Some of you may have already read the article in the Sunday Washington Post, "Ricochet; My shot made Joseph Dwyer famous. Did it also help lead to his death?"
If you haven't, you might want to. It's about this young medic, Joseph Dwyer, who was photographed during the 2003 invasion, running toward safety with an injured Iraqi child in his arms. Dwyer was found dead in his apartment a week ago, having overdosed on drugs. We know that he was haunted by the war and likely exhibited many or all of the symptoms of PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was hypervigilant, anxious, fearful, and haunted by the war. His mother told the reporter that he was proud of the photograph but embarrassed by the publicity.
Having spent a great deal of time working with combat soldiers and other patients who have a history of trauma, I have come to understand the fear and the guilt that many of them carry throughout their lives. Fear of the night, when the flashbacks and nightmares prevent them from sleeping, guilt for surviving when others didn't.
Sometimes it is hard to seek help; many men, for instance, are ashamed that they cannot handle the problem themselves, and perhaps fear that they are the only ones with these ghosts. They feel that nobody understands, and unless you have been in their situation, they are right. I have never been in combat, and could never understand the dichotomy of boredom and terror that our men and women often face in the military. But I do understand fear, make that terror, and can listen without being repulsed by their stories.
Yes, some of the stories are horrible, but the PTSD that these people are living with is much worse. They come to trust the fact that I am not afraid of them, nor do I think they are crazy.
People with PTSD have horrible experiences and they are honestly reacting normally to an awful, abnormal situation. We aren't prepared to handle trauma and loss. We aren't trained to survive car crashes or incoming missles.
Because we are seeing more PTSD than ever, for instance, from the military alone there have been 40,000 cases diagnosed since the beginning of the Iraq conflict, which has jumped 50% from 2007, and this number will continue to rise. The Army reported more than 10,000 new cases last year, compared to more than 6,800 the previous year. The Marine Corps had more than 2,100 cases in 2007, compared to 1,366 in 2006. They have had more than 5,000 PTSD cases diagnosed since 2003, source: VA Watchdog
There is much speculation about the exact reasons for this, but part of it is due to the very fact that more soldiers are reporting it and seeking help. There are many causes of PTSD, including childhood abuse, accidents other than automobile, fires, explosions, in fact too many to name here.
However, one of the other traumas that are causing increased incidents of PTSD are car crashes. Thre were a reported 5,935,000 car accidents in 2006. Our cars are being built better for crashes and we are surviving more terrible accidents. I work with many patients who have shown me photos of their mangled cars and there is no reason whatsoever for them to be alive, except for a protective car, luck, or a higher power who was looking out for them. The fact remains, if we survive horrible events, we may suffer horrible symptoms afterwards.
Not everyone does, however, and we have a few predictors that may shine some light on who suffers from this and who doesn't. When I was working with Vietnam veterans (which I still see some on a regular basis), I learned that about 24% of them suffered from some form of PTSD. Considering the massive amount of soldiers who were deployed to Vietnam between 1964 and 1973, 2,594,000, that comes to more than might anticipate, more than 700,000.
But, you might expect all of them to have suffered horrible experiences and terrible nightmares. Not everyone did, but the ones that suffer the most seemed to have a common thread; they often didn't have a solid social network to welcome them home, and many had abusive childhoods.
Again, this isn't true for everyone. But it is true enough for too many.
Many people, like Joseph Dwyer self medicate. Anything to make the thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares and fears go away. Unfortunatly, many PTSD sufferers also die like he did too. That is a horrible shame. He was a hero, and there are many more heroes like him who needent suffer.
What can be done? There are trauma specialists who can help. I offer a very large discount for returning soldiers who need help. Sure, they can choose to go to the VA, but sometimes they don't want to, or fear government agencies.
Whether it is finally telling the stories, getting support without being questioned, medications or Relaxation Training there is a wide array of tools that the professional who understands and is trained in working with trauma victims can use to help.
If you have PTSD that is untreated, or you suspect someone is suffering from PTSD and hasn't gotten help, try to find a specialist in your area, or call the local VA trauma unit and see if they can offer you some names. But try to get them help. They aren't alone and there are professionals who know how to help them.
Diana Walcutt, Ph.D.
Published On: July 15, 2008