There has never been a time since the 1970s when less than one in 10 veterans has been living with PTSD.
The odds were greater after the Vietnam War, when 30 percent of vets suffered from service-borne trauma. After the Gulf War, that number dropped to 15 percent, but has climbed back up to as much as 20 percent since Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, the VA reports.
The chances of leaving service without lingering trauma, having seen combat, or sometimes having never left the states, are less than reassuring to enlistees. And, when service members are discharged feeling no deep-seated sense of grief or lingering trauma, is it owed to their fortitude and perseverance? Are they to think they were somehow spared the pain?
That, too, can raise unexpected emotions.
Army veteran Melissa Thomas, who was twice deployed into combat zones overseas, wrote an article on her experience for the New York Times. She saw her husband deployed to twice as many, only to come home and die in an avalanche in Colorado on New Year’s Day.
She expected her husband’s death would catalyze her memories of war, resulting in a debilitating form of PTSD. She thought she would never again find peace.
“The next few months were filled with sleeplessness and drinking, but also exercising and thoughtful introspection as I scoured self-help books and sought therapy,” she wrote. “I never had trouble getting out of bed in the morning, and I continued to make it to work on time. I was sad yet functional. I wasn’t given a diagnosis of clinical depression or PTSD. There must be something wrong with me for not having something wrong, I thought.”
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Thomas volunteered for a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Center for PTSD at the Department of Veterans Affairs. As part of the control group, the experiences of other veterans with PTSD were expected to contrast her own, having endured traumatic experiences in combat and at home and showing no lingering signs of PTSD.
“It is common to have flashbacks, nightmares and other symptoms after a traumatic event, but most people recover,” Thomas wrote. “This acute stress response is different from PTSD, which is diagnosed only when symptoms linger beyond 30 days and which requires more than time for recovery, with treatment typically consisting of either psychotherapy or medications or both.”
Thomas estimates that around 60 percent of Americans have experienced trauma in their lives, only 8 percent suffer lingering PTSD. The rate is much higher for veterans, but other factors may actually buffer them against the condition. Thomas never experienced trauma as a child, she was not held back from pursuing higher education, and she has a healthy support network of family and friends.
She may actually be better equipped to bounce back from trauma as an adult, and it’s not like she hasn’t seen her fair share. Thomas has witnessed the gruesome realities of war, first hand. She has been in danger of being killed, fired her weapon at the enemy, she’s seen people hit by explosive rounds, and attempted to help the wounded who eventually died of their injuries.
Thomas has been through the worst of war, lived to tell about it, and seemingly avoided the nightmare of PTSD at the same time.
“The images of these traumatic events are seared into my brain,” she writes. “I can conjure them at will. But there remains a sense of control and detachment when I think about them. This is much different from those with PTSD, who try to avoid thinking about their experiences because the memories churn up emotions and a physical response.”
Since participating in the experiment, having her brain examined through an MRI while revisiting the horrors she faced in Iraq, Thomas has reframed her outlook on PTSD. It’s
“I had questioned whether I deserved health and happiness. I naïvely thought having PTSD would validate my military experience,” she writes. “I didn’t know why I was able to suffer and yet still move on. But being part of a control group of people without the diagnosis gave me some relief from that guilt. I started to find purpose in my experiences by giving back as a research-study participant. Perhaps that’s why we all had volunteered: to find some meaning in our military service, whether it had left us traumatized or left us wondering why we were not.”
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.