July 24, 2008: Fearing an undiagnosed epidemic of PTSD
(post-traumatic stress disorder), the U.S. Army has developed a new program to
detect, and treat, the many PTSD sufferers it believes it has. The new program
does the screening during the delivery of routine medical care, including
annual checkups. Doctors are given a script that uses some simple and
non-threatening questions to discover if the soldier might have PTSD. If
further questioning reveals there may be some PTSD, the soldier is offered treatment
as part of regular medical care, not a special PTSD program. It was those
programs that put off many troops. While most troops now accept that PTSD is
not a sign of mental weakness, but a very real combat hazard, many still avoid
special PTSD treatment programs. By making PTSD treatment (which is usually
just monitoring, and the use of some anti-stress medication for a while), part
of regular medical care, much of the stigma disappears.
has, over the years, developed a set of guidelines for how to recognize the
symptoms of combat fatigue (or PTSD).
With all the attention PTSD has gotten in the media of late, troops are more
willing to seek treatment, or at least admit there is a problem. While extreme
cases of PTSD are pretty obvious, it's the more subtle ones that army wants to
catch now. These are easier to cure if caught early.
The army has
several major problems with PTSD. First, there was the discovery that many
troops, because of exposure to roadside bombs, and battlefield explosions in
general, had developed minor concussions that, like sports injuries, could turn
into long term medical problems. Often these concussions were accompanied by
problem was that, nearly a century of energetic effort to diagnose and treat
PTSD (including much recent attention civilian victims, via accidents or
criminal assault), had made it clear that most people eventually got PTSD if
they were in combat long enough. During World War II, it was found that, on
average, 200 days of combat would bring on a case of PTSD. After World War II,
methods were found to delay the onset of PTSD (more breaks from combat, better
living conditions in the combat zone, prompt treatment when PTSD was detected).
That's why combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan often sleep in air conditioned
quarters, have Internet access, lots of amenities, and a two week vacation
(anywhere) in the middle of their combat tour. This has extended their useful
time in combat, before PTSD sets in. No one is yet sure what the new combat
says average is, and the new screening methods are an attempt to find out.
army does know is that a large percentage of its combat troops have over 200
days of combat. Some have three or four times that. So far, treatments
(counseling and medications, for the most part) have worked. But these are not
cures. A major reason for army generals talking about the army "needing a
break" (from combat) is the looming loss of many combat experienced troops and
leaders (especially NCOs) to PTSD. The army won't give out exact figures,
partly because they don't have much in the way of exact figures. But over the
next decade, the army will get a clearer picture of how well they have coped
with PTSD, among troops who have, individually, seen far more combat than their
predecessors in Vietnam, Korea or World War II.