THE fact that roughly 17 percent of U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related emotional disorders, and that most aren't seeking treatment, is a problem for them, the military, and the nation.
That it afflicts our mostly young warriors in Iraq is no surprise. Getting shot at, seeing friends and enemy dead or wounded, and not knowing what could happen next, leads many to try to avoid emotion associated with the traumatic event and puts them at risk of being unable to forget it.
War isn't the only trigger for post-traumatic stress. Disasters, man-made and natural, horrific accidents, and violent crime elicit it as well. The National Institutes of Mental Health estimate that about 3.6 percent of American adults between 18 and 54 face deal with it each year. In war, the percentage rises.
Symptoms range from severe depression and anxiety to anger, from dizziness to chest pain, and from gastrointestinal disturbance to nightmares to alcoholism.
In Afghanistan, the disorder appeared in 11 percent of the troops. In the first Persian Gulf War, as many as 8 percent of veterans succumbed to it, NIH says. Among Vietnam vets it reached 30 percent.
Yet today, many of the 6,000 soldiers examined before deployment to the Middle East and three to four months after they came home are not talking to anyone about the punishing experiences that haunt them.
It's an absurd situation. Those suffering the most are the least likely to seek help. More than half the soldiers with recognizable psychiatric disorders were trying to gut it out, lest they be stigmatized as weak or crazy and their careers cut short.
Experts fear that members of activated National Guard and reserve units, less prepared for combat than the regulars, may wind up with higher incidences of the disorder. On the other hand, these people, post-deployment, can get private therapy at home away from Uncle Sam's prying eyes, if they can find therapists competent to deal with the disorder.
The National Center for PTSD has put together research papers to help non-military clinicians understand the disorder in the military context.
No one should feel they have to sneak around to get help. It can only be useful to anyone in the military to understand from personal experience the threat of PTSD and how it is conquered. Yet the military ethos, like much of society, refuses to believe that those who get help for their mental stresses can be as stable as the rest of us.
To be emotionally numb after a traumatic incident isn't healthy, research shows. The inability to feel is itself often a sign that PTSD is at hand.
The National Institute of Mental Health has developed and assembled considerable research on the disorder, both its causes and its remedies. What's needed within the military is a similar emphasis.
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