PTSD – The hidden killing fields

PTSD – The hidden killing fields

By William Smith

I read an article in The New York Times, Sunday Review at the weekend and it makes for disturbing reading but the information within it rings alarm bells so loud that we all must listen.

The figures and information that are quoted apply to American servicemen and women but with so many of our servicemen serving in armed conflict currently they can also be applied to Britain.   The article suggests that the true killing fields are not on the battleground but back home in towns around the country.  

Nicholas D. Kirstof who wrote the article says that for every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans are dying by their own hands.  On average, one American soldier dies every day and a half in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Veterans kill themselves at a rate of one every 80 minutes.  Every year in America more than 6,500 veterans commit suicide.  This figure represents more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since those wars began.

The article centres on two brothers called Michael and Ryan Yurchison.  Their mother Cheryl DeBow watched as her sons left for duty in Iraq.  Michael enrolled first at the age of 22, soon after the 9/11 attacks.

He is reported as telling his mother ‘I can’t just sit back and do nothing.  Just two years later, Ryan his much loved older brother followed him into the Army.

Michael’s mother picked him up from the airport when he was discharged and was staggered at what she saw.  ‘When he got off the plane and I picked him up, it was like he was an empty shell.  His body was shaking.’  Cheryl DeBow says that Michael started drinking and abusing drugs and she was terrified when he bought a gun identical to the one he had carried in Iraq.  ‘He said he slept with his gun over there, and he needed it here,’ she said.

In 2007, Ryan also returned home and he too started to display signs of severe strain.  He could not sleep, he abused drugs and alcohol and he suffered from what is described as ‘extreme jitters’.

Cheryl recalls ‘He was so anxious, he couldn’t stand to sit next to you and hear you breathe’.  Ryan was a talented filmmaker and he documented in film his own heart breaking video account of his sleeplessness, his irrational behaviour and even his own mock suicide.

Kirstof says that one reason for veteran suicides (and crimes, which get far more attention) may be post-traumatic stress disorder, along with a related condition, traumatic brain injury.  Ryan suffered a concussion in an explosion in Iraq, and Michael finally had traumatic brain injury diagnosed just two months ago.

The number of people who have PTSD and traumatic brain injury varies widely from source to source, but an estimated figure is that the problems afflict at least one in five veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq.  One study suggests that by their third or fourth tours in Iraq or Afghanistan, more than one-quarter of soldiers had such mental health conditions.

According to a study which was conducted by The American Journal of Public Health, preliminary figures suggest that being a veteran now roughly doubles the risk of suicide.  For young men aged between 17 and 24, being a veteran almost quadruples the risk of suicide.

Kirstof says that both Michael and Ryan sought help from the Department of Veterans Affairs.  No one from this organisation would speak to Kirstof but he says that those he did interview feel that the V.A. has improved but still doesn’t do nearly enough about the suicide problem.

I have spent some time trying to find out what help is available for our British veterans.  A Google search turned up the names of several UK organisations with information on PTSD but when trying two of the different helpline numbers I got a similar recorded message which states that due to funding cutbacks they can no longer supply live support.  Whilst having every sympathy with their funding difficulties, this is of little use to anyone who has reached the end of their tether.

Kirstof writes that to the credit of the V.A. it has established a suicide hotline and appointed suicide-prevention co-ordinators.  It is also trying to chip away at the warrior culture in which mental health concerns are considered ‘sissy’.

A documentary television programme which was screened last week to mark the 30 year anniversary of the Falkland conflict saw three veterans go back to the island.  All three were still raw from their experiences all these years later.  One of them talked about the day he stood on a bridge over the M4 motorway contemplating taking his own life.

For Michael and Ryan Yurchison, the V.A. hospitals offered little help.  In early 2010 Ryan began to talk about suicide and his mother rushed him to emergency rooms and pleaded with the V.A. for help.  She was told that an inpatient treatment programme had a six-month waiting list.  He died shortly after seeking help.

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