Sean CW Korsgaard
A man named Omar Gonzales recently made headlines after he charged across the north lawn of the White House with a knife. The reason is best summed up by the CNN headline: “White House fence jumper has PTSD.” There are dozens of headlines like it, and stories like this pop up perennially claiming post-traumatic stress disorder turns veterans into “ticking time bombs” one flashback away from going on a rampage. As an Army veteran diagnosed with service-related PTSD, I am absolutely tired of hearing this.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was diagnosed with PTSD after witnessing a friend of mine commit suicide in the US Army. I suffer from many of the symptoms common of PTSD — anxiety, insomnia, hyperalertness, flashbacks, depression and detachment — but by and large, I’d bet you’d never be able to tell from looking at me. I have my bad days, and more sleepless nights than I can count, but contrary to popular perception PTSD doesn’t turn you into a violent psychopath. So where does that stereotype come from?
Though descriptions of symptoms of PTSD date back centuries, it actually wasn’t a formal medical diagnosis until 1980. Prior to that, the government and military brass played down the effect of war on a soldier’s psyche, often dismissing it as “shell shock,” “battle fatigue” or outright cowardice. It wasn’t until war heroes like Audie Murphy spoke out about suffering from it themselves that anyone argued otherwise, and it still took tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans suffering from it to be recognized. Even today, however, there are many in leadership positions in the military who write it off as malingering, to the point of punishing soldiers for seeking help.
The issue only gets more complicated when dealing with the daunting task of getting help after leaving the service, especially from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Due to the complex nature of both human psychology and PTSD manifesting differently depending on the person and trauma, that diagnosis and treatment is quickly becoming one of the defining challenges for the VA, with claims growing fivefold over the past 13 years and treatment costs doubling over the same time period.
Worst, though, is the social stigma that surrounds veterans suffering from PTSD. Largely a lingering byproduct of the previously mentioned era where it was viewed as a sign of cowardice, the “dangerous” veteran, where a typically PTSD-diagnosed veteran is little more than a flashback away from a killing spree. It’s been a popular trope in Hollywood and the media for years, used in movies from First Blood to The Hurt Locker and in news headlines that include “Vet’s PTSD, violence a growing problem” from CNN, or “Police concerned with Vets who are ticking bombs” from USA Today. Even with the recent Omar Gonzales story, very rarely is it brought up that it was one of two security breaches at the White House last weekend: “Vet with PTSD breaks into White House” was what got the headline.
Collectively this has resulted in a culture where people view veterans with PTSD as suspects, not victims. According to a 2010 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 46 percent of employers said PTSD would keep them from hiring a veteran. Recently the city of San Diego blocked construction of a rehabilitation center for veterans suffering from PTSD out of concerns that it was “too close to a school”. Worse though, is that this is a likely reason why so many veterans avoid seeking help for PTSD, out of the fear of being punished or stigmatized for it. That’s a major issue.
According to the National Council on Disability, more than 1.6 million American service members have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Among returning troops, an estimated 25 percent to 40 percent have PTSD or traumatic brain injury, affecting over 300,000 veterans. It is also directly linked to a spike in suicide among veterans over the last several years, where an average of 22 U.S. veterans commit suicide every day. Veterans now account for 20 percent of all U.S. suicides.
I’m actually one of the luckier ones: When I left the service, I came back to supportive family and friends, I found a good therapist, I found outlets to apply myself. I still grapple with lingering PTSD symptoms, ranging from struggling to sleep five nights a week to having to force myself to socialize and be more outgoing.
Many veterans aren’t so lucky. They come back to a country that just wants to forget about the war they just fought, to a job market that won’t hire them, to a VA that takes years to deliver promised benefits, to a media that talks about them like they’re monsters and a public that doesn’t have any answers. So they look for them at the bottom of a bottle or the barrel of a gun. Twenty-two veterans kill themselves every day. One in four homeless people is a veteran. When unemployment among veterans is twice the national average, why do veterans only earn a headline when people are worried about them exploding violently?
Gonzales himself had been deployed three times. His psychological state was documented to have deteriorated each time. He was diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety and paranoia by a psychologist, sought help from the VA and was turned away. Why is the first time the same government that sent him to war three times takes any interest in his health when he jumps over the White House fence?
That should be what makes headlines — that these veterans who gave their blood, sweat, toil and tears for their country, have suffered greatly for it, only to come home to people who treat them like monsters. This needs to change and thankfully in many ways, it has begun to. Figuring out methods to treat PTSD has been a focus of medical research across the country, including here at VCU, and a primary focus of many charities including the American Legion and the Wounded Warrior Foundation. Maybe someday we’ll have a better understanding of PTSD and how to treat it. Today, we could do better in how to treat those who suffer from it.