PTSD — Why?

An article in Mother Jones magazine got me on this subject. The issue was an old one (2008) and had worked its way to the bottom of my bathroom reading pile but the relevancy is still important. One paragraph in particular struck me:

In the spring of 2002, an Army major named Peter Kilner submitted an unusual essay to Military Review, a journal published by the Combined Arms Center in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Kilner argued that combat leaders have an obligation to justify the killing their soldiers do. “Soldiers who kill reflexively in combat will likely one day reconsider their actions reflectively,” he wrote. “If they are unable to justify to themselves that they killed another human being, they will likely, and understandably, suffer enormous guilt” that could balloon into post-traumatic stress disorder (ptsd).”

This is a separate matter from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) which is a physical “scrambling” of one’s brains from a severe concussion or explosive damage. PTSD can occur to anyone, military or civilian. Even children.

Study lead author Dean G. Kilpatrick, Ph.D. and colleagues from the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center at the Medical University of South Carolina were particularly struck by the prevalence of PTSD in the national sample of adolescents. “Nearly four percent of the boys (3.7%) and over six percent of the girls (6.3%) reported PTSD symptoms during the preceding six months, indicating that a high percentage of youth in the United States encounter traumatic events and experience significant emotional responses associated with these events,” according to Dr. Kilpatrick.

Interpersonal violence (i.e., sexual and physical assault, witnessed violence) increased the risk of PTSD . . .

This condition goes back to WWI when it was referred to as “shell shock”. Explanations for this were usually based on conditions: heat, being frightening, in an alien place, etc. But not on what soldiers did. I had two uncles in WWII, one my namesake, and another whose name I can’t recall. Charlie slowly slid into a deep depression while the other would regale anyone who would listen about his experiences in Germany. Charlie had lost a leg. I suspect their experiences were very different.

My own experiences give me some insight into this. I was a combat doorgunner who only fired when fired upon and, due to our “sneaky Pete” work rarely encountered hostiles. Except the shoot-down in the A Shau Valley of Viet Nam. When we lost engine oil pressure, the pilot began a descent to an LZ. Any LZ! It was not a nice neighborhood with what later turned out to be the base for an entire NVA Division hanging around. I saw muzzle flashes in the dusk in a field as we went down and automatically returned fire with my M60. One of the shooters and one of the guys standing around watching went down as I raked them. At the time, and even now, I feel guilty about shooting an unarmed farmer.

Viet Nam Vets and Gulf War Vets have about the same levels of PTSD but I cannot find any studies of their combat experiences. “. . . because the military doesn’t collect statistics on how many have killed in the line of duty, not even among those who are treated for depression or ptsd.” I did find this in an article, “Rates of PTSD and major depression were highest among Army soldiers and Marines, and among service members who were no longer on active duty (people in the reserves and those who had been discharged or retired from the military). Women, Hispanics and enlisted personnel all were more likely to report symptoms of PTSD and major depressions, but the single best predictor of PTSD and depression was exposure to combat trauma while deployed.” The trauma was often seeing a fellow soldier badly injured or die.

Poor concentration and depression are the commonest indicators of combat PTSD. But a new, definitive test has been found: magnetoencephalography (MEG). This measures the current of brain activity and PTSD suffers’ patterns are different. This is an offshoot of Alz and MS studies.

So what can be done for these veterans and other PTSD victims? Traditionally, the military, when it does anything, uses traditional group therapy and counseling. But this has been both expensive and ineffectual. A technique used with Viet Nam vets has shown significant results; Transcendental Meditation (TM). In only 8 weeks of twice daily TM practice, a 50% reduction symptoms were evident.

Another promising effort is a drug, propranolol, prescribed for high blood pressure, anxiety, and heart arrhythmia, works well. It hasn’t been tested on veterans yet but this sounds like a good possibility. The first article gives a clear explanation the mechanism of PTSD in the body.

I know this wasn’t the cheeriest post I have made but this is a subject I have been interested in for sometime. If you read to here, thank you for your attention.