Ashley Gilbertson’s photo essay, “Shell Shock,” on post-traumatic stress disorder among American veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan matters; this is an important story, one that demands attention. And it starts strongly, as Gilbertson turns the same eye that created “Bedrooms of the Fallen,” which was so sensitive to the aftermath of loss, on the suicides of returning soldiers.
It’s unfortunate that he then chooses to devote several frames to the sites of murders committed by soldiers suffering from PTSD. Although he does wrap it up with two survivors, the emphasis is on violence. The soldier with PTSD, we are warned, is a ticking bomb. If he doesn’t kill himself, he might kill you.
It’s a cheap and worthless world we live in if the only way to convince people of the importance of a problem is by appealing to the fear of becoming a random murder victim. Gilbertson here rolls back the clock to the 1980s, when the prevalent image of PTSD was the crazed Vietnam Vet, sniping from a clock tower with his deer rifle.
This is not the reality of PTSD. Reality, for the most part, is people suffering in silence: people who prize courage, now debilitated by fear, living in a culture that discourages one to admit a problem. And accompanying the startle reactions, the intrusive memories, and the anger, is the terrifying feeling that you’re no longer in control of yourself. These people need help and understanding. They don’t need to be stereotyped as killers who can’t leave killing behind.
Gilbertson does much better with “On The Line,” a story on the people who man the phones at the Veterans’ Affairs crisis line. Here, the story is told through their voices, and the picture that emerges is far more moving. Gilbertson is extraordinarily skilled at evoking what is absent, but he fails in “Shell Shock,” where we have no contact with PTSD itself. The absent voices of the callers in “On The Line” bring the reality home.
Maisonneuve has a great piece on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, now online, which makes a handy counterpoint to the Globe & Mail‘s recent story on Cockrell House, a shelter for traumatized veterans who find themselves unable to cope.
The Globe story stumbles right at the get-go:
The Canadian Forces mission in Afghanistan is set to wind down next year and as battle-scarred soldiers come home, some will find that home in the streets.
Except that, because Canadian soldiers rotate in and out of Afghanistan on a regular basis, there will be no sudden return of “battle-scarred” soldiers; they’ve been coming and going for years. The predicted increase in the number of homeless veterans would occur regardless of whether Canada pulled out. It takes time to break down, lose your family, lose your career, and lose your house. The peak effects of any deployment, be it to Bosnia, Rwanda, or Afghanistan, arrive years after the fact.
But the Globe recycles that same old cliche: thousands of troops arrive home from the wars, emotionally scarred and unable to function, then fall through the cracks and take off into the bush to find peace. Never does the article point out that these casualties are a very small percentage of the whole. Instead, it fuels the common stereotype of the returning soldier: everyone is a casualty, unable to cope, half off his rocker.
It’s true that no one can return from such experiences unchanged. And returning soldiers all tend to report the same reactions: anger, frustration, alienation; a sense that no one understands, or indeed can understand, what they’ve been through. But the fact is that 70 – 80 percent of those soldiers never exhibit PTSD, and that the severity of PTSD symptoms in the rest is variable. Neither is every ex-soldier who ends up on the streets a PTSD case.
Why do only one in five develop PTSD? Nobody really knows. And here, despite all efforts to eliminate the stigma of cowardice or failure attached to soldier’s heart, shell shock, battle fatigue, etc., we still continually fail. Witness Joel Elliott’s unfortunate phrase in Maisonneuve:
A devoted soldier, Dallaire became a symbol around the world of what can happen when you bear witness to events you don’t have the psychological capacity to absorb.
Rather than a lack of courage, we now look to limited “psychological capacity” to explain why one soldier is debilitated by his memories, while the next is not. The fault isn’t Elliott’s; everyone stumbles here. The language we choose always ends up implying that something is lacking. Just as the military, in Elliott’s piece, proves culturally unable to accept PTSD, we’re unable to attempt an explanation without tripping over the assumptions that lie under our words.