The Trenches at Home: Veterans, Crime, and PTSD Through History (Part 1)
Brockton D. Hunter is a man large in stature, but gentle in demeanor. Yet, when he talks about veterans, he is anything but gentle. America, he said in a talk at the first annual Veteran Courts Conference, has a tradition of treating its returning war veterans poorly. Throughout “The Coming Wave: Learning Lessons from History in Preparing for the Aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan,” Hunter interspersed informational slides with images of soldiers in battles throughout the years.
Many of the images were iconic: the soldier carrying a dead or wounded child wrapped in a torn blanket; others are less familiar: bloody images of wounded soldiers, each with the “thousand-yard stare.” “It’s not a hostile public [veterans] are coming home to,” he told the crowd of 100, “it’s largely an apathetic one.” As the audience looked at the images, a silence fell, interspersed with occasional weeping.
Hunter, an Army vet formerly stationed on the DMZ in Korea became an attorney after his service when he began noticing a preponderance of veterans in the court system. He recognized that even non-combat service can stay with a veteran in a bad way. In Korea, he had been part of a “suicide squad” of Recon Scouts. They mostly spent their time drinking and waiting for a war that never broke out. Yet, they were “pent up, ready for war, ready to kill, and ready to die.” Instead of combat, they were just sent home, never learning how to turn off the souped up blend of adrenaline, rage and fear.
His observations have been backed up by numerous studies that show skills needed to become a successful soldier may be hazardous in civilian life. “Learned military skills and tactics such as hyper-vigilance and rapid response to threatening encounters that enhance survival in combat may translate to aggressiveness, impulsivity, arrest, and potential for incarceration in the civilian community,” states a 2011 report by The Institute for Veterans Policy.
In the past the lingering effects of war and preparations for war have been called combat fatigue, nostalgia, shell shock, or (a perennial favorite of some wounded warriors) Soldier’s Heart. Of course this is when the military was being kind. Sometimes they were called cowards, deserters, or yellow. Whether trying to help or simply control the ones most affected, the military has often struggled to figure out what to do with soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“The Lobotomy Files”, a recent story by the Wall Street Journal revealed the troubling practice after World War II of lobotomizing up to 2,000 solders, often against their will, to treat the mental injuries of war.
Once thought to affect only a weak-willed few, Hunter culled statistics from an Army study that said after 60 days of combat exposure, around 98% of WWII soldiers suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI). The other two percent were deemed either sociopathic or psychopathic. “Everyone has a breaking point,” Hunter said, even the most courageous.
The longer one is in war, the harder it is to throw off its effects.
Image via Wikicommons