At least since the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., soldiers have recorded episodes of what we now call “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD). Greek historian Herodotus wrote of a physically uninjured soldier who went blind when the soldier next to him was killed.
During the Civil War, PTSD was called “soldier’s heart.” In World War II, it was “battle fatigue.” Studies estimate that nearly 30 percent of Vietnam veterans (some 830,000) have experienced some level of PTSD.
Today, more than 150,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been officially diagnosed with PTSD. The number likely is higher because of the stigma attached to the disorder and also because some service members have sought out private treatment rather than through the Defense Department or Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
While some false claims no doubt have been filed, critics and veterans groups say many vets with legitimate claims have been denied adequate treatment or compensation because officials demanded documented proof of a specific trauma-causing incident. The RAND Corp. estimates that 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans (some 20 percent of the total) have symptoms of PTSD or major depression.
In his radio address Saturday, President Obama announced that the VA will streamline the process for soldiers to seek help and file claims for what he called the “signature injuries of today’s wars,” PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
“For years, many veterans with PTSD who have tried to seek benefits – veterans of today’s wars and earlier wars – have often found themselves stymied,” Obama said. “They’ve been required to produce evidence proving that a specific event caused their PTSD. And that practice has kept the vast majority of those with PTSD who served in non-combat roles, but who still waged war, from getting the care they need.”
“Well, I don’t think our troops on the battlefield should have to take notes to keep for a claims application,” he said. “And I’ve met enough veterans to know that you don’t have to engage in a firefight to endure the trauma of war.”
Changes to the bureaucratic process will be announced Monday by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, a retired Army general and former Army Chief of Staff who was twice wounded in Vietnam. This streamlined system will apply to vets of earlier wars, including Vietnam.
In essence, vets will no longer have to document a specific traumatic event – witnessing violent death, for example, or coming under heavy enemy fire – in order to demonstrate that they should be treated or receive disability payments for PTSD.
As PTSD is better understood, what Secretary Shinseki calls “the hidden wounds of war” are being addressed in many ways by a growing number of communities, agencies, and organizations around the country.
One involves dogs specially-trained to assist veterans diagnosed with PTSD. Some of the dogs have been raised and trained by prison inmates through a program called “Puppies Behind Bars.” Horses also are being used as therapy animals for veterans.
The “Welcome Home Project” based in Oregon organized a retreat where recently-returned vets described their experiences through poetry, storytelling, and other art forms. The organization promotes community “welcoming ceremonies” for vets, and it’s producing a documentary film titled “Voices of Vets.”
Meanwhile, organizations of Vietnam veterans have been acting as "big brothers" helping Iraq and Afghanistan vets learn how to cope with PTSD.