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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Chicago Trib Mag Brings the War Home

From Sunday's Chicago Tribune Magazine:

PTSD can make the bravest soldier, police officer or chaplain curl up and cry, explode with rage or drown in drink, remembering something they saw or did when only chance seemed to separate life and death.

It is why [Army medic Eugene] Cherry brought a seething anger home along with his dog tags. They dangle and dance at the end of a chain hanging from the knob of his bedroom door. When he closes the door to the outside world the tags make a sound like the tinkling clatter of wind chimes or an alarm on the perimeter.

Cherry knows that soldiers have a hard time accepting as real a war wound they cannot see. "I was in denial for a long time," he says. "I always thought I was strong enough not to let that stuff get to me." So have thousands of other soldiers returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan

"Eugene speaks for many, many people," says Tod Ensign, director of Citizen Soldier, a veterans advocacy group based in New York. "We've only just begun to see the beginning of the PTSD problem. A tsunami is coming."

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.


The National Center for PTSD estimates that between 12 and 20 percent of the troops returning home from Iraq are wrestling with the condition. Others say the numbers are much higher.

"I'm hearing 30 percent at least," says Dr. John Mundt, who heads the day hospital program at the Veterans Administration's Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago.

Meanwhile, the National Center estimates that 6 to 10 percent of veterans of the Afghanistan war will experience PTSD.

The disorder probably has been around as long as war itself. The earliest recorded reference to it is by the ancient Greeks. It has had different names over time, as Ilona Meagher points out in her book, "Moving a Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America's Returning Troops." Among them: "nostalgia," "soldier's heart," "shell shock," "battle fatigue."

Some people are genetically vulnerable to PTSD and depression if they suffer trauma. On the other hand, some people are more resilient to PTSD. "The military knows that there is a spectrum of resilience,'' says Dr. Joan Anzia, a psychiatrist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital who has worked with PTSD patients, "thus the selection of super-resilient Navy Seals and Army Rangers. It has nothing to do with moral strength."

It wasn't until after years of lobbying by Vietnam veterans and their advocates that the American Psychiatric Association added PTSD in 1980 to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Its symptoms include depression, anxiety, dread and insomnia.

There are vets who pretend to have PTSD, hoping to get money from the VA. "But experienced PTSD clinicians can tell the difference," says Anzia. "We know the objective signs and symptoms to look for. It can't be faked for long."

The symptoms can last decades, often a lifetime. About 30 percent of Vietnam veterans were afflicted with PTSD, and many of those now-60ish veterans are still receiving therapy. The VA is being stretched to its limits; "The government is going to have to bite the bullet," says Mundt. "This is going to be tremendously expensive."

He tells his psychology trainees that for every soldier killed by a roadside bomb, at least five of his buddies saw it happen. "They will be our clients," he says.

Armed with Frisch's psychological report on his condition, Cherry turned himself in to military authorities in March 2007, 15 months after going AWOL, and was sent back to Ft. Drum. He was hoping to be discharged because of his condition.

Instead, the Army decided to court-martial him. He faced a year in prison and a bad-conduct discharge, which could haunt him when he looked for work in the civilian world.

The Army's decision hit him hard. It smashed the little faith he had left in the uniform he had worn proudly for nearly five years. Still, he tried to hide his hurt. He laughed when he heard what the brass planned to do to him. He would fight them, of course. He was a soldier. Hooyah.

Be sure to read the entire piece for the full story.

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