Veterans… PTSD… and the Descent to Hell

Up front: I’m not a psychologist. I certainly can’t speak with clinical authority, yet I am a returned servicemen from the Afghanistan conflict so the following is a short reflection on my post-war experiences.

There is little doubt that in the past decade or two society has made leaps and bounds on the mental health front. Prior to deploying, during my deployment and after my deployment I was asked to participate in several psychological examinations to flag any problematic areas caused by my involvement in war. Nothing came up, but I was told where to find help if it did.

Despite increased awareness, knowledge and intervention there is still an alarming trend that is seeing war veterans escape the aftermath and mental collateral damage by spiralling out of control.

Today ABC News reported that there is an increase in veterans ending up in court and in jail. The head of Adelaide’s ex-Military Rehabilitation Centre, Ian Campbell, has 16 soldiers on his books who are either in jail, before the courts or on parole. He said that “A coping mechanism is to drink or to drug,” and “I found that in the majority of cases, mental health had a profound effect on the service person’s offending.” 

So is there a reason that despite increased awareness in mental health there is a continued problem? Is it unavoidable?

One observation is that in our wider culture, not just the military, we are reinforced with the belief that we can avoid harm if we tick all the boxes. And if something does go wrong we can fix it. We live in a society that bubble wraps its citizens in insurance, WHS regulation, superannuation, warranties, health care, litigation and so on. If something goes wrong it’s always someone’s fault and it can always be fixed.  In the Army we are subliminally told that if we train harder, fight smarter, are better equipped, have better intel, have better leaders, have better support, have better risk management and have higher moral that we can avoid harm.

Yet no matter how much effort you put into preparing for war, sooner or later, something will go wrong. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. And while it’s not always the case, quite often, in war, no one can be blamed. An example is when a soldier dies in conflict. Medics are often the first responders to this type of tragic scene and every now and then some people are beyond saving… Yet, the medic is trained, mostly by our society, that someone is always at fault. Someone must be held accountable. In this example, more often than not the medic will inappropriately blame himself.

Upon returning home, despite huge efforts made on behalf of the ADF and associations such as the RSL and DVA, young men and women turn what was a blameless situation into guilt and shame. In an inescapable downward spiral they try and escape by all means possible. I have seen soldiers seek meaning and value in alcohol, drugs, women, cars, money and any combination of the above.

There’s little wonder soldiers who are suffering are ending up in a courthouse. So what’s an answer?

Again, I’m not a psychologist, but I do see several potential layers to the problem.

1. The problematic social behaviour, (or even becoming a recluse and not communicating / engaging);
2. There may be physical distress caused by broken bodies and/or struggling minds;
3. The possibility of pseudo-guilt and shame that’s piled on by inappropriate blame;
4. They may feel out of control. They might feel unlovable or unable to love others. This is often displayed by shunning loved ones, or lashing out in anger; and
5. If they are conscious of their faith, they may feel that even God doesn’t like them.

Inside and out, on many possible levels, someone struggling with PTSD probably feels broken. They will possibly seek to fix this brokenness, (remember our society tells us that if we tick all the boxes no harm will come our way, and if it does we can always fix it). They will possibly try and fix this brokenness and when they can’t they might resort to the problematic behaviour again. It’s a viscous downward spiral. A decent into hell.

Because this is a multifaceted problem just telling a soldier to harden up and get over it is clearly not the answer. Even if he manages to fix the problematic behaviour in the first layer, there’s still several layers that aren’t being dealt with. What soldiers need is a community of people who can support them. They need professional support, given in a safe environment where there is trust and acceptance. They need the support of their friends and family, and co-workers. They need the support of people from organisations like DVA and the RSL to get alongside them and encourage them to make good choices. And it’s not about getting one of those options to help out, it’s about getting ALL of those options to help out. What they need more than anything else is our understanding and acceptance.

About two years after returning from my deployment I entered a very dark place. Without the support of my church, friends, Christian counsellors and professional psychologists I would not have been able to recover. I am currently finishing my training to return to the Army as a padre. When I do I am going to consider it a great privilege to be able to tell people that:

Despite what our culture tells you pain and suffering are unavoidable. I am going to challenge every soldier I can by asking them… “When trouble comes, who will you turn to? What’s your game plan”.

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