Throughout history the Army has always regarded PTSD as a secret; something you never talked about, not to your superiors, not to your subordinates, and especially not to an Army doctor.
During WWII, the Army even censored academy award winning director John Huston’s 1945 documentary, Let There Be Light, about soldiers with battle fatigue, as PTSD was called at the time.
Many Vietnam Veterans came home with a chest full of medals and a head full of nightmares. But the Pentagon ignored the problem, and the VA didn’t establish effective treatment programs until decades later.
But that is changing, especially at Fort Carson, Colorado, home of the 4th Combat Brigade.
Two things were instrumental in bringing about the change and breaking the Army’s age old code of silence about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
In 2007, 14 soldiers from Fort Carson went berserk shortly after returning from a combat tour in Iraq, and killed 14 people in Colorado Springs.
Then, two years ago, there was a sudden and dramatic rise in the number of military suicides, and the Army Chief of Staff, General George W. Casey, Jr., had to admit publicly that, “We were caught flat-footed as an institution.”
For the past two years, there have been more military suicides than combat deaths. There was an 80 percent increase in the number of suicides among active duty personnel, which meant there was almost one military suicide every day.
That was the final wake up call.
Prior to last year, troops returning to Fort Carson were treated in just about the same way American troops have always been treated when they returned from deployment.
Army families would greet them as they arrived, waving flags and holding welcome home banners. Then the soldiers would turn in their weapons and equipment, draw their pay, and then depart immediately on a 30-day leave
The only baggage they took with them was a duffle bag and their PTSD.
The results were predictable: spousal abuse, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and suicide.
That isn’t the way it is anymore at Fort Carson, Colorado. In fact, the Army doesn’t even wait for the soldiers to return to Fort Carson before dealing with PTSD.
Major Christopher Ivany, a psychiatrist at Fort Carson, implemented a program that sent a combat stress team of psychologist and behavioral health counselors into the combat zone to start diagnosis and treatment of PTSD at the Forward Operating Base (FOB).
For example, after a particularly blood battle three years ago, the troops involved met with Captain Katie Kopp, Brigade Psychologist, Co. C, 704 BSB, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.
Kopp’s job was to debrief soldiers whose combat experience put them at risk for PTSD. Kopp also ran small group therapy sessions right there at the FOB.
That’s a far cry from waiting twenty years for any help at all.
And it doesn’t stop there, at least at Fort Carson, where each returning soldier is debriefed by a psychological professional, who does a complete PTSD evaluation.
Each soldier’s evaluation is then coded: green, amber, or red.
If they are doing okay, they are coded green and can depart immediately on leave.
If they have any PTSD symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, or anxiety attacks, they are coded amber and scheduled for further counseling.
If the soldier’s evaluation shows they are unstable, or if they have PTSD symptoms, but have no support system at home, then they are coded red and referred to a counselor immediately.
Combat can cause severe psychological trauma. It always has and it always will.
Homer wrote about it in The Illiad, Stephen Crane wrote about it in The Red Badge of Courage, and Erich Maria Remarque wrote about it in All Quiet on the Western Front.
For years, Uncle Sam ignored reality; and the troops suffered alone.
But the new approach to dealing with PTSD has paid off at Fort Carson.
There have been only three suicides at Fort Carson this year, a tiny fraction of the Army’s suicide rate for the past three years.
No suicides would have been better, and the behavioral health staff at Fort Carson is doing everything humanly possible to reach that goal.