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Reducing The Stigma Of PTSD In Army Culture

Ron Capps retired from the Foreign Service and the Army Reserve in 2008, after a 25-year career serving in Kosovo, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan. He now works for a small nongovernmental organization in Washington, D.C. His full essay appeared in the July issue of the journal Health Affairs.

When the phone rang I jumped a little, startled, and nearly shot myself. This would have been ironic because I was holding the pistol in my hand planning to kill myself -- but I would have pulled the trigger while it was pointed at my foot rather than my head.

This was in 2005. I was a soldier on active duty. I spent more than 20 years working in places like Kosovo, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq and Darfur. I've seen some bad stuff, and somewhere along the way, my brain stopped working right. I have post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.


I remember lying on my cot in my tent in Afghanistan bundled into my sleeping bag, terrified because the dead had come to talk with me. They came every night, wresting me away from a warm, comforting sleep into a series of wretched, tormenting, wide-awake dreams.

On one night, it would be a farmer and his wife burned Bible-black and twisted into hideous shapes who asked, "Do you remember us?" Oh, most certainly. On another, 42 men all shot in the back or in the head and left to die in a rocky ditch on a frozen January morning. "Why didn't you do more to save us?" they asked. Why, indeed.

The images terrified me mostly because I couldn't stop them from taking control of my mind. I knew I needed help but I didn't ask for it because I thought I would be ridiculed, considered weak and cowardly.

In Army culture, especially in the elite unit filled with rangers and paratroopers in which I served, asking for help was showing weakness. My two Bronze Stars, my tours in Airborne and Special Operations units, none of these would matter. To ask for help would be seen as breaking.

But, finally, when in the middle of the day I was forced to hide, shaking and crying in a concrete bunker, railing against the noise and the images in my head, and when I understood that to continue was to endanger the soldiers I was sent to Afghanistan to lead, I asked for help.


Today, right now, we need to get more soldiers to ask for help. Reducing the stigma attached to mental health issues is the first step. When soldiers see their peers ridiculed, accused of malingering or cowardice, they don't seek the help they need.

Maybe that's why, in the first half of 2009, more American soldiers committed suicide than died in combat.

These aren't our first wars. We know what happens to people's minds when they are confronted with these horrors. Personally, I'm lucky. I'm alive today because I didn't pull the trigger that day in Darfur. But thousands of other soldiers and veterans have made different choices.

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