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The Battle Over PTSD

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The battle over the meaning of a traumatic experience is fought in the arena of political discourse, popular culture and scholarly debate. The outcome of this battle shapes the rhetoric of the dominant culture and influences future political action.

Kali Tal, Worlds Of Hurt: Reading the Literature of Trauma


There's a major struggle for meaning going on in America now that centers on war trauma among returning soldiers and veterans of our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and, now, Libya.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the current official term for what has plagued soldiers throughout history as they returned from wars to civilian society. PTSD became an official term in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, following a period of struggle among psychiatric authorities and activists that focused on the experiences of Vietnam veterans. The DSM is regularly revised and updated.

What sort of meaning one ascribes to war trauma depends on who one consults and how connected they may be, directly or ideologically, to the Department of Defense, which has a major stake in establishing certain parameters of meaning in how PTSD is perceived in the culture.

The key terms for the military are about establishing resiliency to facilitate the reintegration of soldiers into their units for future deployment and the idea of a warrior class with a warrior ethos. (In the case of   resiliency and reintegration, those concepts are also key in civilian-based trauma recovery.) The era of the citizen soldier has faded into the past when there was a draft and wars like World War Two were "popular" and widely understood to be defensive and to make sense to most people. Now, we have a completely volunteer military, an institution that is becoming more and more separated, even aloof, from civilian life, as it deploys its soldiers to fight foreign wars that, for many, make less and less sense and use up more and more national resources.

No one is a "soldier" anymore; whether you're in special ops doing lethal night raids into Pakistan or repairing computers on a FOB, you're now a "warrior" -- as if you wore studded breast-plates and carried swords and lived by the rule come home with your shield or on it.

The mythic warrior Ajax falling on his sword by (unknown)

The major psychiatric literature on PTSD emphasizes that the linchpin in recovery from PTSD is in the narrative-formulating functions of the brain that tend to get short-circuited with traumatic experience. Creating narratives is how we make sense of our lives on many levels. Extending outward from the mind, narrative is involved in establishing meaning in the culture itself, and the Pentagon has entered this arena with new   agencies that focus on the personal suffering and struggles associated with PTSD as they carefully manipulate a soldier's reintegration back into the Pentagon war mission.

This became clear to me when I recently attended an interesting two-day workshop put on by the Dart Center For Journalism & Trauma of the Columbia School of Journalism. It was called "When Veterans Come Home" and was attended by newspaper and radio journalists, photographers, documentary filmmakers, clinicians and others interested in PTSD and issues concerning soldiers returning from our war zones. It was sponsored by the Thomas Scattergood Foundation for Behavioral Health and was held at the studios of WHYY, the National Public Radio affiliate in Philadelphia.

PTSD seems to be in the air. Currently, I'm involved in an apolitical veterans counseling group called Healing Ajax, named after the mythic Greek warrior who committed suicide upon return from the Trojan Wars. In the past month, I've attended three separate workshops that dealt with trauma and PTSD from a clinical, counseling posture. One of these workshops dealt with trauma as very much a civilian, human phenomenon, which is one of the current directions trauma studies are headed. Trauma can and does happen to anybody; a lot of it happens to kids, especially poor kids. Studies show that early childhood trauma is too often linked to later adult substance abuse problems, violence and incarceration.

I'm a Vietnam veteran journalist who has traveled twice briefly to Iraq in 2003 and 2004, where I spoke with soldiers in that war zone. I have written a lot of critical things about our wars. So covering veterans' issues may be less alien turf for me than it was for some of the reporters and journalists at the Dart workshop. That seems to have been the motivation behind the workshop: to help reporters maneuver the shoals of the military reality so they can better report on returning soldiers. I certainly gleaned a lot of valuable information, such as learning about Veterans For Common Sense in Washington DC, an incredible data and contact resource for journalists.

There were panels of experts on PTSD, on re-integration and re-adjustment issues, on the dos and don'ts of reporting veteran and military stories, on how to navigate the Veterans Administration; a Philadelphia judge told about the city's jail-diversion Veterans Court; several reporters told how they pulled together military related stories they'd done;   and, maybe most important, there was a panel called "Listening to veterans: What every interviewer should know."

The segment that most interested me, though, was one called "Military Cultural Competence 101." It was an hour, and it was given by Dr David Riggs, the executive director of something called the Center for Deployment Psychology, a part of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences -- all funded and part of the Department of Defense.

Dr. Riggs started out by asking us to shout out adjectives that we felt fit the military. There were shouts of   "brave" and "young" and "loyal" and that kind of thing. I chimed in with "working class." But when Riggs read them all back to us to show us who we thought the people in the military were, he   left "working class" off the list. This   did not surprise me, given the notion of "class" is a dirty word in today's America with a shrinking middle class and a growing   gulf between the rich and poor. He next asked why we thought young men and women joined the military, and, following things like "patriotism" and   "to protect America," I said "because there are limited career options." Dr. Riggs snickered and suggested that was a common delusion that was not true. A little provoked, I interrupted him and told him I had in fact spoken to, and read about, quite a few young men and women who joined for this very reason. At this point, he seemed to concede the situation was complex. As did I and, I think, everyone else.

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I am a 65-year-old American who served in Vietnam as a naive 19-year-old kid. From that moment on, I've been studying and re-thinking what US counter-insurgency war means. I live outside of Philadelphia, where I'm a writer, photographer and a video (more...)
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Why are Americans funding this abuse of the honora... by Steven G. Erickson on Saturday, Apr 16, 2011 at 1:58:51 AM