As the United States prepares to mark Memorial Day weekend, it is important to recognize that currently more troops are lost here at home from self-inflicted wounds due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than from combat in distant battlefields. Society’s failure to effectively address PTSD is in part tied to its enduring association with violence, which prompts veterans to hide their diagnosis from friends and loved ones out of fear of being perceived as harmful. Equally concerning, veterans often misdiagnose themselves as absent of PTSD when their symptoms don’t conform to society’s interpretation of it, leaving them without the medical care they need.
It took me years to recognize that my battle with depression and struggle with grief over the loss of friends and civilian casualties were symptoms of PTSD that required professional medical care. It took me longer to decide that the stigma associated with PTSD was worth seeking help.
My inability to deal with grief is a reflection of a combat environment that affords troops minimal time to pause and reflect over losses. Troops are precluded from traveling to attend the funerals of their brothers in arms, or permitted time off to digest witnessing a death. Instead, we subconsciously learn to hold our breath, paying our respects while maintaining a high level of mental and emotional stability that permits us to conduct our combat duties. We do so repeatedly throughout a deployment, only to return home and forget that it’s now okay to breath.
I completed my enlistment in 2007, eager to start a new life. However, I quickly began to experience difficulty sleeping and was constantly reflecting on deaths I witnessed firsthand. I self-medicated my symptoms by keeping active and surrounding myself with close friends. Subconsciously, I built a form of support that was predicated on keeping myself distracted from my thoughts—I was still holding my breath.
I continued my form of self-medication as an employee in a Middle East-based business that assisted American citizens living abroad. One day, a distraught Arab male entered my office. He grasped for words, lost in his attempts to explain a situation he never fathomed: the sudden death of his American wife. Translating his story to my supervisor conjured memories of similar experiences in Iraq, where I served as a Marine Arabic interpreter.
The young man left, but I found myself absorbed with the thought of his wife’s death. I located her Facebook account; skimmed through her pictures; discovered that she had children; and found articles covering her life. In essence, I was doing what I couldn’t do in war: digesting the loss of life. I slipped into a new stage of depression but feared seeking help due to the stigma associated with PTSD. I accepted a transfer to Asia, with the belief that parting from the Middle East would facilitate my healing.
Yet a change of scenery does little to remedy a mental illness. Removed from the friends and activities I spent years crafting as a base of support, I realized that my form of self-medication reached the end of its road. For the first time in my life, my depression made me a danger to myself. I asked for help and returned to the United States to seek professional care after years of denial and fear of judgment.
Upon returning home, I shared my symptoms with some friends and received a mixed response. Some offered nothing short of unconditional support, others inquired how “someone so well transitioned in the civilian world can possibly have PTSD?” One friend who once expressed that she respected me dearly confessed that she now felt threatened in my presence. I learned to accept support where it existed, while struggling to explain my illness to those whose knowledge of PTSD was ill-informed.
Many months later, a combination of medication, therapy, and the best of friends have permitted me to slowly begin to take control of my life again. None of this would have been possible if I didn’t come to terms with my PTSD and conquer the fear of being stigmatized to get the help I eschewed for years. Still, I worry about my fellow veterans who continue to lose their lives at a higher rate at home than in the wars they survived.
The Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have poured billions of dollars into treating PTSD, but evidence suggests that the increase in funds has not resulted in a significant decline in suicide rates. With more than 2.6 million veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, tens of thousands of veterans with PTSD still suffer in silence. Their anguish will continue until society overcomes the stigma associated with PTSD. A great starting point is reminding ourselves that veterans with PTSD should not be feared.