Nutcase. Psycho. Unbalanced. These are some of the words I've been tagged with since being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In fact, our society's image of the returning warrior with PTSD has largely been framed by Hollywood. In movie after movie, Vietnam vets have been portrayed as loose cannons, violent and sociopathic. And if we're not violent and sociopathic victims, we're criminals. Films such as This Park is Mine, Lethal Weapon, Rambo and others all serve to reinforce the stereotype.
Fighting this image is probably the biggest challenge facing those who treat PTSD victims and those who suffer from it. Pop culture has stigmatized PTSD to the degree that many men and women who have it are not willing to come forward and seek the treatment they need to get better. Initially, I was one of those: a proud Marine, tough, resilient, trained to be independent and to endure all manner of physical privation. How can we admit to something that appears to be a weakness? Who wants to be labeled a psych case?
As a result, thousands of men and women refuse to seek the help they need. When I finally took the right steps and found my way out of the darkness PTSD caused in my own life, I realized that this is not something that has to destroy us. We can overcome it. And we are not alone.
Thirty percent of all Korean War veterans alive today suffer from PTSD. Over 160,000 Vietnam veterans continue to seek treatment for their trauma that now dates back three and sometimes four decades.
Post Traumatic Stress is simply an after-effect of combat. The VA initially planned for 8,000 cases as a result of Afghanistan and Iraq. In reality, some 300,000 of us have sought treatment, and another 360,000 are expected to do so in the coming years. And those are just the ones who, stigma be damned, step forward and ask for help. Tens of thousands more suffer behind closed doors without any sense of hope for the future. That is one of the reasons why the suicide rate among veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq is so high.
I wrote Shadow of the Sword in hopes of combating the stigma associated with PTSD. A human being has no control over how his or her brain chemically reacts to trauma. It just happens. We need to reframe the debate, change the perception of PTSD in the country at large, and find ways to show the real consequences of combat in Hollywood epics. Until that happens, there will be plenty of good men and women who live in despair, unwilling to reach out and admit they can't battle this demon on their own. The stereotype and the stigma associated with PTSD must be destroyed. There are lives at stake.