13 May 2010


Each one of us must live the life God gives him; it cannot be shirked.

Philoctetes, by Sophocles

In the 5th Century BCE, the Greek playwright Sophocles penned a masterpiece, Philoctetes. Throughout the course of the play, the titular character, injured and left for dead by his comrades, becomes depressed and experiences what we might today call Post-Traumatic Stress. It’s a condition almost as old as literature itself, being described in Herodotus’ Histories.

There are a few who scoff at the apparent prevalence of PTSD within the current generation, believing that previous generations did not suffer from PTSD. In their minds, PTSD is an imaginary byproduct of a softer, more coddled culture. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. Veterans of numerous wars--from ancient Greece, to the Seige of Gibraltar in the 18th Century, to both World Wars--have experienced some degree of post-traumatic stress. Following World War One, T.E. Lawrence, suffering from the stress of several terrible years involved in a vicious guerrilla war in the Hejaz desert, tried to fade away into anonymity. Some accounts indicate that he would flagellate himself, and even hire people to beat him. (For more, read the comprehensive biography, "A Prince of Our Disorder") During the Second World War, nearly one-tenth of mobilized American men were hospitalized for mental disturbances, and nearly all who partook in thirty-five days of constant combat exhibited some form of combat stress.

Today, battle-weary soldiers the world over still experience the same despair and depression as the ancients. Over the course of nearly a decade of war, the repeated stress of multiple combat rotations affects many soldiers, some of whom attempt to take their lives. It’s no secret that the US Army has experienced a significant surge in suicides in recent years, a dangerous trend which commanders at all levels have taken great pains to curb, albeit with mixed results.

It’s not just the US Army that’s seen a spike in suicide rates. David Axe at
War is Boring recently reported that Danish and Dutch veterans are experiencing a rise in PTSD rates. Additionally, a message forum which caters to the Canadian military has an entire section dedicated to mental health issues. Some Canadian troops seem to be scouring the US Army’s Center for Lessons Learned home page, passing on valuable tips on preventing suicide and developing mental resiliency in their own soldiers.

In Britain, the crew at King's College (specifically, the Centre for Military Health Research) has been interpreting the results of a recent mental health study aimed at Britain's service members. According a summary, British military service members who have deployed to combat zones were slightly more likely to abuse alcohol than their non-deployed bretheren, a phenomenon which might seem to be prevalent in the US miltiary as well. Additionally, active-duty soldiers who deployed experienced a rate of PTSD of around 4%, roughly twice that of their non-deployed counterparts (1.8%). Still, according to the crew at Kings of War (apparently, they have access to the entire study), British troops experience much lower rates of PTSD than Americans. As Ken Payne notes, the study suggests that combat intensity or number of deployments isn't so much a factor, so much as the duration of deployments, and the amount of time spent between deployments. American troops generally spend 12 months abroad, followed by 12-18 months at home.

I know that a number of soldiers from allied countries drop by this site, and I was wondering if we could share some tips on identifying behavioral health issues, curbing high-risk behavior, and getting soldiers to the right aid facilities. Commanders the world over seem to be dealing with an inordinate amount of discipline problems upon redeployment, with AWOL, alcohol abuse, drinking and driving, disorderly conduct, being some of the more tame offenses. What can we do to help our soldiers?

Additional links:

  • Today's soldiers are connecting with the characters in Sopholcles' play through the Philoctetes Project.
  • NDU Press--The role of leadership in building resilience in soldiers.
  • Vets for Vets--A peer support group run by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.


PotomacGeek said...

PRSD was also known after the American Civil War. After the ACW the "Public Hospital" in Williamsburg, VA was primarily taking care of what they termed "war patients". Since the Public Hospital was the first Sanitarium in the country, it's easy to determine we aren't talking about amputees here.

MikeF said...

I've been pretty open with my struggles with TBI/PTSD and all the crazyness that comes with it. It didn't hit me until after 4 deployments and 10 concussions. Eventually, I'll write more in depth about sorting through it, but for now, here's some quick notes.

-I've interacted with a significant amount of Vietnam/Iraq/A'stan vets with PTSD. The primary causal factor seems to be lack of support from their support networks (mostly wives/gf's). No man is an island.

-Substance Abuse dovetails with PTSD/TBI.

-With TBI, you simply have to seperate ego from injury. I'm back up to biking now, but I can't run more than 10 minutes without getting extremely dizzy. Also, I had to relearn basic math. It sucks.

The best book that I've read on the subject is "Courage After Fire" by Keith Armstrong, Suzanne Best, and Paula Domenenici.

Additionally, Nate Self has a book out called "My Two Wars." I haven't read it, but I know and respect Nate from USMA.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written post on an incredibly important issue. Well done.

El Goyito said...

I too have suffered from PTSD - non-war related - and I can say that it's something that will always be with you.

Kenneth said...

Hi Crispin - you can access the full study by registering at the Lancet - it's free, or at least it was when I blogged it yesterday. Fascinating survey too.