Sunday, January 25, 2009

Ask an Armor Officer

Many of you are familiar with Uber Pig's 'Ask an Infantryman' (also known as 'Ask Chuck Z') column on Blackfive. Personally, the idea cracks me up and I often contribute--the idea is a regular, whiny question from Dear Abby, but answered by your average Warrior. I've recently been asked to write something similar, although the topic isn't sent in by some whiny soon-to-be Jerry Springer guest.

So, because this requires a more deft touch than the standard infantryman's mantra of "get a bigger hammer" and if that doesn't apply, "Can I kill it or have sex with it?" I give you "Ask an Armor Officer."

I recently have had the pleasure of two mighty fine young American Soldiers enter my life. They are handsome, polite, bright, funny as hell decorated war Vets. I love them dearly and have a positive friendship w/them. It didn't take long to see and understand they are clearly demonstrating some serious signs of PTSD (hate that term). I would like to see them seek support now as opposed to later to prevent future issues and problems that will bring more pain.

I refuse to say "get help", most do not respond kindly to those words, it only alienates. Too many say do nothing, they will have to figure it out on their own, or "turn them in". I don't like either of those answers.

In your expert opinion how would you suggest reaching out in a non-offensive way that actually would be helpful? My belief the earlier one copes, the better off they will be since the symptoms are not going to go away and will get worse. My guess is they already know on a certain level the issues are there because of the jokes they make. Denial is the most powerful drug of all. We all know the stigma and fear of being weak if we admit we are having challenges from being in a war zone. I know I am not alone in asking this question. What say you?

Searching for Answers in Virginia

I'm not a shrink. Nor am I a mental health professional, although I have had that partiicular brand of quack try to "help" me before, much for the same reasons you mention. In my case, I told them to get bent, and refused to talk to them, because the Army has this ridiculous policy wherein my mental health records are separate from my medical records, and therefore subject to snooping by "official requests." Since I can see this being used against me at the trial, I opted out of professional care and instead choose to treat my demons with steady doses of zoloft, alcohol, nicotine, blogging and transfats.

I don't recommend this particular course of action to anyone, and the only reason it works for me is because I happen to have an incredible support network built around me, including a wife who doubles as a counsellor/social worker (who never tries to analyze me), friends and comrades who prop me up and keep me going, and an incredibly understanding work environment.

Unfortunately, in the world of combat arms, mental illness is a stigma--having one is a weakness, and all weakness is viewed as rooted in character flaws. If a group of men goes through a traumatic event, those who have negative responses to that event are seen as "weaker" than those who don't. Although I don't subscribe to this reasoning, I understand the culture that propigates it, and equates it to the fat kid in the unit who can't finish the run. The fat kid is fat because he is lazy and doesn't push himself to excel, and that brings the ability of the unit down. The PTSD case has doctors appointments, and worse, is an unknown quantity, and the men are unsure if he can be trusted in combat, or if he'll break down at an inopportune moment. The logic is, to say the least flawed--no one knows when anyone will break down, and someone getting counselling for PTSD is trying to strengthen their minds, much like going to physical therapy after an injury. Still, the stigma exists.

Now that I've explained the cultural aspect to PTSD aversion in the combat arms, I'm left with the question of how to get them to seek help. Over there on the left sidebar you'll see a link for a national suicide prevention lifeline. You can point out that they've opened up a special line for veterans, because the need exists. This is what happens to many soldiers who don't seek treatment.

Next, they likely don't feel they need help. Getting them to a counsellor to do an evaluation is the first step. Ask them to do that--just let a professional determine if they suffer from PTSD. If the professional says no, then you'll stop bugging them. If the professional says yes, then you can go from there. Explain it like this: You are going to lead soldiers. If you are suffering from PTSD, Combat Sress, or any other form of delayed-stress response, you owe it to them to seek help, because not being 100% on your game may adversely affect how well you lead them. Their lives depend on you being at your absolute best.

They may go for it. They may not. If you keep hounding them, they'll likely push you away. It's a fine line, and I recommend you seek other, professional guidance in this matter, because what I know about getting people to seek treatment for PTSD could barely fill a thimble.


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