Is post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) more prevalent in modern times than in earlier wars? If so, why? What can we do to prevent and treat it? As our troops return from Iraq, we must do better than we did with the veterans from Vietnam.
Here are some amazing numbers about one unit’s experience with PSTD: a letter by Michael Ingham from the June 2008 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette:
For most of 1967 I was a Marine rifle platoon commander in 1st Battalion, 1st Marines in Vietnam. At the end of my service I left the Marine Corps, as did about 98 percent of the junior enlisted men who served under me. About 10 years ago an effort began to locate and reconnect Marines who had served together in my platoon in 1967. That effort has produced some startling results and suggests some additional points germane to the article, “Mental Health Training in the Armed Forces,” by SSgt Joseph A. Starbuck (MCG, April 2008).
First let me give you the numbers. We have located 73 men who served in the platoon (Marines and corpsmen) from January through November 1967. Of the 73, 12 were killed in action, and 18 (roughly 30 percent) have died since leaving the military — many of them at unusually young ages. Of the 44 still alive, the vast majority is on full posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) disability. While as accurate as we can get them, these numbers need to be taken with some caution.
Most of those still alive have sought and received aid from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In most cases it took years of torment to get there. In talking to surviving relatives of those who have died since leaving the Service, it is obvious that most of them died after years of struggling with the symptoms of PTSD (with Agent Orange as a contributor.)
The article cited above states that studies show that up to 30 percent of combat veterans suffer from PTSD. Based on the experience of this small unit, the number is more like 75 or 80 percent of infantrymen. The Marine Corps needs to more aggressively intervene while it still has control of the Marine. The VA will tell you that once discharged, veterans tend not to show up asking for help until they are far down the PTSD road.
The Marine Corps has a deeply ingrained tradition of taking care of its own. If my platoon is any indicator, that tradition needs to be extended to recognize and address more accurately the long-term cost to the individual Marine of serving in combat.
Other articles about this topic
- “Invisible Wounds of War“, RAND (2008) — “Psychological and Cognitive Injuries, Their Consequences, and Services to Assist Recovery”
- “America’s Medicated Army“, Time, 5 June 2008 — About the growing use of anti-depressants by US army personnel. Also see my post about this article.
- “VA testing drugs on war veterans” – The Washington Times and ABC News, 18 June 2008