PTSD: Moving a Nation to Care


Even the bravest soldiers get PTSD.

He was known simply as "the Marlboro Man," the "Face of Fallujah." No one knew his name. Everyone was introduced to the myth. Back home he was simply known as Smokey. He was 20 years old when the photograph was taken. It was the real life version of a recruitment poster. But Marine Lance Corporal James Blake Miller, a member of Charlie Company, 1st Platoon, 8th Marines, was also a flesh and blood man underneath the bravura of the soldier everyone saw and was now worshiping, even wanting to be like. How Miller became the myth is recounted in the first pages of Ilona Meagher's amazing book Moving a Nation to Care. It's not the story George W. Bush and the Republicans pushing escalation want to tell, but it's the reality of war, especially the Iraq war as it is being fought today. The real life recruitment story as seen through the picture that became synonymous with military heroism and self sacrifice long ago crumbled in on itself. "The Marlboro Man," "the Face of Fallujah," the war hero, Smokey, now has PTSD.

Miller has now become the chronicler of another war--the war within. He now appeals to the country that declared him a hero because of a photograph, asking that they look beyond the image and see the human cost of war. "I want people to understand what PTSD is and what it can do to you -- what it can to do your life."

Moving a Nation to Care, by Ilona Meagher (p.10)

My uncle suffered from "battle fatigue." I'll never forget seeing him in the hospital with my mom when I was just a little girl. The once dandy of a man had shrunk to a shell of a human being. He flew bombing missions in WWII, my mom told me, with the never ending flights finally doing him in. Today battle fatigue is called PTSD. It is destroying our veterans and exploding inside families at alarming rates. Moving a Nation to Care tells the tale of what happens to our men and women who fight modern war. Battle fatigue has morphed into post traumatic stress syndrome, the soldier's illness that has the potential to deplete our armed forces like no man exploding bomb or EFP can.

"There's a strange pressure on these soldiers not to have any problems with what they are doing. It's that old idea that a real man and a true warrior will stand strong." -- Psychologist and trauma specialist Michael Phillips

Moving a Nation to Care, by Ilona Meagher (p.93)

Warfare has changed. It started with WWII when nighttime battles were ushered in. During Vietnam our soldiers were introduced to guerilla combat. Today in Iraq (and beyond), our fighting men and women are now barraged with 360 degree asymmetric hell. But especially in Iraq there is never any time to recoup from battles; no moment to regroup after a skirmish. Extended deployments have only made matters worse.

"Unlike most conflicts where only front line troops face hostile fire, nearly all our service members in Iraq are being exposed to constant fear ... on a 24/7 basis for periods often lasting over a year at a time. The constant fear of dying is overwhelming and it is taking its toll. They say the average infantryman in WW2 saw 44 days of action; the rest of the time was training and transportation. -- Eric Massa, from Moving a Nation to Care

The other very real issue is that our soldiers are moving targets for everyone, because in the Iraq theater our soldiers don't know who is friend and who is foe. Being on guard 24/7 would deplete anyone's reserves and put your nerves on edge until you finally crack.

Now add female soldiers. As a strong proponent for women serving in combat positions, it's important to remember that women are indeed fighting and dying next to men, regardless of Mr. Bush saying they are not.

Contrary to President Bush's statement, "No women in combat," and current federal law that is meant to keep them far from conflict, women warriors are fighting and dying on today's battlefields. Indeed, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division has been collocating (i.e., placing side-by-side) women with combat support units since February 2005.

Moving a Nation to Care, by Ilona Meagher (p.95)

According to Ilona's research, women suffer from PTSD at rates "twice that of men." Women deserve the right to fight in combat, as far as I'm concerned, but we need to know the costs they're paying when they choose soldiering.

Much needs to be done to bring PTSD out into the light, but we've come a long way from Patton's day, when artilleryman Paul G. Bennett said he couldn't stand the shelling any more and got a face full of one general's rage for what he was experiencing.

"Your nerves, hell; you are just a Goddamned coward, you yellow son of a bitch. ... You're going back to the frontline and you may get shot and killed, but you're going to fight. If you don't, I'll stand you up against a wall and have a firing squad kill you on purpose." -- General George S. Patton

But just because we've recognized PTSD doesn't mean that our soldiers feel any less ashamed when the diagnosis comes. Denial often sets in next. The image of the ever rough and ready, give 'em hell super human American warrior will likely never die. We must understand that our soldiers need the image in order to stay alive, but we also have to help them dismantle it when the shooting stops. Our ability to recognize the human suffering underneath is the only way to make our veterans whole again.

One last thing to think about that also gets overlooked. The rapid immersion back into civilian life after battle isn't helping anyone, especially our soldiers coming back from combat zones they haven't even grappled with themselves. As Ilona states in her book, soldiers need time to decompress and get used to being off the battlefield before going home. Even something as simple as modern air travel has affected our soldiers' ability to heal by short-circuiting the time that's actually required to re-enter civilian life without getting whiplash from the stimuli.

One week before Memorial Day we should all get prepared to share, shout and hear the tributes all of our soldiers so justly deserve and have earned one hundred times over. We will watch President Bush march out and trumpet the troops. What no one will do is mention the thousands of soldiers fighting to live normal lives long after they've come home. All the soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan who right now are doing so while fighting PTSD. Memorial Day is reserved for the fallen and the brave. The battle scarred and struggling soldier fighting PTSD every day to stay alive and live normally is never mentioned. The soldier fighting on the front lines with PTSD does so silently in order to try and stay alive. We don't even know the numbers of fighting soldiers struggling on the front lines with PTSD today.

We have the bravest, most unselfish, most talented and brightest group of soldiers on planet earth.

But no one should think about Memorial Day without knowing the costs these soldiers pay for their service, not only on the battle field but long after their deployments and redeployments have ceased. When you put our fighting men and women into war they're glad to serve and give their life for America. It's the pledge they take upon volunteering.

However, no soldier's oath has anything to do with fighting another country's civil war. The stress of doing so is causing our soldiers and the U.S. Armed Forces to crack. Mission creep unfolding into policing a civil war not your own would do that to anyone, even the bravest.

You can't see PTSD, but it's often right there in front of you. Just ask "the Marlboro Man." He'll be living with it the rest of his life. So will his wife and the wives and husbands, as well as children and siblings, of thousands of other soldiers. That is if these military marriages and families make it through PTSD together. The outcome is rarely certain.

He told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was grateful to those who paid for the wedding but that he had found dealing with day-to-day issues and stress from the war too much. "I love Jessica, I really do, but I can't be with her," he said.

Mrs Miller told the paper she still hoped they could be together. "I think neither one of us recognized the scope of post-traumatic stress disorder and what it does to you and what it does to people around you," she said. "Now he's got to figure out how to deal with it before he can deal with me."

Post-war stress too much for Marlboro Man's marriage

The more we know about PTSD the more we can help. Ilona Meagher's book, Moving a Nation to Care is indispensable in the effort.

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