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Iraq, Afghanistan Wars and PTSD: Just Fraud?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

It has come to my attention that there is a sentiment being circulated that GI’s who are claiming disability benefits based on PTSD are just taking advantage of the system when, in fact, nothing is wrong with them. In fact, I have heard friends and neighbors state the opinion that soldiers during past wars, such as World Wars I and II, suffered no such disabilities while going through the same war time experiences and worse, than soldiers today.

This is an issue that needs to be addressed because it is inaccurate. Let me hasten to say that there will always be a few sociopathic types of people who look for loopholes in order to collect undeserved monies. It is also true that these types can ruin it for everyone else by setting an example that some people use to generalize to the entire group. The fact is that PTSD resulting from war is very real and disabling. Here is an explanation of how it works.

Iraq is not the first war in which something akin to PTSD has been identified. In the First World War it was referred to as "shell shock," and in the Second World War it was called "combat fatigue." Even further back, history is filled with stories of soldiers manifesting similar types of symptoms. The understanding of those symptoms varied according to the values of society at the time. During the Napoleonic era, most solders manifesting anything like PTSD symptoms were labelled as cowards and immediately executed.

It was the in advent of the 20th century, with its greater understanding of human psychology, that attitudes started to change. The result today is that we have a much keener understanding of how the brain and neurological systems work and what happens to people when they reach a level of stress and trauma greater than they are able to cope with.

I come from the generation whose fathers and uncles served in the armed forces during the Second World War. As young adults, many of us talked about these relatives and how they were affected by the disastrous things they had to do and what they witnessed. More than a few of us had emotional difficulties growing up because our fathers, uncles and relatives were not quite there, had bad tempers, tended to drink more than they should, and had difficulty being warm and accepting.

In fact, this concept, that there is a level of stress and trauma beyond which people are no longer able to cope, is enormously important. The fact is that each individual has a very different level of tolerability of stress and trauma. Genetics, physical conditioning, and experiences beginning with early childhood, among many other constitutional and physiological factors affect each person’s ability to cope with trauma.

An example would be of a veteran I know who functioned quite well through several wars until the Iraq experience sent him over the edge into PTSD. When something would happen to cause him to experience a flash back, one had only to see how he broke out in a sweat, gasped for breath and was unable to talk, to understand that he was not pretending. In other words, each person has a tolerance level that is set partially by their physiology and partly by the numbers and intensity of traumas they went through from the moment they were born.

Another example was of a soldier I knew and treated for marriage difficulties who was not receiving compensation for PTSD. He grew up in an abusive and violent family. His neighborhood and the schools he attended were equally violent, so that he was surrounded by violence and the perceived need to constantly fight for himself. He joined the Marines and served successfully and heroically in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, now honorably discharged and with many well deserved medals, he had a violent temper, carried a gun with him and had great difficult getting along with his wife. He was suffering from PTSD but would not admit it because his entire life he had been surrounded by violence. His attitude was that he had always been this way and he totally rejected that he had PTSD. Ultimately, he left therapy and I don’t have information about what happened to their marriage.

In the event that you are one of the readers who believes that PTSD is a myth, then I want to leave you with a somber fact to stimulate your thinking. The fact is that there has been a shocking increase in the number of suicides among Iraq soldiers as never seen by the United States in past wars.

Your comments and opinions are welcome

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