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PTSD IN VETS: AN EXCUSE/SCAM?

22 September, 2012

Bien Hoa, Vietnam

PTSD SCAMMERS?

I noted a search phrase suggesting Vets use PTSD as an excuse/scam. While I have no doubt that there are some few who are trying to use it to get benefits (lots of luck to them, considering the grueling process), I’m convinced that there is a great deal more PTSD in vets than statistics show. What I see on Face Book pages dedicated to the war and its veterans bears that out.

A MATTER OF DEGREE

For one thing, including my own case, there can be a sense that one doesn’t/didn’t “deserve” PTSD.  I actually had it comparatively easy in Viet Nam and, knowing what others went through in the bush, pretty much denied it had any impact on me. I was in a medical unit (see my blog at http://20thpmu.wordpress.com/about/) and, as such, was not involved in offensive operations per the Geneva Convention. That didn’t stop Charlie from mortaring and rocketing the snot out of us at least 100 times during my tour with the 20th Preventive Medicine Unit, 44th Medical Brigade. (It was regular enough that we actually had a sick pool in 15-minute increments as to what time any given night we’d be mortared. If we weren’t, it would roll over. One troop who kept a notebook reckoned we were hit 33 out of his first 36 nights with the unit during the May offensive of 1968.)

One major question is this: What was the pre-morbid nature of the individual; what was his/her temperament prior to exposure to the stressors? I don’t even remember myself much before Vietnam but have been told I was easy-going and fun loving. There was a combination of survivor guilt and a reluctance to put myself in the same class as those who spent their tours in the bush.  However, looking back, the symptoms were there in spades … symptoms I kissed off as simply being a screwed up human being. I must say, though I doubt it alone contributed much to my symptoms, being surrounded by people who wanted nothing more than to kill you was a very odd feeling that stays with me today. Hell — I didn’t even want to be in their friggin’ country.

blast

Long Binh ammo dump explosion as seen from my compound in Bien Hoa, Tet, 1968, some three miles away. It was some explosion.

It wasn’t until It Nearly 24 years later the denial was shattered when I broke into tears at the sight of some Vietnam vets marching in a 4th of July parade to cheers of the viewers. As is so often the case, my symptoms got worse after I retired. Many vets managed to push away their PTSD through hard work and that tactic fails in retirement.

 YEAH?  WHAT ABOUT WW II VETS’ RELATIVE LACK OF PTSD?

Some have suggested that Vietnam vets were somehow more “wussy” than WW II vets.  What they probably don’t know is that (remember, this is an average) the average WW II vet saw around 40 days of actual combat in a year.  Vietnam combat vets, on average, saw around 240 days of combat in a year.  The train wreck was bigger for them on average.

STIGMA

Yes, Virginia, there is stigma.  Having PTSD has a tendency to lead one to think he’s less of a man; a self-imposed stigma and one source of denial.  I’ve likened the PTSD of sexual abuse survivors to train wrecks and car crashes; the more damage to the vehicle, the greater the collision.  It takes some pretty hairy denial to look at a car that has even only  missing its rear bumper and tail lights and, psychologically speaking, 1) ignore it; 2) or somehow convince one’s self that the car was manufactured that way.

WEIRD EMOTIONS

I recall, some three years after returning, lying in bed and asking God to kill me.  What the Sam Hill was that all about?  I have no recollection of why. I had a brand new home, two new cars, a loving wife and a decent job. Still, I wanted to die for no conscious reason. I was bitter and angry. Fast forward to ten years later: I was punching holes in the walls of yet another new home. (I ran out of things to hang over the holes.)

There would be no one around including my wife and yet I’d go into a rage.  I was lucky in that I never wanted to, or did, hit her. I really had no idea why I was so enraged. I just was. In the end, I spent 7 1/2 years in therapy but, though it was not without value, none of the therapists picked up on, or had any idea about, PTSD.  I blamed my symptoms on my then present life. That was nuts. There were no more issues than there would have been in any 22-year marriage. My career was booming and I loved my job.  I lived 1 1/2 blocks from the beach in Surf City, California. I drove a BMW, and had a boat and other toys. Still, I had a fuse which was frightening to me and to others when it hit the explosives. My own mother told me she became frightened when I got angry. I began drinking more than was healthy.

Watchful Eyes (1280x532)

Troops keep a watchful eye from my the edge of the compound during the Tet offensive of 1968. VC were in the tree lines pictured, about 100 yards away. The blurry dot above the head of the silver helmet is a Cobra helicopter making a strike on the base itself. Even Phantom jets bombed parts of the base. The view would have been roughly south by south-west toward the village in the distance. The base was large and sprawling, to accommodate the runway of the air base, with essentially wild areas.

NIGHTMARES

I had, and still occasionally have nearly 50 years later, a recurring nightmare. I’ve been sent back to Vietnam. At first I’m okay with that, thinking I’ve been there, done that and know how to handle myself. Then there is an alert. An attack is imminent. While others rush off to their positions, I can find nothing but my pants and boots. I end up cornered by a VC pointing an AK47 at me and either wake up at that point or am killed and then wake up sweating. (My bother, an MP in Nam who ran convoy guard duty, has a similar dream but is armed with nothing but a stick as he looks down the barrel of an AK47 pointed in his face.)

RELATIONSHIP CARNAGE

There was no real “situation” in my marriage but I left anyway.  Fortunately, it turned out to be the best thing I had ever done for my wife. Getting the crazy dude out of the home allowed her to blossom in ways that may never have been otherwise. Foregoing more details, my symptoms ultimately cost me my professional reputation, my marriage and nearly everything I owned. That’s probably way to much information and self-disclosure but it goes to the point that PTSD is very real, comes in degrees, and wreaks havoc on lives.

Once again, I have little doubt that there are some freeloaders who try to claim PTSD to get V.A. benefits. Lots of luck to them, considering the grueling process and scrutiny. However, I have equally little doubt that there are tens of thousands of Vietnam  and other vets out there whose tales are similar to mine; who had difficulty making any connection with their service; and who (if they’ve finally made the connection) would be just as miffed as I that anyone would be looking for freeloaders rather than acknowledging with concern (very, very likely with no personal personal war experiences) what war does to people. Getting back to the main topic of this blog, the “matter of degree” issue applies to sexual abuse survivors as well. Not all incidents of sexual abuse are horrific but they do not have to be thus to lead to PTSD. I was struck by the symptoms of a couple of clients. One had never been touched but her stepfather kept making sexual allusions and even threats, saying someone had to be the first and it may as well be him. Though relatively mild, she had a clearly discernible PTSD syndrome. Another had escaped abuse but her sisters were abused and she too had the syndrome.

HUMANITY

I have come to the conclusion that there is a certain sort of honor inherent in PTSD. That one can develop it from what one experiences or is compelled to do is testimony to the humanity of the sufferer. My (albeit anecdotal) observation of the character of fellow vets who have it bears that out. A sociopath, or one who otherwise has no compassion, would not be blessed with PTSD.  End of rant.

AFTERNOTE

I noted, in addition, a search term “PTSD is no excuse” (and variations on search terms seeking information about PTSD “freeloaders”) and feel obliged to comment.  I am acutely aware that there are differences between excuses and reasons.  There are solid reasons for the PTSD symptoms of vets (and survivors) and those symptoms disrupting functioning.  As for excuses, there is a reason the term “survivor” is used for sufferers of childhood sexual abuse rather than victim.  Once a person has PTSD it is true that, though it is no fault of the person, it is that person’s responsibility to battle and overcome the PTSD.  Nobody can do it for the survivor (vet or other) but it is equally true that others need education as to the symptoms and what they do to functioning.  They are responsible for knowing that as human beings and for understanding that one cannot simply wish away the PTSD and its effects.  The sufferer is responsible, in effect, for saying “I’m working on it”, and doing so.  Once anyone allows any affliction to become a hobby and to ask for constant slack on account of the affliction, that person needs an understanding and loving, yet firm, “Yeah — but what are you doing about it?”; a loving, if you will, boot in the tush.  There is danger in becoming a professional victim and life will, to say the least, not go well … not at all.  I must add that, if Vietnam service caused PTSD (an injury, if you will), compensation is not out of order any more than for physical wounds. The overall effect on one’s life can be just as severe, and in some cases even more so.

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From → Social Work

18 Comments
  1. douglas permalink

    Yes, PTSD is real.
    My father was a POW in Korea for 2.5 years.
    Upon repatriation he was in a mental hospital for 3 months
    For years afterward, he would sit with his back to the wall so no one could sneak up behind him.
    He continued his career as an Air Force officer and then retired.
    In a few years, his symptoms subsided.
    He never applied for or got any free money. He was a member of the Greatest Generation.

    There are certainly some today who have PTSD
    But there are countless others who get a whiff of “free” money and game the system for PTSD or numerous other “disabilities”.
    The problem now is that anyone who dealt out bingo cards in the USO club has PTSD.
    Also, when they are shoveling free money at you, what incentive is there to get better?
    Besides, how can money help heal their condition?
    I suggest that they get group and individual therapy, and medicine. Inpatient care should be provided in serious cases.

    In the same way, the welfare system should be reformed to prevent the “safety net” from turning into a “hammock”.
    House recipients in tent cities, feed them in a chow hall, make them use communal bathrooms and showers.
    If it is good enough for our troops, it should be good enough for them. Maybe the experience will get them to work.

    To sum up, we must dis-incentivize dependence
    If we don’t reign in our huge deficit spending, our economy will collapse.
    What will all the helpless people do then?

    • You may be under some misapprehension about how easy it might be to get a claim for PTSD approved. Trust me … it isn’t easy by far. I’m aware of vets who struggled for decades to get approval and, knowing them, know they had darned legitimate claims. I agree: There are those who would like a free ride. That’s true for anything that offers money. We need to ensure that there’s enough money for legitimate claims by weeding out the would-be freeloaders, but we also need to make sure that we don’t further abandon those who served their country.

  2. This is a good tip particularly to those fresh to the blogosphere. Simple but very accurate info Appreciate your sharing this one. A must read article!

  3. I being married to a man for 42 years that a couples years ago conned them into diagnosing him with PTSD I am furious. First of all he saw no action on his ship. Throughout the years he mentally abused and physically abused me. The children were mentally abused. After he had his rant he wouldnt talk for a week. Then later at least sort of apologize. Now with this label he just says its my PTSD and smiles. Its not PTSD he is jerk period.

    • I would agree. I doubt he would ever try to obtain benefits for his “PTSD”, and his actions are not typical of PTSD anyway. Whoever diagnosed him needs to go back to school, learn to perform mental status examinations and use the DSM. Perhaps, even given how long you’ve been married, it’s time to move on. I may be way off base, but I suspect you might benefit by visiting https://gerryellenson.wordpress.com/category/ptsd-in-sexual-abuse-survivors/. I hope and pray things get better for you. Thanks for the visit and comment.

  4. Sometimes I wish I could know who used the search terms I see on my blog. Today I noted someone looking for PTSD in vets who had served in Bien Hoa, Vietnam. I did, and wish the visitor had left a message. All Viet vets are brothers, but those who were around in Bien Hoa, especially during the Tet offensive (which I did find highly offensive) have a special place in my heart. Peace out, brother.

  5. In any group of people on earth, there will be the occasional cheater, (or you name it). But there can’t be any doubt that PTSD is a reality. Bravo for ‘coming out’ about it – the more who do, the less stigma there will be – eventually! It’s similar to the “alternatives” or “recovery” movement in mental health, or ‘hearing voices’ – A friend of mine is one of many who have ‘come out’ as voice hearers, and you might be interested in exploring his blog at recoverynetworktoronto.wordpress.com. And you probably know that many ‘voice hearers’ were victims of childhood sexual abuse or other traumatic events.

    • Thanks for the feedback. The “coming out” was uncomfortable and I nearly deleted the post not long after entering it, but sometimes discomfort is good.

      • I agree — often leads to personal growth of some kind 🙂

      • You are correct. Once realized and faced, any crisis can be the springboard to growth. In fact, a crisis is a gift in that sense. The psyche is never so ready to be worked over. Thanks for the visit and the comment.

  6. I don’t believe for a second that there is anyone completely unaffected by the extreme experience of being being involved in violent conflicts like war. I’ve interviewed officers recently returned from Afghanistan, soldiers that did multiple deployments in Iraq and law enforcement officers, including one from an anti-terrorist unit. Some of them denied ever being affected, shrugging off my questions but I could see it in their eyes and other things like pouring a glass of whiskey or lighting up a cigarette. A lot of them reported not sleeping well, physical ailments, using alcohol or painkillers to take off the edge and whether or not they want to admit to themselves or anyone that stress is hurting them, it’s obvious there is something there that needs time and working through to make it better. I don’t think less of anyone that’s suffering with PTSD. Of course it’s not a scam. When the military takes it seriously, alleviates the stigma and helps vets long term through it, everyone affected will be better for it. But it’s a touchy subject. None of these kind of men want to be tainted with being labeled as “not fully functional” or have their job prospects affected negatively.

    • Thank you, Birgit. I very much liked your blog, by the way. Keep up the good work.

      • Thanks! Your blog is unique and helpful and courageous. Not a lot of people want to talk about subjects that make them uncomfortable but they may read from the privacy of their own home information that helps them.

      • Thanks for taking the time to comment. I hope the post was of some value to you.

      • I’ve been around your blog. It’s very interesting and it’s helpful.

  7. riversflownewmexico permalink

    Reblogged this on River's Flow.

  8. riversflownewmexico permalink

    Thank you.

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