Monday, January 29, 2007

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Look at how it is Affecting American Troops

"They were shredded," Pepper, seen to the left, says of the devastating ambush he can't get out of his mind. "It's just a blood bath."

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as PTSD, is a chronic anxiety disorder in which an extremely stressful or traumatic event brings in it’s aftermath a variety of concurrent symptoms including: intrusive vivid flashbacks of the traumatic events, nightmares, disturbed sleep, hyper-vigilance, avoidance, emotional detachment from the outside world, explosive anger, severe anxiety, clinical depression, and if left untreated, suicide.

U.S. Army Specialist Adam Pepper is one of the thousands of soldiers today affected with PTSD. In fact according to the New England Journal of Medicine, at least one in six U.S. soldiers today is troubled by severe anxiety or PTSD. Even more worrisome is the fact those figures are from troops with only one deployment to Iraq. According to the first survey from the U.S. Army, that looked at how multiple war-zone rotations affect soldiers’ mental health, U.S. soldiers serving multiple deployments to Iraq are 50% more likely to suffer from acute combat stress, raising their risk of post-traumatic stress disorder.

One of the main reasons for the increase in the amount of PTSD cases in Iraq is that soldiers are facing an increase in the amount of traumatic events. According to the U.S. Army’s third survey on mental health, 76% of soldiers surveyed said that they personally knew someone who had been seriously injured or killed, and 55% experienced an explosion of a roadside bomb or booby trap nearby.

For Spec. Pepper the statistics were all too real. In Iraq he was shot at countless times. He was mortared on a daily basis. And on one fateful day, five of his friends, fellow soldiers in his convey, were killed only a few vehicles away from him. Pepper admits to not even being able to register what had just happened the first few seconds after the explosion ended the lives of his comrades. "People get emotional. These are your friends." Pepper said.

What makes this whole story even more heartbreaking is the fact that many of the soldiers affected with PTSD suffer in silence because of the stigma attached to mental disorder and from the fear that seeking help could jeopardize their career. Research done by the U.S. Army shows that less than 40% of soldiers affected with a mental disorder seek help, even though the Army has significantly increased the number of mental health professionals in Iraq and Afghanistan. To make matters worse, many of the soldiers that actually sought professional care are not receiving adequate help. Marine Sgt. William C. Wold, a 23-year-old Iraq vet, died on Nov. 10, 2006 due to inadequate help with PTSD, according to his parents, John and Sandra Wold. His death remains under investigation. Earlier this month Sandra Wold said "We are angrier than ever." She believes her son died by accident due to improper medication and counseling. Upon returning from Iraq, Sgt. William Wold’s personality was noticeably different to his family. He was plagued with nightmares which ultimately lead to a drug addiction. No one helped him, in fact, according to Sandra Wold, "They made him worse."

With the war in Iraq escalating in violence, a call from the President to increase troop presence by 22,000, and no measures from Congress to implement the drastic changes needed in the policies that affect the mental health of our American soldiers, there appears to be no foreseeable resolution to this crisis. Surely our troops deserve better and thus it falls upon the public to be the catalyst for change and the first step is to get informed about these mental disorders.

For U.S. Army Specialist Adam Pepper many things will never be the same. He will spend many months, possibly years, trying to overcome many of the difficult obstacles of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, despite his own internal struggles, he says he doesn't regret his decision to serve his country.