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Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Iraqi Veterans

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

Out of a deep sense of respect and honor I feel compelled to write about a wounded veteran of the Iraqi war. The respect I have for him developed from the things I learned about him this week. More than that I learned about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in a way different than I really knew before. This man, who shall remain anonymous in order to protect him, is representative of countless other soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with concussions, brain injuries, loss of limbs and PTSD.

This is the story of a particular soldier who did everything he could to protect his men and do his job in ways that were courageous and necessary. Home, now, from the war, he is not angry or bitter about the army or about the Iraqi people for whom he has nothing bad to say. In fact, as he stated it, the army saved his life because he was on the road to deep trouble as a result of the dysfunctional and violent family in which he grew up. He credits the army with setting him on the right path so that he was able to go to college, get an advanced degree and an excellent job prior to his volunteering for a tour of duty when he was in his late thirties.

During the fateful second tour of duty he witnessed many suicide car bombings and was injured with shrapnel because he was so near the explosions. Shrapnel was the lesser injury compared to the concussions and, ultimately, the brain damage he suffered. That damage wiped out the memories of everything he studied in graduate school. He was told by army physicians that the information is stored in his brain but is unavailable to him because the neurological pathways to the stored information are destroyed.

As bad as the injury to his brain is he also suffers from PTSD that results in him having extreme stress reactions to things that, for the average person, would be fairly mild. For example, if an ambulance drives by with lights and sirens going, he feels transported back to the zone of combat in Iraq. Despite taking medications to help him sleep, reduce his depression and his anxieties he can still feel as though he is back at war when a stimulus like that of an ambulance happens by.

I met this man as a result of his having qualified for a psychiatric service dog to help him feel safe when he is away from home and traveling around the city in which he lives. Within two weeks of having been trained in how to use the dog to be of help to him, the dog was totally bonded and loyal to him. One of the many things this specially trained dog does for him is to help reduce anxiety and panic when he is in public and prone to feeling hyper alert to dangers. The dog positions itself to block anyone coming down the street from coming too close to him. The dog literally watches his back to block anyone coming up from behind. The dog does not threaten people but simply uses its body as a barricade to prevent any stranger from getting too close. The dog was trained first by the "Puppies Behind Bars" program (prisoners train the puppies) and by my wife who specializes in training psychiatric service dogs and the people who will utilize them.

What is striking about this veteran is the degree to which he can maintain his sense of humor despite all that has happened to him. To add "insult to injury" his first wife divorced him when he returned home because he was so different from the man she had known prior to the war. Undaunted, he remarried someone who is able to see the man underneath the injuries and who is willing to learn how to cope with the results of his injuries, i.e., his forgetting to do things she has asked him to do or that he promised to do earlier in the day. What his sense of humor makes clear about him is the degree to which he cannot help forgetting to do things he wants to get done.

Trauma can result from lesser events than experienced by this and other soldiers. In fact, trauma symptoms can be placed on a continuum from mild trauma reactions to an incident all the way to full PTSD. According to the DSM IV full PTSD results from having been in a situation so overwhelming as to be seriously life threatening.

We also know that stress and trauma accumulate over the life time of an individual so that if a disastrous situation occurs, the over all and accumulated effect leaves the person with PTSD.

It takes great passion to help someone who has experienced PTSD. This particular veteran has a wife who attends support groups of wives who have husbands and soldiers with PTSD. The wives in the group learn from one another how to cope with and help these men when they awake with night terrors, get angry too easily, experience flashbacks and forget to carry out common and everyday tasks.

Symptoms of PTSD:

1. Recurrent thoughts of the original trauma.

2. Hyper alertness in public.

3. Anxiety and Panic.

4. Irritability.

5. Extreme reactions to noises and other stimuli that are similar to the original trauma.

Further information about PTSD suffered by veterans is available at:

Your comments are welcome and encouraged.

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