My father-in-law was a Marine Lieutenant who engaged in some of the heaviest fighting of The Second World War on the Pacific island of Okinawa. After the war he returned to the civilian world where he raised a wonderful family and enjoyed a successful career as a top executive with a major corporation. He also experienced recurrent nightmares for the rest of his life related to his platoon’s defense of its position against a Japanese banzai charge. Like so many brave combat veterans, the war for him never completely ended.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, has been described as a delayed-stress syndrome which is caused by exposure to combat or other high stress factors.
Characterized by symptoms of rage, guilt, flashbacks, nightmares, depression, and emotional numbing, it can culminate in a wide variety of escalating social and psychiatric problems. The syndrome has its roots in antiquity and has been referred to by many different names over the course of recorded history. In the Civil War, it was referred to as “Soldier’s Heart, Nervous Shock, Melancholy, Dementia, Hysteria and Cowardice.”
In 1981, PTSD, officially found a medical home when it was added as a medical diagnosis to “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” The Manual describes a lengthy constellation of symptoms and sets forth the requirements for diagnosis.
The murderous excesses of the Civil War created a perfect storm of conditions for the development of PTSD. The description of handtohand fighting in the trenches of Spotsylvania horrified its participants and set a new benchmark for savagery. Compounding matters, medical officers had little understanding of the manifestations of battle-induced psychic trauma and could offer little in the way of treatment.
Broken in mind and spirit, many returning soldiers retreated into opioids and alcohol in order to blunt the physical and psychic pain brought on by the war.
Alarmingly, some returning veterans deteriorated mentally, often overwhelming family resources. In 1860, approximately forty state and federal mental asylums existed in this country. By 1880, the number of such
institutions had soared to 140. Tragically, over two-thirds of these patients were Civil War veterans. Many surviving post-war amputees also fell prey to substance abuse and mental infirmities. The majority of men who fought in the Civil War were from the lower economic classes, and educational poverty represented a huge obstacle to overcome.
Returning home, they discovered that
farming and most positions in the blue- collar labor field could not accommodate their special needs. Essentially, they had been condemned to a life-time of unemployment. Union veteran records reveal some interesting findings regarding the coexistence of post-war physical and mental problems. Comorbidity issues were found to be statistically higher in veterans sustaining battlefield injuries. Witnessing the intense trauma of death on a daily basis impacted surviving POWS in a terrible way too.
Surprisingly, research revealed that the younger the soldier, the greater was the potential for comorbidity and substance abuse issues surfacing in later life. Other PTSD stressors reported were witnessing the death of comrades, dismemberment, killing others, hand-to hand combat, percentage of company members killed, and the feeling of being absolutely helpless to prevent the deaths of fellow soldiers. Tortured souls all, these poor men were condemned to endure the unendurable for the rest of their lives.
-Jack Spiceland, President