PTSD and Violence, Can We Protect Our Soldiers?
With repeated tours of combat duty, are we doing enough to protect the mental health of our soldiers?
Last week, while on duty in Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly killed 16 civilians, many of them women and children. You can read more about this tragedy in a New York Times article found at this URL:
It may seem easy to blame Sgt. Bales for this massacre. But that would be a mistake because what happened is the result of war.
It is now a well established fact that soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as combat veterans now discharged from military duty, are experiencing symptoms of mental illness, especially PTSD, and are drinking heavily, committing suicide at an alarming rate, having their marriages end in divorce and, in some cases, ending up in jail as a result of criminal charges brought against them, mostly for violence associated with alcohol and drug abuse.
PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a mental illness resulting from being exposed to life threatening and overwhelmingly violent situations. This can happen to anyone. People who are victims of rape, earthquakes, and other types of disasters, experience PTSD.
Sgt Bales, as well as large numbers of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, serve repeated tours of duty. It is not unusual for them to return to battle as many as four and five times over the course of these two wars. Because they are directly involved in fighting, they see their friends killed right next to them and are also forced to kill the enemy. All of this is traumatic to experience. Repeatedly returning to combat only intensifies the trauma and, therefore, worsens the PTSD symptoms.
Knowing this does not forgive what Sgt. Bales did, but it does, in some small way, explain it. Lest you think that he is just a violent man, his record shows that he saved the lives of civilians while in Iraq and is described as a warm and friendly person by all of his friends and neighbors back home. In other words, given the right amount of trauma, any of us can commit either suicide or murder. There is a limit to how much disaster and violence anyone can tolerate.
It should help to know that Sgt. Bales has served on active duty since 2001. That means he has experienced ten years of violence and tragedy.
What can be done to prevent or reduce the chance that another massacre could happen?
The first reply to this question is to no longer have any wars. Given the nature of world politics as well as the inability of nations to get along with one another, it is not likely that wars will stop any time soon.
Jeremy Adam Smith and Jason Marsh, writers and editors for the psychology blog, "Greater Good," (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/could_positive_psychology_have_prevented_the_massacre_in_afghanistan) state that there are psychology programs based on Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) that can help soldiers with PTSD. However, critics say that these programs simply make it is easier to promote war and for soldiers to kill but without any conscience. In actuality, the purpose is to protect our service people from mental illness as a result of exposure to war. This is very far from making them numb to violence. CBT will not take their bad feelings away but may reduce the impact of PTSD and increase the chances that these massacres and suicides will no longer happen.
What psychology is saying is that we need to build emotional resilience into soldier training programs along with physical endurance. Even then, there needs to be recognition of the fact that there is a limit to how emotionally durable a person can be.
I believe that all of us want to be free of war. However, we have to live in the real world and with the way things currently are, the best we can hope for, in my opinion, is that the United States will no longer be at war.
In the meantime, we need psychology to help all of us reduce the negative impact of stress. Stress is not good for our mental and physical health. In all areas of life, from the military to our schools, religious institutions, factories, corporations and families, there needs to be a joining together to support efforts to help our soldiers and the rest of us. It is the responsibility of the army to protect, as much as possible, the mental and physical health of their combat personnel.
Your comments and questions are welcome.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD