There's plenty of bad news to report on PTSD and veterans, such as a report in Slate magazine about the high rape and murder rates near military bases. Yet these tragedies can obscure the good news, which is that effective PTSD treatments exist, and are finding their way into primary care.
I recently spent a week in Texas, where I had the opportunity to visit Fort Hood, present my research at "Grand Rounds" -- a forum in which health professionals share the latest scientific findings -- and work with a group of veterans with PTSD.
The group was progressing through an 11-week PTSD recovery program called the Warrior Combat Stress Reset Program (usually simply referred to as "Reset"). The impact of PTSD was apparent on their faces and in their stories, as well as their multiple diagnoses: depression, anxiety, and hostility. Several mentioned their desire to deal with their anger, and return to normal lives with their families.
I asked each member of the group to identify an event from the past few weeks that had triggered them emotionally. One smart and articulate sergeant in his 30s said that driving into the base that morning, he was so angry at the "moron gate guard" that he could have killed him. He spoke with humor in his voice, but I and his other listeners shifted uncomfortably in our seats, remembering the times when angry soldiers with guns have gone on rampages in which they acted out their violent emotions.
I often present scientific lectures at medical and psychology conferences, but with this group I decided to speak directly from the heart, not the head. I looked each warrior straight in the eye and talked about the hair-trigger response to the perception of danger that they had developed in their combat training. It kept them alive on the battle field, but was completely inappropriate when interacting with their children, friends, and loved ones. They nodded in agreement, and several talked about their commitment to change.
One of the hurdles they face is a lack of belief that PTSD is curable. Many veterans simply don't believe this is possible. Yet there are many studies showing the value of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) approaches such as those used at Reset. The program offers warriors therapies such as massage, acupuncture, and Reiki. To help treat PTSD symptoms such as nightmares and flashbacks, Reset uses EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques). It tracks its results with the help of a grant from the nonprofit Samueli Foundation, and finds that the average reduction in PTSD symptoms is 28 percent.
We practiced these techniques together, and most of the Fort Hood group were surprised to find how quickly their anger subsided. I encouraged them to stick with the Reset program, and emphasized that if they worked through their traumatic memories this way, their chances of recovery were high.
Not all were convinced. The body language of one master sergeant -- arms crossed, legs entwined, grudging compliance with the healing exercise, a hard unblinking gaze -- reminded me that I had not convinced everyone in the room that healing from PTSD was possible.
At the end of the practice session, a young corporal, blessed with movie star good looks, talked about how he gazes down on his two young girls as they sleep. The sight of their faces doesn't bring the happiness that most parents experience.
Instead, it triggers high anxiety in his mind. He worries about whether or not an intruder might break into their bedroom after killing the family dog. That's what PTSD does: It distorts the most ordinary experiences, turning them into threats.
This young man simply wants be able to look the faces of his children and feel peace.
As he spoke, I fought back my tears. This was no grandiose goal. Looking happily at the faces of your children is an experience most parents take for granted. Yet it was beyond the reach of a mind and brain consumed by PTSD.
My time at Fort Hood, and training mental health professionals, has touched me deeply, and reminded me of how severely we can be wounded. Yet it has also shown me that most of us can recover when we have determination, and effective treatment.
Whenever you read the bad news about PTSD, remember Reset. Remember that there are huge numbers of veterans who sincerely want to heal, and that the tools exist to help them return to normal lives. That's the big picture, and as a society, we can accomplish what Reset does. In the words of one veteran, "It gave me my life back."