Penny Coleman wishes people would stop thinking of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in combat veterans as a mental disorder. “It’s not a disorder, it’s an injury,” says Coleman flatly.
Coleman led a workshop on PTSD and suicide prevention at the Veterans For Peace national convention held in Minneapolis the last week of August. About 20 Vietnam veterans, an Iraq war veteran, and two family members who each lost a sibling (one to suicide following her service in Vietnam and one in combat) shared what works and what doesn’t in treating PTSD in soldiers. What’s clear is that from Minnesota to Alabama to Colorado and Maine, VFP members devote time to helping their fellow veterans cope with combat-related trauma. “Working with other vets is the most healing thing you can do,” said one.
Coleman was introduced to PTSD through Daniel, whom she married shortly after he returned from Vietnam in 1969. PTSD often appears some years after exposure to trauma and may not manifest until 10 or more years have passed. Coleman said she didn’t know how to help him as she watched him disintegrate from the injury to his soul during his tour in Vietnam. His injury would not heal, in fact, it morphed and divided into new illnesses including depression, anger and addictions. After several attempts, Daniel killed himself.
A writer and photographer who lives in New York, Coleman said it took her a couple decades to realize that she, too, was injured by the experience.
“I couldn’t get him to be present with me,” she said, and she blamed herself at the time for not being able to “fix” him. She found healing by immersing herself in researching “combat fatigue,” “shell shock, ” “post-Vietnam disorder,” and other terms used in other wars and by interviewing vets and family members. While documenting the impact of PTSD she became an advocate for veterans and family members suffering the effects of combat-related trauma. In her 2006 book Flashback: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War, she describes the history of PTSD and its psychological and physical toll.
The VA is in denial about PTSD contributing to the high suicide rate of combat veterans, she says, adding that official counts aren’t accurate. Speaking of Vietnam vets, Coleman said, “There are more suicides than names on the [Vietnam Memorial] wall.”
Veterans For Peace members agree that the United States must be better prepared to provide not only care for physical wounds but also better mental health support for soldiers now serving or just returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Coleman cited figures released by CBS News documenting over 6,256 military suicides in 2005.
About 15 percent of the 1.5 million people that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are returning with combat-related psychological wounds, according to a report by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). Multiple tours and inadequate rest between deployments could increase the rates of combat stress by 50 percent, says IAVA.
Challenges to getting resources to those who need them
The government has already failed many returning soldiers, as evidenced by the highly publicized poor treatment given at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Fort Drum, New York and elsewhere.
Ray Parrish, a Chicago-based veteran and counselor with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, said, “We’re more successful treating each other than the professionals are.” Some of the workshop participants disagreed, stating that non-vets can be helpful mental health providers. There was also some disagreement on the level of support available for current vets and returning soldiers, indicating an uneven national policy.
While the VA hospital in Chicago has launched a pilot ‘peer counselor’ program, according to Parrish, a couple of veterans from Maine said their veteran center had closed 10 years ago and that this is a time when the VA should be ramping up community programs to help the veterans of the Gulf Wars and soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
A veteran from Minnesota lamented that few psychologists are available outside of working hours. Privacy is also a concern that prevents some veterans from seeking help. “We don’t want our co-workers to know we’re in therapy,” she said. She also said therapy may be limited by sick leave rules and insurance.
There’s a stigma associated with PTSD that can cause shame and isolation. One way Parrish’s community in Chicago has sought to combat this is through an annual “Disability Pride” march modeled after the gay pride marches that are now commonplace in some major cities.
But even when soldiers request mental health services, they face numerous roadblocks. The VA has underestimated the numbers of soldiers who would need care and has not allocated all the money Congress earmarked for mental health services. The Army told the VA to stop assisting soldiers with benefit paperwork at Ft. Drum because the numbers of disabled were too high.
And then there was the January 2007 suicide of Jonathan Schulze of New Prague. The Marine veteran of the Iraq war said he felt like killing himself and asked to be admitted to the mental health unit at the VA in St. Cloud, but he was put on a waiting list. After his funeral Schulze’s father told reporter Kevin Giles, “He was a delayed casualty of the Iraq War.”
Other health-related sessions at the conference dealt with Agent Orange, depleted uranium, grieving and healing, alternative therapies, military sexual assault, and memoir writing.