General Urges Servicemembers to Seek Help for Stress Disorder
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 6, 2009 Servicemembers at war can be confronted with traumatic, sometimes shocking, events that can cause long-lasting emotional and psychological wounds.
In some cases, servicemembers develop what is called post-traumatic stress disorder. In past wars, the disorder was known by other names. In World War I, the medical profession called it shell-shock. In World War II and Korea, it was called battle fatigue. During and after the Vietnam War, it became PTSD.
No matter the name, the devastating effects remain the same, and the disorder can manifest itself in many ways. For Army Brig. Gen. Gary S. Patton, the dreams are the worst. Patton, now the Joint Staff’s director for personnel, served as a brigade commander with the 2nd Infantry Division in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2004 and 2005. As a colonel, he commanded 4,100 soldiers who deployed from Korea to Iraq, and then redeployed to Fort Carson, Colo.
“It was a very tough neighborhood,” he said during an interview. “It was a very active terrorist threat.”
Patton calls the dreams “sleep disturbances,” and said that was one of the reasons he sought mental health help. “I’ll wake up in the middle of the night with a loud explosion going off in my head,” he said. “Not only do you have the sound, but the recreation of the smell and taste that you get from being right there in an [improvised explosive device] explosion.
“That effect has diminished, but it’s disturbing nonetheless.”
One of the dreams centers on Army Spc. Robert Oliver Unruh. Patton was observing actions on the north side of Ramadi when Unruh, a 25-year-old combat engineer, was hit in the torso by small-arms fire.
“We put him in an armored vehicle to [medically evacuate] him to our aid station,” the general said. “I was the last person to talk to Specialist Unruh because he died before my eyes there.”
Calling the sleep disturbances dreams doesn’t really give them their due. The incidents unroll as they happened, he said. He smells the cordite, he feels the blood, he hears the conversations, and he sees the young specialist die.
Patton wears a bracelet with Unruh’s name on it as part of remembering the 69 soldiers from his brigade who paid the ultimate sacrifice over a year in Iraq.
“No one is immune from the stresses of combat,” Patton said. “It affects everyone, in all specialties.”
When he returned from the deployment, Patton said, even driving became a challenge.. “When I first got back, I had what I call driver anxiety,” he said. “It was very hard for me to drive or ride in my car. I found myself scanning to the front, to the side as we drove along.”
It was a natural reaction in Ramadi as he looked for snipers, roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades, but it wasn’t logical in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Patton sought mental health treatment.
“Servicemembers coming back need to understand that they are not alone,” he said. “There are others who have experienced the same things and they can get help.”
Sleeplessness, anxiety and rage are normal outcomes for human beings going through this, Patton said. Servicemembers need to understand that seeking help is not a sign of weakness, and it does not derail careers.
This is a change from the past. When Patton entered the service in 1979, he served with noncommissioned Vietnam veterans who suffered from the disorder, but did not seek help because it was widely believed that superiors considered those with the disorder shirkers.
“It was something that wasn’t on our radar screens back then,” he said. “It’s pretty common knowledge that we have some ground to cover just in overcoming the stigma associated with PTSD, but we’re doing it.”
Superiors also recognize the disorder and are working to reduce the stigma. Patton made brigadier general. Army Gen. Carter Ham, the four-star commander at U.S. Army Europe, made two, three and four stars after seeking treatment.
When Patton’s brigade left Iraq in 2005, every unit had lost people in Ramadi. The brigade and post leadership treated the screening process seriously and offered mental health services.
In his case, Patton found that counseling and conversation helped. “One of the best things for me is just communication with others who went through the same thing,” he said. “Our family members, who love us dearly, have a hard time relating to what we went through. My greatest relief was just through talking over the experiences with others who had been there. I gained coping skills just by talking to other soldiers.”
Counseling helps, but there are other treatments as well. The disorder often comes in tandem with traumatic brain injuries and military and Veterans Affairs researchers continue to make progress in treatments.
But this won’t help if personnel don’t seek aid. “My advice is to go seek mental health care as you would for a physical ailment,” Patton said.