Some of you may have read the article “Ricochet: My shot made Joseph Dwyer famous. Did it also help lead to his death?”
If you haven’t, you might want to. It’s about this young medic, Joseph Dwyer, who was photographed during the 2003 invasion, running toward safety with an injured Iraqi child in his arms. Dwyer was found dead in his apartment a week before the article ran, having overdosed on drugs. We know that he was haunted by the war and likely exhibited many or all of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. He was hypervigilant, anxious, fearful, and haunted by the war. His mother told the reporter that he was proud of the photograph but embarrassed by the publicity.
Having spent a great deal of time working with combat soldiers and other patients who have a history of trauma, I have come to understand the fear and the guilt that many of them carry throughout their lives. Fear of the night, when the flashbacks and nightmares prevent them from sleeping; guilt for surviving when others didn’t.
Sometimes it is hard to seek help; many men, for instance are ashamed that they cannot handle the problem themselves, and perhaps fear that they are the only ones with these ghosts. They feel that nobody understands, and unless you have been in their situation, they are right.
I have never been in combat, and could never understand the dichotomy of boredom and terror that our men and women often face in the military. But I do understand fear and terror and can listen without being repulsed by their stories.
Yes, some of the stories are horrible, but the PTSD that these people are living with is much worse. They come to trust the fact that I am not afraid of them, nor do I think they are crazy.
People with PTSD have horrible experiences and they are honestly reacting normally to an abnormal situation. We aren’t prepared to handle trauma and loss. We aren’t trained to survive car crashes or incoming missiles.
About 40,000 cases of PTSD have been diagnosed in military veterans since the beginning of the Iraq war. That number jumped 50 percent from 2007 and will continue to rise. The Army reported more than 10,000 new cases last year, compared to more than 6,800 the previous year. The Marine Corps had more than 2,100 cases in 2007, compared to 1,366 in 2006. They have had more than 5,000 PTSD cases diagnosed since 2003, according to VA Watchdog. There is much speculation about the exact reasons for this, but part of it is due to the very fact that more soldiers are reporting it and seeking help.
Car crashes also are causing increased incidences of PTSD. Our cars are being better engineered to withstand crashes and we are surviving more terrible accidents. I work with many patients who have shown me photos of their mangled cars and there is no reason whatsoever for them to be alive, except for a protective car, luck, or a higher power who was looking out for them. The fact remains, if we survive horrible events, we may suffer horrible symptoms after.
Not everyone does, however, and we have a few predictors that may shine some light on who suffers from this and who doesn’t. When I was working with Vietnam veterans, I learned that about 24 percent of them suffered from some form of PTSD. Considering more than 2.5 million soldiers were deployed to Vietnam from 1964 to 1973, that percentage seems lower than expected. You might assume all of them to have suffered horrible experiences and terrible nightmares. Not everyone did, but the ones that suffer the most seemed to have a common thread: They often didn’t have a solid social network to welcome them home, and many had abusive childhoods.
Again, this isn’t true for everyone. But it is true enough for too many.
What can be done? There are trauma specialists who can help. They can choose to go to the VA, but sometimes they don’t want to, or fear government agencies.
Whether it is finally telling the stories, getting support without being questioned, medications or relaxation training there are a wide array of tools that mental health professionals can use to help.
If you have untreated PTSD, or you suspect someone is suffering from PTSD and hasn’t gotten help, try to find a specialist in your area, or call the local VA trauma unit and see if they can offer you some names. But try to get them help. They aren’t alone and there are professionals who know how to help them.