U.S. Veterans Struggle with Pain, Stigma of Post-Traumatic Stress

Article excerpt

IRAQ IN 2003 was a nightmare C.J. Grisham could not wake up from. It was sustained, almost daily combat for months, and Grisham, a first sergeant in the Army, said he could feel the strain.

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Once, he said he was forced to shoot a person being used as a human shield. Another time, he helped an Iraqi family extract a dead loved one from a burned car. He started to have flashbacks, vivid nightmares and suicidal thoughts--all signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"It's like a million voices in my head telling me that I'm not good enough to be alive," he told The Nation's Health.

The voices told him he should be dead. They said his depression was a sign of weakness and that it was his selfishness that let his friends die.

"It's maddening, and I look forward to the day the voices end," he said.

A 2008 study by the Rand Corporation found that as many as 20 percent of U.S. veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD or major depressive disorder. As the disorder becomes more widely known among veterans and their doctors, researchers are making strides in improving their understanding and treatment. And yet, to the general public the problem is generally not well understood, mental health professionals say.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD is the result of a traumatic event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury or a threat to the physical integrity of oneself or others. Symptoms include intrusive recollections such as flashbacks and dreams, avoiding stimuli associated with the trauma, and hyperarousal, which is characterized by difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, irritability and exaggerated startle responses.

"I get extremely nervous in crowded situations and become hypersensitive to my surroundings," Grisham wrote in a blog post. "Before entering any building, I make a quick survey of all people around me and seek out any and all exits. I sit with my back to a wall so I have a good view of people approaching me. I get startled and anxious at unexpected and loud noises. What I don't get is violent. What I don't do is threaten people."

One of the most common misconceptions about PTSD is that veterans who suffer with it are violent, said Francine Roberts, PsyD, a Marlton, N.J., psychologist in private practice who works with first responders, emergency service providers and veterans on critical incident stress management.

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"There was an incident not long ago where a veteran had a violent outburst, and the media was all over it, talking about how folks with PTSD are violent," she told The Nation's Health. "But the opposite is the truth. Veterans have no more potential for violence than anyone else."

Acting out against others is rare, she said, but self-directed violent behavior, such as suicide, is much more common among veterans with PTSD, she noted.

Rob Ulrey writes for a military blog using a pen name because he worries about the stigma associated with PTSD. He agreed to allow The Nation's Health to use his name so he could spread the word that people with PTSD are not dangerous.

Ulrey was stationed in Bosnia in 1996 when a vehicle he was in experienced what was then called a mine strike. Today, they are known as improvised explosive devices. He was injured and spent time at a base in Germany where an astute social worker, who was himself a Vietnam War veteran, saw the symptoms and helped Ulrey get his PTSD diagnosis. He underwent treatment for a year and thought he was better. …