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War Wounds of The Mind Part I: Historical Perspective on PTSD

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By John E. Carey
February 15, 2006

Always a student of the human mind and the complexities of the "space frontier between our ears," we are taking the risky step of discussing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in a series of articles over the next week or more.

Our teachers are psychiatrists, other medial professionals, historical documents, the available academic literature but most compelling of all: the sufferers with whom we have met.We start our story with a view from the 1860s. We'll also include some personal observations from hours of discussions with war participants. And hopefully, we'll all end this journey with a more sensitive and through understanding of PTSD.

There was a time when I discounted PTSD. This belief came from many contacts in the Vietnamese American community who deal with medical situations differently from native born Americans. In other words, I came to believe, that people from all cultures encountered PTSD. I think that many Asian people just deal with the illness in a more stoic and quiet manner than the American Veteran soldiers that I have encountered care of the Veterans Administration. This doesn't mean the Vietnamese Americans have a better plan for dealing with PTSD: just that many seem to deal with it in other ways.

Now, we are attempting to present this topic in a thoughtful, caring and gracious way: but we are terribly flawed and often cause offense without thinking or trying. So, read carefully and provide feedback in whatever way you feel comfortable with, including through my home email at:

Just today, a veteran of the Korean War said to me: "What is PTSD?"

One definition (and there are many others) is this: PTSD is a debilitating condition that often follows a terrifying physical or emotional event causing the person who survived the event to have persistent, frightening thoughts and memories, or flashbacks, of the ordeal. Persons with PTSD often feel chronically, emotionally numb.Many Old Soldiers suffering from PTSD argue around the clock about that term "emotionally numb." Many feel or felt anger or hatred, disassociation or isolation and any number of other dysfunctional feelings.

The University of Michigan uses this definition which we found useful: PTSD is a medical condition occurring after experiencing a highly stressing event (such as combat, violence or a natural disaster) beyond the usual human experience. It is usually characterized by anxiety, flashbacks, hypervigilance, recurrent nightmares and avoidance of reminders of the event.

Hypervigilance? An Old Soldier told me he used to hit the deck as if under attack whenever a firecracker went off.

Beyond the usual human experience? Well, war is not usual. Let us just say the Doctor in the story below experienced event not in the usual experience for his time: except that many hundreds of thousands during the war had the same or similar experiences.

Flashbacks? "I still remember Jimmie blowing up. And that was 1944."

For those wanting to "Read Ahead" we recommend the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs web site (National Center for PTSD (NCPTSD)) for starters:

Part one of our discussion is below. It is a story from the American Civil War (1861-1864). And yes it is a true story (we just recently heard from a living relative of Doctor Minor and many of his past relatives are buried a few miles from my home). The story was originally published in The Washington Times in 1999 by editors Woody West and Greg Pierce; two gentlemen to whom I owe a great debt of thanks.

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The Doctor: A Civil War Casualty
By John E. Carey

During the Civil War the concept of "post traumatic stress disorder" did not exist. Physicians and family members close to disabled veterans certainly knew and understood the mental toll the carnage of battle inflicted on mind and body. Dr. William Chester Minor, himself a trained physician, suffered paranoia, uncontrolled fits of rage and severe headaches and nightmares after the Civil War. Ultimately his illness resulted in irrational behavior culminating in the murder of a complete stranger. Admitted to an asylum in 1872, he died in 1920 after making a major contribution to one of the most important books in the English language.

William Chester Minor, son of Eastman Strong Minor, had all the benefits of privilege. He enjoyed the advantages of a fine family name, wealth and education. His father, a true aristocrat, headed the seventh generation of Minors in the United States. Most of the Minors had established themselves as key members of the community dating back to Pilgrim times. Indeed, the property for Oakwood cemetery and an early Methodist Church expansion in Falls Church, Virginia, was donated to the church by a descendant of George Minor (T. Harrison) in 1818 (ironically, Union troops destroyed the church in 1861).

Eastman Minor closed his New England printing business, and with his wife Lucy, traveled to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1834 to spread the gospel of Christianity among the "brown peoples" from India through Singapore and up to Bangkok. William was born seven months after their arrival. Orphaned at the age of three, he saw his father re-married to another widowed missionary by the age of five.

William Minor's father and other clergymen preached about the evils of sex and the damning temptations of the flesh. Yet young William witnessed first hand the local tropical girls bathing shamelessly naked (and apparently without fear of guilt or sin) in the surf – a vision and a dichotomy that would haunt him into adulthood.

A gentle soul, William took to water colors and other artistic pursuits. But his first love was a life-long admiration for great written works.

By the age of twelve, William Minor knew several languages and could ably navigate the back streets of Rangoon, Singapore, and Bangkok.

Sent back to the United States, William Minor completed a classical education and graduated from the difficult School of Medicine at Yale. He spent nine years in medical apprenticeship before he volunteered for service in the Union Army just four days before the Battle of Gettysburg.

After months of service far from the front, Dr. Minor was plunged into the horror of war. He was with the Army at the battle of the Wilderness, and heard wounded soldiers of both Armies crying out in pain as fire swept through the dry kindling of the battle ground. He amputated limbs and witnessed the terrible wounds inflicted by the large caliber lead rounds and cannon shot of the day. He saw gangrene, filth and infection frequently.

After the Wilderness, Dr. Minor was pressed into service by a court martial for a most unusual and difficult assignment. A Union Army deserter, an Irishman by birth, had been caught. This deserter was to face judgement in the field. Found guilty of a hanging offense by a hastily arranged court martial, the "merciful" court ordered the deserter branded on the face with a D, marking him forever after as an army deserter.

This fairly common punishment permanently marked former soldiers for shame. For an Irishman, this was a particularly heinous sentence, for it barred a man from returning to participate in the covert war against the English monarchy. The face scarred with the D alerted law officers who would watch or apprehend the wearer.

Dr. Minor was ordered to mete out the punishment of the court martial. Using a red-hot branding iron, the hesitant doctor carried out his assignment. But the sight and sound of searing flesh and the conflict with the physician's Hippocratic oath haunted Minor for the rest of his life.

At war's end, Dr. Minor was performing autopsies at the military hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. As he moved from posting to posting after the war, he began to exhibit unusual behavior. Irishmen, he believed, entered his quarters to molest him while he slept. He began to frequent the most unseemly establishments in the slums of New York. He complained of headaches.

Minor spent time in the government insane asylum that we now know as Saint Elizabeth's in Washington, D. C. But doctors were unable to conclusively diagnose his illness. Then, at the urging of his family, Dr. Minor went to Europe, where, it was hoped, he could rid his mind of torment. Dr. Minor expected to read, read and paint.

But there was no escaping these post-war demons. Waking in the dark of night while living in London, Dr. Minor went into the street and shot to death a man on his way to work at the local brewery. Dr. Minor believed he had chased one of his Irish tormentors out of his apartment, but at his trial, the landlady proved that no one could have entered his locked chambers.

Convicted of murder and found to be insane, Dr. Minor was sent away to the Broadmoor insane asylum in England in 1872. While Grant became President of the United States and Chamberlain became Governor of Maine, William Chester Minor faced incarceration for the rest of his life.

But the story doesn't end here. Dr. Minor, an educated man who became a physician because of his dogged determination and dedication to good study habits, used his Army pension to start his own library. He collected the best titles and authors of the English language. Ultimately he contributed twenty years of nearly continuous study effort to the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary.

William Chester Minor: student, physician, artist, Civil War veteran, murderer and lexicographer. Dr. Minor's story has recently been illuminated by Simon Winchester in his book The Professor and the Madman, which sheds light upon the Civil War, the nature of man, and the roots of the English language.
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John E. Carey is the former president of International Defense Consultants, Inc.
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