by the way, very really well done. I wanted to ask you, you have been doing a lot of mainstream media lately. The Fox News story, the Playboy story. Media seems to have discovered this issue in the past few weeks. We've seen it on Hardball. We've seen it on MSNBC on some of the other shows. We've seen it on Fox News. And you've been doing a lot of media. How can decent coverage of this issue help the individuals and families effected by it?

IM:
Well, I think that number one first and foremost, since this is a mental health issue -- we all know as people we really don't even have to debate this -- that mental health issues have a stigma in society. Not just Post Traumatic Stress, but every type of depression. We're supposed to be happy. Everything's supposed to be great. We're supposed to always look at the bright side. And those are all wonderful things; but, the reality is that life is not always just one extreme. We also have the other things. We have all of the different colors of the rainbow and shades of gray out there. And certain issues, mental health issues, have a stigma attached to them that people don't want to discuss.

Generally, there has been an increase of discussion the last few decades which is wonderful. Because the more that we highlight this issue, discuss it, the more that we see that others also struggle with this, the less that we condemn ourselves that we're the only ones who deal with this. That we are the only family that has you know, that has this, this whatever it is.

And so for the soldier that's returning first and foremost, or the Marine, the veteran who returns to us. First and foremost, they have a big battle to wage against the typical military indoctrination which I'm not putting down. You know, we need to have strong fighting forces. And everybody knows that and I applaud them. When they return home, though, they are not attached to that strong fighting machine anymore. They are individuals again who return to their families and their lives. And I've seen many veterans say that, you know, that is one of the difficult -- that decompression -- that complete change in what their life is like, they were attached to this greater cause and now they're just dealing with their own lives. And if they don't know that other veterans are also having difficulty with this issue then they may feel "oh it's just me." I'm quote unquote, I guess I'm the crazy one or something. Well they're not. They're, they're very normal. They are dealing with intense situations of combat. Some deal better with it. They come home, perhaps they have a better, stronger support network in their family and their friends, in their community.

There are differences in support even in the military roles of the different...for example, the Reserve and the Guard have less of a military support and are having a more difficult time with dealing with this Post Traumatic Stress issue and counseling and giving them the support that they need verses the traditional Army base, the troops that return home together and they still have that community. They can still talk with their battle buddies. They can kind of, you know, get the other person's back. So that, that's one of the main reasons why talking about this issue, why myself just as a citizen, a concerned citizen, I don't want to see these people falling through the cracks. I think we should have learned something.

We are a giving society. We are a society who supports our troops. And so, I think that, for example, one of the biggest things I would love to see more people advocate for: Many veteran's groups, veteran's families have said that one of the biggest obstacles is of course getting their veteran to accept that maybe they need the help of somebody else and to get them into the VA center for counseling. Or to get them to any other type of perhaps private counseling.

And so, I think one thing that we could do that would really show our support for the troops, in a tangible way as citizens and as the military, is that once they return home, why don't we have a program set up that they automatically have to attend a three month counseling program? Probably a group program with other combat veterans. If they didn't want to attend something like that, individual counseling. Whatever the soldier, however, he is going to be able to deal with that, great. But I really think that rather than the soldier having to be the one to get up the courage to say "I'm floundering, I'm not dealing well with this, I'm hurting," why not just make that counseling available to them? If they personally don't need it, I bet you there is another veteran that he could help, he or she could help.

So, in that situation if they were all going to counseling for three months after they return, they'd still have that kind of a battle buddy group that they could talk about their experiences with. They could decompress. And they could check out each other's progress to make sure that nobody falls through the cracks. So, I think that's why I'm heartened to see the uptick in the national media's coverage. I think it's, it's going in a really good direction. More people know about this I think the more that we'll be able to help the soldiers returning.

KS for ePMedia: Now of course you've done a lot of great work at ePluribus Media on this issue. You have also begun editing an online journal about PTSD called PTSD Combat: Winning the War Within. What's the next facet of the story that you're working on? Where, where does this story go from here?

IM: Well, and thank you for the plug for that too. You know the, the blog started up mainly because I had so much material that I couldn't just put you know as a blog entry, post it. I wanted to have one area to be able to have the veterans, their families to be able to go to so thank you for that. I'm also working on a wonderful local angle. I think that this problem is probably very big for most people and you, you don't know how can you help. I mean certainly, write your Congressman, your Senators. Get them on the ball with this.

Just this past week we did have some legislation that was introduced by Senators Kerry, Akaka, Clinton -- oh I'm missing a few of them -- who for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, to put some more money into it to get some of that counseling available to them that I was just talking about. So, those types of things we can all do. Advocate for change in that way. But, then we can also do things locally. You can inquire if you have a local VA center. You can inquire to see if perhaps a group, you can get together with a group to ask your local officials "What are we doing to make sure that our veterans are getting the counseling and care that they need?"

And that's what I've been involved with, with a group out here in Dixon, Illinois that I've been honored to be a part of. I'm certainly just one small person in the cog here; but, we are hoping to get some more funding from the State of Illinois to get a program up and running that is based on peer counseling methods both that we have here at home and in Australia. So that's exciting to be involved in. And, of course, continue my writing and my advocacy. And doing whatever I can to help in whatever way that I'm necessary, whatever I can do to help.

So, I'm really very pleased to see what we've managed to accomplish up to this point. We can't do it alone. I certainly can't do it alone and we all need each other. I can honestly say, again, a big plug for ePluribus Media because I know I would not have stuck with the issue myself personally. As you mentioned, I don't do this full time. I have my own small business that I run. I'm just a concerned citizen who was interested in the topic. Had ePluribus Media and others from around the blogosphere not supported the work, then I probably would have slowly fallen away from it because it's such a big issue that without the help of other organizations you quickly would probably drown in it. But, that's not going to happen. We're definately well on the way towards some good things happening. I think the veterans are, are going to a see some better positive change coming up here so it's, it's been a great experience.

KS for ePMedia: And if you're interested in this issue at all I strongly suggest you follow up with a visit to www.epluribusmedia.org which is the ePluribus Media Journal site. You can find all of Ilona's diaries including those she has written with D.E. Ford and Commander Jeff Huber and they really give a great deal of deep background on the PTSD issue with a special emphasis on Iraq War Veterans. You can also visit PTSD Combat, Ilona's online journal, at PTSDCombat.blogspot.com and the links as always will be in the show notes. And while you're linking, I'll let myself out. This has been the ePluribus Media podcast for April 11, 2006. I'm your host Kay Shepherd, thanks for listening, stay subscribed and remember "it's not them, it's us." See you soon.

Podcast available from the ePluribus Media Podcasts page.

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