U.S. Veterans Returning from the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

February 17, 2009

This panel discussion, part of the series Moral Responsibilities for the Legacies of War, addressed the mental health risks associated with wartime service. Speakers were Dr. Brian P. Marx, a behavioral scientist for the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; Bryan P. Shea, a psychologist at St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center in New York who has just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq as a military psychologist seeing soldiers in the field; and Bryan Adams, an Iraq War veteran, Purple Heart recipient and current student at Rutgers who is the face of a public service campaign for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

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SUN FEB 08 08:57:19

We are a family here in Massachusetts which has been impacted by true inherent evil of that which is called War. Our son, Jeffrey Michael Lucey, a 23 year old USMC reservist returned from Iraq in July 2003 physically unscathed and appearing to be so happy to be at home. Little did we know that he had been so mortally wounded by hidden wounds. During the next 11 months, Jeff struggled with what he had seen and experienced - those things which he kept to himself stating that we could never understand. When in the last few weeks of his life his defenses failed him, Jeff shared with us some of those experiences - not only the factual information but also emotional. As he descended into his own private hell of chaos and rage, the family struggled to keep our sanities and adapted to the raging storms. We sought help, but he was so reluctant due to fear of stigma and the resultant discrimination. This combined with the VA and government turning their backs to all of us and abandoning Jeffrey - we were all further isolated and left to our own to deal with that which we did not understand. It was as if all including God had abandoned Jeff. Then on June 21, 2004, Jeff asked to sit in my lap - his last gasp, refuge and safe harbor. On June 22, 2004, Jeffrey Michael Lucey escaped the pain and found the peace he so desperately sought at his own hand by taking his life by hanging himself in our cellar. We were truly abandoned by all. Jeffrey and we are not alone - in November 2007, CBS released their research showing that in the year of 2005 at least 120+ veterans took their lives each week. Please keep this in mind as you listen.

Kevin and Joyce Lucey, Belchertown, Mass.

It's amazing the difference between listening to facts and stats, and then listening to the true life accounts of those who have experienced such traumatic points in their life. While listening to the first speaker, all that I picked up really was just the statistics-that this number of soldiers were traumatized, and these were the symptoms. As much as these stats made an impact on me, to hear the Iraq soldier, Bryan Adams, speak, truly moved me. It makes you realize how little is actually done for those who give up their entire lives, not just the present, but also their past lives are altered in addition to their future. Yet these men are left to fend for themselves, and wrestle with the demons in their head. You hear the horrors of war; the close calls, the split second decisions, the moment where your life and all that you have flashes before their eyes; but you never feel it. Those who have not experienced war are lucky in that sense. One of my good friends went to war; he was a regular somebody dressed in green with the ambition to do something with his life. When he came back, he told me once of how his tank had run over a roadside bomb, and how after he regained consciousness, right above him was the severed arm of his buddy who had been riding in the seat next to him. What ensued was a battle as other tanks attempted to rescue the disabled tank, but they were also shot at, and a few more men died trying to save my friend and another guy who had survived. You think over stories like this and think: How can the public turn their backs? Yes, people get sick of war, they get sick of the leaders whose justification for war is chastised as rash, but they forget the humanity of war- that people just like themselves are trying to go someplace in life, yet they come back tainted, un-welcomed by a public who wants nothing to do with war. It's a sad truth, and as many times people become aware, there are those who choose to forget or push it out of their minds the true demons of war, physically and mentally.

Student, ‘10

I thought that the PTSD discussion is one that we must pay particular attention to today. On a personal level I have seen some of the affects Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has had on the few that I know who have been overseas. Research on PTSD has been recent, however this is a disorder that has afflicted many people including my grandfather who fought in WWII, and will continue to affect in the future. Although there have been strides made to assist those suffering, more definitely needs to be done. As a society we pay more attention to physical wounds and injuries, but mental and emotional wounds can be just as detrimental. There are often problems that we do not see, but that we need to know are there so they can be addressed. We must support and help those who have supported our country.

Student, ‘10

Throughout the discussion "U.S. Veterans Returning from the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," the panelists offered a comprehensive picture of the psychological implications of PTSD and the manner in which the disorder manifests itself within the lives of America's most recent war veterans. The different perspectives presented by the panelists enabled the audience to gain an understanding of PTSD from a mental health angle, while also applying the disorder to the current issues that soldiers face in Iraq and Afghanistan and their experiences once they return home. Dr. Brian Marx noted that rates of testing positive for PTSD immediately following a trauma were relatively low but increased three to six months after a traumatic stressor, demonstrating that the symptoms of the disorder worsen over time. This could be attributed to the circumstances in which soldiers must function, as both Bryan Shea and Bryan Adams who served in Iraq described an environment in which death is a constant possibility and soldiers have little time to process their experiences. Interestingly, all panelists highlighted the impact of PTSD on family members of impacted veterans, who are also wounded by war despite their distance from the battlefield. The story Bryan Adams related of destroying his mother's bicycle was a particularly poignant example of the toll the disorder can take on a family. As a result of the prevalence of PTSD among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, with seventeen percent of soldiers screening positive for the disorder a year after deployment as Dr. Marx explained, the government must take a more active role in facilitating the process of veteran reintegration into their communities following combat experiences. While Bryan Adams described his involvement with programs to provide this type of assistance for veterans, greater initiatives must be undertaken on both a national and state level to offer these types of services to veterans and their families. In addition to these measures, educational programs, further research, and greater public awareness of PTSD can overcome the stigma that surrounds the disorder and may encourage more veterans to request assistance for PTSD-related symptoms.

Caitlin D'Amico, ‘09

I found the lecture on Tuesday night incredibly astonishing, moving, distressing, and even horrifying. The most poignant aspect of the lecture for me was when Dr. Marx maintained that in January, more soldiers committed suicide as a result of post-traumatic stress than soldiers who were killed in combat. Obviously, something needs to be done about this disorder, especially since it affects not only the soldiers but their families, friends, and loved ones. As attested to by the third speaker, the stress from combat does not go away easily or ever... and many others feel the stress too. The commercial that the third speaker showed was inspirational, and made it seem like soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan would be welcomed back with the necessary social, psychological, and physical support. I think the groups the third speaker is involved in are doing an amazing job at meeting this goal of bridging the gap between a soldier's experiences overseas and life after these experiences. However, what are the federal or local governments doing to address post-traumatic stress in American soldiers while they are overseas and upon their return home? Are these measures efficient for soldiers? It was interesting how, at the end of third speaker's tour in Iraq, the army made him fill out paperwork saying whether or not he had symptoms of post-traumatic stress. If a soldier wrote that he was experiencing these symptoms, his file would be "red-flagged" and he would have to stay on base for another six months! For soldiers who just want to get home to their families and friends after their service, this measure is clearly not working... the third speaker said how he even answered "no" to the questions he was asked in the paperwork, simply because he wanted to get home. What can the army do to fix this issue? How does this procedure affect soldiers in the long run? How can the government play more of an active role in addressing the after-effects of combat in war? How did the former President Bush deal with these serious issues? How will President Obama deal with these issues?

Christine Giamattei, ‘10

It was one of the harder things I've sat though, here at Holy Cross. It is something I feel so passionately about that I think we should have a week dedicated to just hearing Vets talk. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan is terrible. It is not unlike Vietnam, and perhaps, it is worse to a certain extent-except no one is talking about it. Well, we started talking about it here two weeks ago when we considered the moral significance of war. That again was brought up last week when we considered the effects of Agent Orange, and now this week we are considering the hard facts of a war that is being fought as I type.

So, let's consider: This is not Vietnam, but did Vietnam affect this war? I think it did- I think that it made it so the American people were so scared that they would never speak out against the troops. Hence we have yellow ribbons everywhere- saying "we support our troops." As the war went on- people started to shift from supporting the war to just "supporting our troops." These are our "boys" out there fighting for our "freedom." We fought a war in fear-a war of fear and it has turned disastrous-except nothing is being done (to the extent it was done in Vietnam). There is no Weather Underground, no Bob Dylan, no civil rights movement going on-are we just going to sit around and "support our troops?"

It has once been said that a person I was talking to did not understand the concept/ train of thought-I support our troops but I don't support the war. He went on to say that if in fact you don't support the war-you don't support the troops. When I first heard that it sat with me. I felt uncomfortable and did not know how to react or what to do.

After some months of consideration and after last night's talk, I realized I do not support the army-I in fact think it's a terrible inhumane awful institution-it brain washes, it distorts and it ruins people's lives. So, yes, people sign up for it, it's volunteer, these people know what they are getting in to. But not last night's talk-people don't know-they don't know what PTSD will do to a human, to a family, to a society. Also the people signing up are doing it mostly because they don't have a choice; they need the army like the army needs them. The army gives money to these people and a promise of social mobility and prosperity and targets the most marginalized of people to fight in the front lines.

I think more attention should be paid to this subject. I think people need to be illuminated to the true effects of the war on everyone involved. There is a lot more considering to do.

Student, ‘09

It was very interesting to learn more about such a common problem today. It was good to see that a lot is already being done to help PTSD victims. It certainly seemed that more was being done to help them compared with the Agent Orange victims previously talked about. While it amazed me how many soldiers were affected by PTSD, I completely agreed with Bryan when he explained that the norm is to be affected by actions in war. I never knew how serious the effects were and was alarmed to hear the number of suicides as a result of PTSD. I was surprised how Bryan mentioned that during training, his commanders never used the world kill. It reminds me of a book I read for Intro to Peace and Conflict Studies where military training would make training as realistic as possible with explosions, fake blood, and also degrading the enemy as if they were not human beings. This made soldiers almost reactionary when it came to wartime. This may be a short-term fix to help deal with killing however, I agree that some images may reoccur despite the training. It seems like almost everyone knows someone in war, it would be great for people other than veterans to be able to give a hand in the recovery from PTSD.

Student, ‘09

In studying history throughout high school and college, we learn of various battles and wars fought by different countries and parties. Though after the battles are over and political messes reconciled, little is said about the soldiers who fought these wars. The lecture on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder really gave me a new respect for those who fight overseas for our freedom. In my mind, soldiers deploy and fight, to later be happily reunited with their family. However, this lecture explained the other side of returning home from war. Bryan's recount of his time in Iraq and transition back to the United States particularly struck me. I think his story really affected me because he has had such a different life experience than I. From my upbringing, high school graduates continue onto college as the expected progression. To hear someone so close to my age having taking an alternative route and voluntarily placing himself life or death situations truly inspiring.

Student, ‘09

There were many interesting facts and conversations throughout the entire PTSD lecture, but one conversation started by an audience member left me still thinking about the lecture was over. How can you fully support those affected with PTSD and still be successful during a war? The statistic surrounding PTSD were alarming to me; I didn't realize how many people were affected by the disorder. However, like the Veteran said, it makes sense, how can you be put in a war situation and not experience PTSD symptoms after. But then how, if we are going to support and treat those with PTSD during wartime, are we able to keep up numbers to continue to fight successfully? It seems like such an awful question to ask. How can you not allow those affected with this disorder to seek help, especially when the suicide rate associated with this disorder is so high? But with the rates of diagnosis, how do you allow all those affected to leave the conflict without putting other soldiers in risk? I have been thinking about this since the discussion last night and have still yet to come up with any type of reasonable response. How can you even come up with an answer? I feel like that is deciding which human life is worth more, and who has the authority to do that?

Student, ‘09

Bryan, the last speaker, questioned how any veteran could come back from a war without any form of PTSD. While his statement is one that seems not many people have come outright to say, I believe its validity should be documented. My uncle served in Vietnam and although it is incredibly difficult to get him to talk about his experiences, he is very clear in his belief that everyone he fought with (and against) was affected by their time. How could one not be? Listening to the accounts, Bryan's specifically, it really made me realize how lacking we are of appropriate programs and groups that would help veterans be able to express and understand what they each went through. You cannot just label a person with PTSD and give a general evaluation and projected road to recovery; each soldier and each experience is incredibly different. The talk last night emphasized the need for a closer look at how we can help these veterans.

Student, ‘09

What I found particularly interesting about last night's talk on PTSD was that it provided me a concrete example of the horrors of war. Even though the media tend to cover some stories about missions in Iraq and other actions that the military takes, the concept of war to me always remains slightly intangible - there are, after all, certain restrictions as to what can be broadcasted on TV. As such, I have always felt that my understanding of war is not anywhere near as gruesome as the true realities that soldiers face on a day to day basis.

As I found during the third part of last night's talk, my assumptions were correct. Listening to the young veteran Bryan during the third and final section of last night's talk left me feeling nothing short of queasy. When he described seeing his friend blown to pieces on his first night in duty I felt physically ill, only imagining what it must have been like for Bryan to actually lose his friend. No wonder so many soldiers come back suffering from PTSD - the harsh realities that these people have to face on a daily basis should not have to be faced by anyone. As Bryan the third speaker put it, and I am paraphrasing here, "there is something wrong with you if you can see all the horrors over there and not suffer from some form of PTSD." I can hardly believe the amount of trauma that these men and women soldiers face on a regular basis.

I was also blown away by a statistic presented by the first speaker, the man who spoke mainly about the psychological implications of PTSD and mental health. What he said was that 24 active duty army soldiers in January 2009 committed suicide, a number of deaths that, for the first time since the conflict in Iraq began, is greater than the number of active duty soldiers who were killed in conflict. The fact that approximately 17% of soldiers are screening positive for PTSD one year after conflict also struck me particularly hard. I wish we could find some alternative to war, because it just does not seem right to me to expose soldiers to the horrors they encounter on the battlefield. After all, PTSD not only affects the soldiers who develop it, but also their families, friends, and communities that they are a part of back in their home towns.

Owen Fenton, ‘10

The talk on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, given on February 17, was enlightening and informational. This talk made it so very clear how war and the psychiatric effects it causes are not just limited to the battlefield but follow people for decades, and sometimes their entire lives. It was tough to see someone who is not much older than I talk about his disorder coming back from the Iraq war. Even though in the talk it spoke about how much more prevalent PTSD was now than it had been in the past, this isn't necessarily the case. The only thing now that is different is that more people are being diagnosed because doctors and psychiatrists actually understand what is happening. In regards to Vietnam, this disorder was for the first time classified as PTSD. Before this war, it was regarded to in many ways: WWI it was called shell-shock, WWII it was called combat fatigue, the Korean War it was called acute combat stress, Vietnam it was first called Vietnam Syndrome but later reclassified as PTSD, the Gulf War it was named Gulf War syndrome, and the Iraq War it was classified again as PTSD. Vietnam was especially sad because since there was no real support for the war at home, the members discharged with PTSD found no support among the public, something that the panel members touched upon. After hearing the different individuals speak about the Iraq/Afghanistan War, it is hard not to draw parallels to Vietnam and how devastated and mentally unstable people came back. It is going to be very interesting to see how many decades it will take for the truth to come out about the Iraq War in regards to how much damage PTSD will cause.

Student, ‘10

Often times when we think about the consequences of war, we tend to think in terms of physical and psychological damage upon victims caught in the midst of war. We often do not understand or even envision that events during war could affect the soldiers carrying out their military duties. However as last night's talk highlighted, the sights and sounds witnessed by soldiers during Operation Iraqi Freedom has produced debilitating psychological damage on American soldiers which has taken the shape of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Now more than ever, psychologists, the armed forces and the media are taking note of the mental traumas and stress induced by witnessing and harboring feelings witnessed during events of war. During last night's talk I could not help but think about the similar parallels between Vietnam veterans and Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering from PTSD. When Dr. Brian Marx mentioned PTSD leading to homelessness I began thinking about my time spent in Washington D.C. last semester. Walking to and from the Capital every weekday the streets showcased the unfortunate and devastating toll the Vietnam War took and still takes on its veterans. While I am sure some of the veterans were on the streets for symptoms and situations other than PTSD, the fact that many of the homeless population specifically within D.C. is from veterans who served to protect our country and our people angers and frustrates me. One of the major differences I think between the Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD and today's Iraq/Afghanistan suffers is that at least today PTSD is more openly recognized, the mere ability to have a forum on it highlights that it is something people are talking about. While I recognize that admitting one suffers from PTSD is still stigmatized, at least there are more steps in order to help the often silent victims of PTSD. While many other steps are still in order the mere ability to put a name with feelings of resentment, anger, frustration and horror after seeing combat time is somewhat comforting. Our country has witnessed the toll war has taken on our Vietnam veterans and we must not stand for our Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers to suffer from these same setbacks. We need to let these soldiers know they are not alone in their suffering.

As we listened to the statistical data and a personal story of rehabilitating from PTSD, I was curious as to when this disease became diagnostically defined. Furthermore, what if anything has been done by the government and the military branches to help Vietnam veterans diagnose and recoup from PTSD?

Kayla Pallas, ‘10

The panel tonight that spoke on PTSD was extremely interesting. I never really knew how serious PTSD is and how common it is. One of the things that was mentioned about the disease was how one of the panel members mentioned how the memories, thoughts and elements that the soldiers have experienced cannot be eliminated or forgotten. A wound can be fixed and physically treated, but there is no real treatment for such a disorder. One of the panel members said that talking to other veterans about what they have gone through is helpful and one of the best ways to relieve a person from the terrifying symptoms that can ruin ones life. The facts and symptoms that were presented were informative and disturbing. The job of a soldier is extremely dangerous and it is said that they suffer such terrible after effects once they are finished serving our country.

One thing that really interested me was when the panel said how a "welcome home" is important to the soldier and would help prevent triggering the disorder. But what happens when soldiers return home and the war is a controversial topic? It must be extremely difficult for soldiers to deal with the controversy and I can only imagine how tough it would be to deal with this after going through what they did.

Student, ‘09

The discussion on PTSD was tough to digest. The statistics presented were difficult to accept, such as the estimation that 17% of army soldiers show symptoms of PTSD-and more commit suicide after the war than are actually killed in combat. This puts things in a horrifying perspective. I was especially struck by the stories told by the 24-year-old veteran, Bryan, about his combat experiences in Tikrit. The intimacy of his presence in Rehm combined with the alien conceptions of horror he described clearly resonated deeply with everyone present. It felt strange because the only times I am used to seeing men and women who have been in combat are on TV, and here was a veteran hardly older than me telling me stories that I can only imagine in war films.

In relation to Vietnam, there must have been a great deal of PTSD after the American War there, on both sides. It is sad to see in our culture how Vietnam War veterans are seen comically as the guys who dive for cover when they hear a champagne bottle pop. This talk made it clear how serious the issues are that veterans face. I am now curious about the PTSD statistics in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

I was also interested, and sad, to hear about the fact that PTSD is more common among veterans now, since it is more likely that soldiers will survive wounds and that deployments are more frequent and extensive. It also made me wonder how much worse the statistics of PTSD would be in a case like World War II, when most soldiers were drafted and not fighting by personal choice.

Christopher Masello, ‘09

I found this lecture on PTSD tonight very moving and eye-opening. Each of the three speakers had very enlightening things to say about PTSD and its effects on the individual and their loved ones. Interestingly it seems that there is a great stigma that goes along with this disease that does not make it any easier for victims to recover, and it is this stigma that we as a society need to overcome.

I found the third speaker to be particularly moving. As a young veteran in his early 20s who now is a college student at Rutgers University, his stories seemed to have the most impact on me, as I am about the same age and can relate to certain aspects of his life. With the graphic and almost unfathomable stories that he shared, it is easy for one to see why he would have such anxiety and other mental health issues upon his return. When he told the story of how he was drunken and laughing as he destroyed his mother's bike, her prized possession, with her crying, it became clear to him that he had a problem and that he needed to change something in his life drastically. He continued on describing how he felt de-humanized during his time in Iraq and when he returned he could not cope with all of the emotions that were hitting him. When I heard this story, I felt that our country does have a moral responsibility to fix this legacy of war. Although there will always be symptoms of PTSD in many veterans, it seems that there are many people out there willing to help them. There is also much support between veterans themselves, which seems like it might be one of the best ways to cope.

Jenelle Verrochi, ‘11

The forum on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that was held tonight was incredibly informative and somewhat emotionally fueled. I appreciated the first speaker's overview of the condition because I am not very familiar with it. What really stuck out to me about the second speaker were the photos he displayed. His take on the sign that read "STOP... Bomb Ahead" was moving. He said mentioned that it was unreal to read "such significant dangers in benign terms." Lastly, the third speaker was in my opinion the most moving. Because he is so close in age to me and clearly shares similar values, I found the story of his experience as a sniper in Iraq to be especially horrendous. His method of dealing with his PTSD is inspiring in that he started a campus group at Rutgers and was involved in a public service announcement. Overall, the PTSD seminar of this evening was eye-opening and moving. It speaks volumes of the importance of veteran services.

Rosemarie Tibaldi, ‘09

I found today's talk on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to be extremely eye-opening and informative. The first speaker offered a very comprehensive overview of PTSD and its symptoms and consequences. I found the last speaker to be particularly enlightening. Having recently returned from Iraq, he received a Purple Heart in combat. Upon returning home, he experienced severe PTSD. His speech brought up the issue of the military and our government's lack of support for veterans. I thought it was extremely significant that if soldiers admitted to feeling the effects of war upon returning home, they would have to stay at the base for another six months. Not only would this inhibit them from answering honestly, but not being allowed to go home might cause more harm and depression. When the speaker encountered this lack of support and felt completely alone, he sought help for his disorder. He eventually transferred to Rutgers, the largest university in New Jersey, and fought again virtually no support mechanisms for veterans. Through his talk, I realize that our society needs to become more cognizant of soldiers' suffering and creating networks and groups to help them cope.

Student, ‘09

MON MAR 16 00:06:52

I did not attend the lecture, but as a Vietnam Era veteran myself, I would have liked to have asked why PSTD seems so prevalent (and sensational) today versus past wars. I know the term "shell shocked" was used to describe the more immediate symptoms of war trauma during WWII and Korea, but it seems only since Vietnam have the same symptoms become so "sensationalized" and widely known. Is this possibly a contributing factor to the rise of PTSD or were there possibly just as many "undiagnosed" cases in WWII and Korea? Are the suicides attributable ONLY to war trauma or, as in my experience, to the more personal trauma experienced through divorce, breakups, separation, the "dear john" letters? Is there some underlying socio-psychological change in our society, e.g. an increased sensitivity or the like that has precipitated the perception that more are now traumatized? I wish these questions could/would have been asked. I'm always somewhat cynical and suspicious of these academic self flagellations...same thing happened during my "Vietnam" years at the Cross 69-73. There is even a faculty sociology professor at HC today who wrote a "study" claiming there were no cases of veteran discrimination or harrassment during the Vietnam War!! What a joke! Good to know there are still sensitive, thoughtful souls at the Cross, but beware of your perceptions being purposely manipulated by an "out of touch" academic elite. In my 35 years of post HC experience, I've just personally known too many veterans who have experienced the horrors of war, have suffered some degree of trauma, but are still alive and vibrant. P.S. Were any HC NROTC veterans asked to be panel members? That says something in itself.

Bud Orcutt, '73, Fredericksburg

[Note: Two of the three speakers are not academics but actual veterans, one a Purple Heart recipient. Because we were trying to find people with direct personal experience of PTSD, the only service members asked to speak were those who were combat psychiatrists or vets suffering from PTSD. We were not aware of any HC NROTC alums who fit that bill. However, a current ROTC student did participate in the final panel, "Where do we go from here?" The question of whether it is combat trauma or back home personal issues that cause mental trauma was dealt with at some length in the talks. The combat psychiatrist talked about how having to deal with issues of children misbehaving, wives committing adultery, etc., greatly increased the likelihood of PTSD, and told the story of a vet who tried to kill a wounded enemy soldier, a war crime, right after hearing that his wife was cheating on him. The Purple Heart recipient also talked about how his ability to reintegrate healthily into the U.S. was deeply disturbed by finding out that his girlfriend had become involved with someone else while he was gone.

Vickie Langohr, Associate Professor, Political Science]