Monthly Archives: February 2010

Where to start?

     As with anything a definition is usually a good place to start. For our purposes, PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) is where we begin. What is it? Does everyone fit into the cookie cutter definition? So lets get cracking.

   [Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an emotional illness that usually develops as a result of a terribly frightening, life-threatening, or otherwise highly unsafe experience. PTSD sufferers re-experience the traumatic event or events in some way, tend to avoid places, people, or other things that remind them of the event (avoidance), and are exquisitely sensitive to normal life experiences (hyperarousal). Although this condition has likely existed since human beings have endured trauma, PTSD has only been recognized as a formal diagnosis since 1980.] 
Its Gone By Many Names:
      So there is the definition, thanks to Webster’s dictionary. I am sure some of it fits but not all of it will. I find the part about it only being recognized formally since 1980, the most interesting. In the civil war era it was called “Soldier’s Heart”, in the WWI era it was called “combat fatigue”, WWII era, “shell shock”, Vietnam era “gross stress reaction” or “post-vietnam syndrome”. Strangely all these terms and even the PTSD definition still only refer to one part of what I see to be a 2 part thing. Part 1 is pain and suffering part, the named portion for our purposes. The second part is the anger, the killer instinct part.
The common idea:
      The pain and suffering portion of the PTSD illness is something brought on by those terribly frightening, life-threatening events. It causes adrenaline fueled panics, I would get those when dump trucks would drive over an over-pass as I drove under… anyone that lived through a car bomb I bet you do too. This is the part that causes the nightmares and some of the harder things like the depression and anxiety. Most people tend to focus on this. Most of us assume that we are ok as long as we don’t feel any of these types of things.
Hulk Smash!!:
      The anger portion is even more dangerous than the first. This is the part that when walking into a crowded room, you decide who to take out first and what the best exit is. This is the part that makes you froth at the mouth and cuss so hard it would make any sailor blush while you sit in traffic. This is the part that sends your blood pressure through the roof and makes you relatively unstable. This is the part that no one pays any attention too, but it makes the sufferer of this kind a ticking time bomb. It is just as important to address this as it is to address the first.
Not just a one serving kind of thing:
      Another significant idea that must be shared is that what most service members experience is not PTSD, it is C-PTSD. The C is for constant. I have also seen it as P-PTSD or prolonged post traumatic stress. This is kind of a simple idea when you think about it. If you ask most grunts how many “trauma worthy” events they saw over there, it won’t be 1 or 2 or 12 but a laundry list that most ordinary people would have snapped under the pressure of. And so learning how to deal with just one event or avoiding that one thing that causes the symptoms is not really an option because we would just have to stay in a dark room for the rest of our lives.
To kill or not to kill ISN’T the question:
      Another issue that tends to come up with PTSD and psychiatrists is that they think it is all related to killing people. Its difficult, its not the easiest thing in the world, but for me and from what I can tell a lot of other veterans, that really didn’t bother us. Killing the enemy was so well programmed into us that it really doesn’t phase us much. What is much more relevant in the world of military PTSD is watching your friends die or be wounded. That to me was infinitely more traumatic than killing the enemy. That is where the attention must be paid and we will try to focus there as well.
What PTSD means to me:
     It is the fall out of something that allowed me to survive. Many of the PTSD like responses I feel are reactions that my body has to prepare me to fight. My heart rate jumps through my neck, my eyes dart from here to there searching for threats, and the strangest off all I am furious. All of these things would in combat allow me to survive but now I come back and they have no place in the society I live and make the other parts of living with what happened over there just that much harder. 
The anatomy of PTSD is actually very interesting.
WARNING SCIENCE CONTENT: Part of your brain called the amygdalla actually grows as a result of traumatic stress. What it does is link your bad memories to autnomic nervous system (big string of words for where the adrenaline is). What the amygdalla was for back in cave man times was to associate bad experiences with needing to survive. For example, Cave man Bob saw his mom get eaten by a saber tooth tiger. This bad memory would get stored in his peanut. The next time Cave Man Bob sees a saber tooth tiger, his body will automatically dump adrenaline and spike his heart beat thanks to the amygdalla, drawing from the memory and interpreting it as a threat. So in our brains after so much trauma, our amygdallae are on steroids and interpret everything as threat. So who cares, right? One of the best things someone dealing with PTSD is to figure out what it is that makes it tick. More on this later. The picture is of where in the brain your amygdalla is, if your are curious look into what is called your limbic system and this will cast a little more light on the subject.

What happens if I just act like its not there:
If you watch the news and live on this planet, you probably know the military is having a suicide epidemic.This site is a product of that. Also, alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs are being used and abused in more frequency than in recent decades in the military. Can you guess when the last time substance abuse was this bad? Its a little worse than the Gulf War era and a little better than the Vietnam era. If you pretend like it doesn’t exist and you are perfectly fine, you could be setting yourself up to either slowly drink yourself to death or to do something tragic like take your own life. So listen up and own up to what’s going on in your head. It doesn’t make you weak, the most decorated soldier of WWII Audie Murphy was a prominent voice of those who suffered from PTSD. He had more medals than us all and suffered for every one of them.
     So to sum up our long definition, its a series of emotional, mental, and physical responses that are triggered by sights, sounds, thoughts, and memories of what went on over there. It is not just a singular event but sometimes a complex system of difficult events sometimes spread across several year’s time. It is something that is not just limited to sadness and fear but can and often does include anger, hate, and blood lust. It is not just a mental and emotional thing but also a physical change in your brain as a whole. This is what we will focus on learning how to overcome.


The Idea

    On the heels of losing another soldier I served with I have decided its time to try to do something about it. Soldier’s dying in combat happens, its horrible, its hard, but its reality. Losing military service members when they are back stateside, either to suicide or drinking themselves to death, is unacceptable. We as fellow service members should not stand idly by and let this happen. We the ones who made it out, came back, had the issues but have somehow learned to cope or overcome, shouldn’t sit there quietly and let this happen to the ones that are struggling. So the Idea has begun to hatch.
     Create a place for Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and the Coast Guard to openly talk about the things we saw over there and during the course of our duties and what it did to us mentally and emotionally when we got back. This is an incredibly taboo thing. We as grunts are taught to be self-sufficient and resilient. We often consider ourselves to be 10 feet tall & bulletproof and when faced with something of the emotional magnitude of losing buddies, seeing the carnage, and dealing with that day in and day out fear, we tend to bury it or drown it in alcohol. This is made blatantly obvious by the sky-rocketing suicide rate. But I am not just wanting the horror stories, I want to know how we have gotten over living through that and how we coped when we got back, so that others may learn from our success.
     Common problems and why I think this might be helpful. First off, we all know that getting help in todays military is getting “easier”. We all still know that going to get professional help can cause a whole mess of headaches with the chain of command. It is harder still for we as service members to swallow our pride and admit we can’t handle it on our own. Second, sometimes the help you do get ain’t worth the time you spent driving to it. Now if you are seriously considering suicide or having ideation go get the professional help. If you just want to be able to breathe in a crowd, the brown paper bag full of anti-anxiety meds they throw at you is not always what you are looking for. Frankly, the head shrinkers don’t get it. Its no fault of their own but most have never pulled a trigger, heard the whistle of a rocket, felt the heat off an IED, or can even imagine what its like to lose brothers and sisters. Beyond that they have never experienced that crazy half panic half murderous rage feeling that a lot of us get the first time we walk through a shopping mall again or woke up from a nightmare that had you reliving that trauma again and again. 
       So if we can’t get the advice we want from somebody thats never been there who better to ask than those who have. We need to spread the communication and knowledge between us all. We need tactics, strategys, field-craft not the junk out of the field manual of “How to make grunts shut up about what they are going through” but real tangible ways of overcoming not just the trauma but also what combat turns you into. So I turn to you, the veterans reading this, I want stories, tactics, ideas, problems, thoughts, and opinions.  Answering questions like, How did you tackle the issue? What was it that was bugging you? Any tricks for coping? Are there things that trigger memories, like smells or sounds? Just throw something up here and we will try to make it into topics, so service members have a place to go. Either post a comment or email me if you want it anonymous, make sure you give me a contact email so I can get with you if I need to, to make sure the message gets across. 
     I know this seems a little wishful thinking, but imagine that if what you had to say helped save a service member’s life. You’d run under fire to save him, can’t you type a few words of how you learned to deal to save him too? Once you do that, spread the word, the guys still in give it to your subordinates, spread it to your buddies, post it on your Facebook and Myspace. If we manage to help just one person it was a worth-while effort. Please Contribute. In memory of Brent Sims.