From the dawn of humanity men have fought other men, either to protect themselves, their families and their homes, or on the other side because they were trying to take someone else's lands and homes.
Some fighters have gloried in war's unrestrained excesses while others are overwhelmed.
In the latter group there are subsets: people who temporarily are disabled by the sights, sounds, smells and mind-numbing violence; and those whose mental processes are permanently impaired.
For those who overcome the impact of the fighting, their lives initially may be dominated by their battle experiences, but ultimately they regain control and are able to function in society with little to mark them as war veterans.
For the more seriously affected, the impact of battle may never depart. They have a condition that has variously been labeled "soldier's heart," "shell shock," "battle fatigue," and since the Vietnam war, "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder."
Whatever the term used to describe it, reaction to battle has been with us forever, but lately it has become the focal point of much of the news reporting on the War on Terror, particularly regarding the fighting in Iraq.
In past generations the veterans who suffered from this malady were either ignored, left to fend for themselves, or on occasion warehoused in veterans' homes. Today the issue is far more in the public eye and both the military and Veterans Administration are applying increasing resources to diagnose and treat warriors who are suffering from the impact of combat.
But headlines carry the alarming news that PTSD cases are increasing dramatically, the military is broken, slowly decaying from within, a generation of Americans is wasting away mentally and physically, and America is doomed. This often accompanies commentary that the war in Iraq is unnecessary, unwinnable, and that members of the armed forces who died fighting terrorists - in Iraq only - lost their lives for obscure political reasons, not defending our country.
Controversy also is brewing within the military as even a hint of temporary PTSD symptoms can be seen as a career ending condition.
But just how bad is PTSD in the long term, for the majority of people, and how much of it is generated or fueled by the non-stop negativity in the media and on the floor of Congress?
Take for instance a recent trip to Iraq by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. While there she saw overwhelming evidence that since the upsurge in personnel last year the fighting has gone all our way. But, rather than admit she was wrong when she was advocating the Choose to Lose policy, Pelosi claimed that we really aren't winning in Iraq, it's just that the terrorists headquartered in Iran next door are allowing us to dominate!
How much impact did that comment have on the mental health of fighters who have been locked in battle for a year, many of them veterans of multiple tours? I bet it at least made them angry, as it well should have.
Now multiply that commentary from one of our country's the top political leaders - a woman lest we forget, who subjugated herself before the ruler of Syria, another country that is bent on destruction of the US - by the myriad congresspeople, newscasters, columnists and commentators who echo her sentiments, and you have the basis for an all-out psychological warfare attack on our military.
With today's instant communications you can be sure the troops are well aware of the incessant news conferences in Congress, in which our so-called leaders badmouth the military - in a roundabout manner to be sure, but that is the end result. The mainstream news media covers each utterance from each politician and the result is an atmosphere of gloom and doom that has permeated the entire country.
I have noticed over many years of watching filmed interviews with veterans of hard fought battles from the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, through Beirut and right up to the present that there are many similarities in the reactions of those who fought and lived.
All have very strong emotions buried inside, sometimes deeply, sometimes nearer the surface. As they recall and relate the loss of friends, the viciousness of the fighting, giving all they had to win and survive, they often are overcome.
But World War II veterans have one significant difference from the veterans of the post-World War II era. Regardless of how horrible the experiences relived by the WWII vets, and how much it impacted them, there is a common conclusion to their interview ... "But we saved the world from the Nazis, (or the Japanese) so it was worth it."
That one line gave so many of those fighters the capability to shoulder the burden of their memories and carry on with their lives, rarely if ever telling those close to them of the horrors they had witnessed. This may not have been the absolute best route for them, and I am sure they had their moments when PTSD reared its head even if it wasn't recognized as such.
Yet they carried on, and were able to function in a normal society without a lifetime of counseling and especially a lifetime of prescription drugs.
But the men and women who served from Korea onward came home to an entirely different country and reception. World War II vets received tremendous support from a home front that was united in its belief that the Germans and Japanese had to be defeated.
War in that era was all out, unlike Vietnam - and the War on Terror - where enemy soldiers deliberately mixed in with the civilian population to cause civilian casualties and bring media scorn down upon our troops. In WWII the huge bomber fleets, massed artillery or naval gunfire could and did eliminate entire cities or island populations without a word of protest back home.
Vietnam vets were falsely labelled baby killers and murderers. If even one civilian dies in a firefight in Iraq, or more to the point, is murdered in the back room of a house temporarily occupied by terrorists, the media will find a way to portray our military as murderers, again, regardless of whether there is scintilla of evidence to prove the claim.
Regardless of how much damage they may be doing to individuals, their families, their military units, or the country overall, news editors and producers will run any story that criticizes our troops, and slough off the potential damage by claiming they will run a "correction" if the allegations prove untrue.
Meanwhile, politicians fall all over each other trying to be the first in front of a camera to make equally unfounded, outrageous statements about the status of the military, and the moral decline in the ranks.
If the facts don't bear out their assumptions they will work day and night to cover their rear ends and try to spin the outcome to make it appear they were simply misinformed, and then change the subject.
But the damage has already been done, and it appears to be getting worse.
Members of the armed forces are being diagnosed with PTSD if they work in the military morgue and see too many bodies, if they work in military hospitals and see too many wounded, if they work as military police officers and see violent collisions caused by roadside bombs.
But Americans work in many of the same occupations back home, and see much of the same carnage - ambulance drivers, Emergency Medical Technicians, police, fire fighters, emergency room nurses and doctors. And let's not forget morgue technicians and undertakers.
Yet, while PTSD certainly must be present in these professions, there is no massive media outcry predicting that our social services infrastructure is about to collapse, or that the nursing profession is over-extended, or nearly broken.
How is it that people can do the same job, one in the military, one in the civilian world, in virtually the same circumstances yet it is only the military that is not capable of adapting to the stress?
My belief here is two-fold. First, I believe that the military personnel can adapt, far better than many in the civilian world, but that their reaction to the stress around them can be and is exacerbated by the negativity in the media and the US Congress.
How different would their reaction to battle be if the news was full of their heroics, and the wonderful statements that Congress was issuing on their behalf back home? How different would their attitude be toward their difficult tasks if school children didn't think the war they are fighting was politically inspired instead of a necessary measure to keep terrorism at bay?
Second I believe that many PTSD symptoms are minor, and can be dealt with through counseling that can be no more than a combined sharing of experiences. But even minor symptoms can take on a larger persona when they are aggravated by a non-stop flood of negative statements and news reports.
Is it always the stress of combat that leads to PTSD symptoms, or is it also the added burden of hearing the media and people in high places repeating the Big Lie of the mentally deficient military?
I suspect that if the armed forces knew without question that our country's leaders were behind them - and not preparing to stab them in the back - the PTSD 'epidemic' would subside, or cases would be reported for what they are, mild to moderate symptoms that could and willingly would be dealt with through counseling, without relying on drugs.
That would lead to a reduced burden on both the military and VA systems to tackle a problem that certainly is a very real issue, but probably no more of an issue in this war than it was for previous generations.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008