MORE THAN 10,000 soldiers returning from the Iraq war have now sought help for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an anxiety based mood disorder characterised by flashbacks, nightmares and extreme agitation.
Lieutenant Julian Goodrum, a veteran of two Gulf Wars, is one of those afflicted with PTSD. He says that mental scars can be the most damaging because of their invisibility. “For the majority of people, particularly military, it is easier to accept and understand a physical injury than a psychological one,” he maintains.
The Pentagon says it is taking PTSD among veterans very seriously. But Goodrum and many other veterans disagree. He describes his own condition. “My nightmares are so intense, I woke up one night with my hands round my fiancée’s neck. Another night she woke me up because I was kicking and getting really violent in my sleep,” he reveals. “The smell of diesel takes me back to Iraq,” Goodrum explains. “I am getting better with crowds, but still, if it is a very confined space and I am totally surrounded, I have issues with that.”
PTSD is not confined exclusively to combat veterans. It is a psychiatric disorder that can occur after any life-threatening events, such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks, serious accidents, or violent personal assaults. Sufferers relive the trauma and have difficulty sleeping and holding down regular employment.
In the case of the Iraqi veterans, it is the furtive nature of the conflict, the insurgency of unseen snipers and roadside bombers, which has added to their trauma.
‘Revisiting’ hell helps
Now, in a bid to exorcise some of the veterans’ demons, the Pentagon has enlisted the help of video games that recall the streets of Falluja. Ken Grapp, CEO of Virtually Better, a company that creates virtual reality environments to help anxiety disorders, explains the treatment: “Veterans with PTSD may go back to the streets of Falluja every day in their own minds. It can be debilitating to the point where a person would choose suicide. We are providing a shared experience, where therapists can work with the person and have a better understanding of where they were and help them process that information.”
People may find it strange that soldiers would want to recreate their past hell. But we find this phenomenon elsewhere. World War Two veterans regularly reassemble at commemoration services and Holocaust victims gather at the scenes of their misery, although traumatic memories are invariably evoked. Sometimes, horrors have to be revisited in order to move on. Beirut hostage, Brian Keenan, spoke of his need to spend time alone even after four-and-a-half years of incarceration, including a period in solitary confinement.
Phoney war films
Movies often give us the best insight into how society views its military. Over the years, Hollywood has offered sensitive dramas about the problems of returning soldiers. Among the most famous early films, all dealing with disabled veterans attempting to ‘re-adjust’ to civilian life, were The Best Years of Our Lives (1945) and The Men (1950). Later, Coming Home (1978) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) dealt with paraplegic soldiers wounded in Vietnam.
But mental disorders are explored infrequently. If they are, the central characters are usually violent psychotics pushed over the edge (Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Rambo in the Stallone trilogy), but they are not sufferers of PTSD. To be blunt about it, violence among returning soldiers is acceptable but anxiety disorders are not.
British movies, especially the old black and white ones, have dealt with war and death particularly dishonestly. At the time of the first Gulf War, British pilots confessed to “sheer terror” when interviewed about their missions, a far cry from the “tally-ho” military depicted in old British movies. In A Matter of Life and Death (1945), an airman, played by Robert Coote, cheerfully registers himself in heaven after his own death. Another, played by David Niven, is philosophical as he crashes to the ground in a burning cockpit. In Reach for the Sky (1956), Kenneth More (impersonating war hero Douglas Bader) at no time shows apprehension at returning to flying even after the loss of both his legs. Artificial limbs in place, our stiff upper lipped, lantern-jawed, utterly fearless ‘hero’ takes to the air once again.
These movies, irrespective of their artistic merits, were phoney, even though they were much lauded at the time. Other war films, such as The Way Ahead (1945) and The Way to the Stars (1945), were purely propaganda pieces, doubtless professionally made and with the best of motives, but they were also inaccurate in their depiction of battle.
Our veterans deserve more understanding for their sacrifices. But, above all, young and impressionable men, frequently coming from the most underprivileged section of society, deserve to be informed about the risks involved in modern warfare.
By Gabriel Hershman