Matt LaBranche, a 40-year old former Army sergeant who served in Iraq, suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome. "Before the war, LaBranche was living in Saco, Maine, with his wife and children and had no history of mental illness," reports the LA Times. According to the Times, "He deployed to Iraq with a National Guard transportation company . . . He came home a different person. Just three days after he was discharged from Walter Reed, he was arrested for threatening his former wife . . . (and) he could be looking at jail time. He lies on a couch at his brother's house most days now, struggling with the image of the Iraqi woman who died in his arms after he shot her and the children he says caught some of his bullets."
For LaBranche and others like him, the Iraq war will continue long after they leave the battlefield. According to a study conducted by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, "Fifteen to sixteen percent of Marines and 17.1% of soldiers surveyed after they returned from Iraq suffered major depression, generalized anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)--a debilitating, sometimes lifelong change in the brain's chemistry that can include flashbacks, sleep disorders, panic attacks, violent outbursts, acute anxiety and emotional numbness."
A recent New England Journal of Medicine study confirms these results, indicating that 15 to 17 percent of U.S. Iraq veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as high rates of depression, suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse.
How does someone develop PTSD?
Experts tell us that a PTSD diagnosis requires exposure to an extreme stressor or traumatic event and a set of symptoms lasting for at least one month. Certainly, combat exposure constitutes an extreme stressor.
A person with PTSD experiences three main types of symptoms:
- Reexperiencing the traumatic event through flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts
- Avoidance and emotional numbing; feeling detached from others and emotionally dead inside
- Increased arousal, including an exaggerated startle response, difficulty sleeping, or hyper vigilance
Other symptoms include severe impairment in daily functioning, depression, outbursts of anger and irritability, substance and alcohol abuse, and strange beliefs and perceptions (enemy troops hiding behind the bushes in the backyard, etc.).
Recovery from PTSD
Recovery from PTSD is an ongoing, daily journey that requires patience, persistence, and prayer. It takes time and can require professional help and medication to overcome. Once an individual is removed from the stressor, treatment typically begins with a detailed evaluation by a professional and the development of a treatment plan, which includes education, working through negative emotions and memories, and learning how to deal with stress and painful memories in healthy ways.
How You Can Help
Spouses and family members play an important role in the healing process. Bridget C. Cantrell, Ph.D., a leading clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of combat-related PTSD, offers a course for returning troops, Turning Your Heart toward Home.
In it, she says, "The very first thing you need to do is prepare yourself mentally for the changes and differences that will prevail for a while in your relationship. As much as we all want things to go back to the way they were before deployment, realize this is an unreal expectation. To think that you and your loved [one] can go back to square one and pick up where you left off is setting yourself up for a loss. Time has passed; lives have changed. Be progressive and stay focused in the here and now."
She offers some tips to help family members prepare for their loved ones' homecoming:
- For marriage partners: Plan to start the dating process all over again. Rekindle the friendship and romantic aspects of your relationship, and sort out the responsibilities afterward.
- For family members: Plan to view the relationship in the present and avoid trying to re-live childhood activities, remembrances, and/or dreams. (After engaging in wartime activities, dreams and innocent notions of life may have been shattered and most likely the furthest thing from their mind. Bringing [up] the memories of their past life can remind them too much of what they have lost.)
Post-traumatic stress disorder causes tremendous pain for those living with it and those who love them. However, in the midst of pain, God's promises and presence will sustain us. He promises us His Son, His Word, His Spirit, and so much more. He gives us trained Christian counselors and others who have gone before us to lead the way and to share their wisdom.
Let me leave you with the words of one such woman--Corrie TenBoom, a prisoner of war in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. This woman understood the atrocities of war and experienced firsthand the pain and trauma it can bring. As she drew near to God in the midst of her pain, Corrie spoke these words: "There is no pit so deep, that God is deeper still."
Returning from the War Zone: A Guide for Families
Turning Your Heart Toward Home
Turning Your Heart Toward Home Workbook
Guidelines for Listening to War Veterans
 LA Times, 11/14/2004, "These Unseen Wounds Cut Deep," http://www.truthout.org/docs_04/printer_111504Y.shtml
 Bridget C. Cantrell, Turning Your Heart toward Home, http://www.heartstowardhome.com/workbook.htm.