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Addressing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Veterans

Addressing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Among America's Veterans

By Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.

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Attorney RJ Connelly III

"The significance of Veteran's Day, coming up this Saturday, extends beyond a mere holiday for tens of thousands of American veterans and their families who grapple with post-traumatic stress disorder," stated professional fiduciary and certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III, a veteran himself. "This day of remembrance serves as a stark reminder of the daily struggles that many of our veterans and their families endure."


While millions of men and women have served in the US military, many encounter significant challenges upon their return home. For some, the psychological trauma of war is profound and can result in long-term problems. Indeed, studies have shown that exposure to trauma can have a lasting impact on brain function, leading to a range of physical, mental, and emotional difficulties.

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A young RJ Connelly III in uniform

"Given the magnitude of the challenges that many veterans face, it is important that we continue to raise awareness about PTSD and other related conditions," said Attorney Connelly. "By doing so, we can help to ensure that those who have served our country receive the support and care they need to lead healthy and fulfilling lives."


PTSD in History

The condition now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has a long history of being referred to by different names in various contexts. During the Civil War, it was commonly known as "nostalgia" or "soldier's heart." In World War I, the term "shell shock" was used, while "combat neurosis" and "battle fatigue" were the preferred descriptions in World War II and the Korean War.

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"Shell Shock" was the old term for PTSD

By the late 1970s, the condition had evolved into PTSD, the term that is still used today. Despite the different names, these terms describe the same phenomenon: the severe psychological distress experienced by individuals who have been exposed to traumatic events, particularly those associated with combat or warfare. The evolution of the terminology used to describe PTSD reflects a growing understanding of the condition and a recognition of its impact on those who suffer from it.


According to the American Psychiatric Association, over 300,000 soldiers who served in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However, many others may also be suffering from this condition but may not be seeking help due to the stigma attached to it. What's even more alarming is that in 2012, the number of military deaths caused by suicide outnumbered those caused by combat, and this trend has continued despite the availability of assistance for those living with this disorder.


Developing PTSD

The experience of a traumatic event can result in the development of PTSD, a mental health condition that can cause severe distress and interfere with daily life. Common symptoms of PTSD include the recurrence of upsetting memories, a persistent sense of being on edge, and difficulties sleeping. While it is natural to have stress reactions to traumatic events, these typically subside within a few weeks. However, if symptoms persist for more than a month and start to cause problems in daily life, the individual may be suffering from PTSD.

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The trauma of war

PTSD is not limited to certain demographics such as age or gender. Rather, multiple factors can increase the likelihood of developing PTSD, including the intensity or duration of the traumatic event and whether or not the individual was injured during the occurrence. PTSD is also more common after specific types of trauma, such as sexual assault or combat.


Additional personal factors, such as previous exposure to traumatic events, can also affect the development of PTSD. Furthermore, the level of social support received after a traumatic event can influence the likelihood of developing PTSD. Although managing PTSD can be challenging, effective treatment options are available, including therapy and medication.


PTSD Symptoms

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms may manifest soon after experiencing a traumatic event, but they can also remain dormant for several months or even years before surfacing. Moreover, they may fluctuate over an extended period. If an individual has been experiencing symptoms for more than four weeks, and they are significantly in distress or interfering with daily life, they may be afflicted with PTSD.


PTSD diagnosis is based on the presence of four symptom categories, which are standard across all cases, although they may differ in intensity and frequency among individuals. It is essential to note that symptoms of PTSD manifest uniquely for different people. These symptoms include:


Relieving the Trauma - Individuals who have undergone a traumatic experience may exhibit re-experiencing symptoms, wherein they relive the event. Such individuals may encounter vivid and distressing recollections of the traumatic event, which can seem exceedingly authentic and overpowering. Specific stimuli may trigger these memories or may arise spontaneously, leading to significant distress and obstruction in daily functioning.


Avoiding reminders at all costs - After experiencing a traumatic event, individuals often engage in avoidance behaviors, such as staying away from people or situations that serve as reminders of the experience. Additionally, they may attempt to suppress thoughts or memories that are associated with the event. Although avoidance may provide temporary relief, in the long term, it can hinder the processing of the experience and impede the ability to move forward.


Increased negativity - PTSD is characterized by an increased frequency of negative thoughts and emotions following a traumatic event. This negativity extends to one's self-concept and interpersonal relationships, with affected individuals often experiencing a heightened sense of suspicion and mistrust. The impact of trauma on an individual's cognitive and emotional processes can manifest in numerous ways, including persistent feelings of guilt, shame, anger, and fear. It is important to recognize the far-reaching effects of PTSD and to support those affected by the condition in seeking appropriate treatment and care.


A constant feeling of dread - Individuals experiencing a heightened sense of anxiety or arousal may exhibit symptoms such as restlessness, nervousness, or vigilance. The individual may be particularly sensitive to their surroundings and may be easily provoked, leading to displays of irritability or aggression.


Now, we want to present a true account of John, a young man who served in World War II and returned home to a small town in New Jersey where he struggled to cope with the trauma and stress of battle. His experiences in combat had a deep impact on him, and he found it difficult to adjust to civilian life once again. The memories of war continued to haunt him, as he suffered from symptoms of PTSD. John's story is a poignant example of the challenges faced by veterans who return home from war and the lasting effects of combat on their mental health, and how John found a mission in the "red poppy", the symbol of the American veteran.


John's Story

In the early 1940s, amidst the turmoil of World War II, a young man named John was living in a small town in Northern New Jersey. His passion for caring for animals had led him to dream of becoming a veterinarian. Having grown up on a farm, John had already cared for a number of sick animals and had even helped deliver a few calves. However, like many other young Americans of his time, his dreams were put on hold when he was drafted into the military shortly after his high school graduation.

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John enjoyed caring for animals

Assigned to a medical unit, John's knowledge of animal anatomy and experience in providing medical assistance to animals proved to be an asset to his unit. Although he was disappointed that he couldn't pursue his college education, he was excited about the prospect of serving alongside his older brother Phil, who had already joined the service.


John had always looked up to Phil, who had been the first in the family to join the military. John remembered how grown-up Phil had looked in his uniform when he left for war, and he idolized him. Reading the letters that Phil sent home describing the warm trade winds and beautiful palm trees of the Pacific islands had sparked John's imagination, and he often went to the local library to read books about the South Pacific with photos of the islands and atolls that populated the region. He sometimes felt envious of Phil being in that paradise, but he also vowed to join him there someday.


Despite having to put his dreams on hold, John remained passionate about his love for animals and appreciated the value of life, whether it was human or animal. His special gift for bringing life into the world was evident in his joy when helping to birth calves, puppies, or even hatching chicks. His family and friends believed he would have made a great doctor, but for now, he was content to serve his country and be by his brother's side.


John received letters from his brother before leaving for basic training. However, the tone of the letters changed as the atoll sands turned red and the clear waters of the Pacific became polluted with the fuel of sunken ships and decomposing bodies. The warm trade winds now smelled of burning oil and rotting corpses. The black and gray smoke of an artificial fog now filtered the beautiful sunsets. Paradise had become hell.


Despite the change, John still had one dream - to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his brother. But fate had other plans as John was sent to Europe while his brother went to Iwo Jima. John formed new friendships and continued to write letters to Phil but received no answer.

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John saved many lives on the battlefield

Back home, John's family received the news that Phil was missing in action but decided not to share it with John, fearing his reaction. Eventually, John found out but hoped Phil would be found. Unfortunately, it never happened. This was the harsh reality of war.


John, who served as a medic, had a daunting responsibility that resembled that of an undertaker rather than a lifesaver. His duty was not just to heal the wounded but also to gather scattered body parts and identify the soldiers who had lost their faces in the line of fire. While his peers back home were enjoying sports, movies, and dances, John sat in a cold, muddy uniform, bracing himself for the next salvo from the enemy and the inevitable gathering of limbs that would follow.


The war eventually ended, and American citizens rejoiced over the signed treaties. However, for those who had fought the battles, the celebrations were bittersweet. They knew that a whole new battle was already on the horizon - the battle to adapt to civilian life once again.


Returning Home a Stranger

When John came back home, his family noticed that he had changed. They whispered about it, but no one had the courage to speak out loud. During that time, only a few returning veterans talked about the horrors they had seen, and even fewer would admit that they were affected by the experience because it was considered a weakness. Many suffered alone as the memories of each battle they witnessed played repeatedly in their minds. John was no exception.

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Life had taken a downward turn for John

Coming back to his small Northern New Jersey town, just barely 23 years old yet feeling like he was seventy-five, John avoided people. Gone was his dream of being a veterinarian. He had no interest in the family farm anymore and was repulsed by the image of a cow giving birth. The sight of oil stains on the road elicited memories of blood-spattered truck beds where bodies and pieces of bodies were tossed for evacuation back to the camp where men, still too young to have a beer in the States, were tasked with trying to match limbs with torsos using dog tags for identification. These memories were not left behind.


During the day, he was too tired to find a job, and at night, he was too awake to sleep. Every time he closed his eyes, he relived the horrors of the war, the loss of friends, his bare hands holding together gaping, bloody wounds, hoping for the best while just delaying the inevitable. The backfire of a car, the smell of burning leaves, and even a summer thunderstorm caused John’s heart to race and his stomach to convulse. He was back home, but it seemed like he never left the battlefield. Returning veterans did not talk about this for fear of being ridiculed. “Be a man,” they were told. For John, being a man meant pulling up a stool at the American Legion Post, where he drowned those thoughts with whatever liquor he could afford.


As John aged, he was unable to hold down any meaningful employment but did work from time to time at a local gas station owned by his cousin, doing menial tasks that made him just enough money to keep him in alcohol. His "relief" check helped pay the rent for a room in a local flophouse.


From Hero to Exploited

John’s cousin suggested that he move into a room above his garage, which would be made over into a small living area. All John had to do was give him a portion of his check, and he would be provided with three meals a day, and a place to live with all utilities included. John jumped at the chance.

After his parents died, the siblings sold the family farm for a substantial amount of money, and John's portion of the estate was placed in an account opened by his cousin, who volunteered to "manage his money" and keep him safe and healthy.

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As time passed, John realized his cousin's promises were lies, but no one believed him when he told stories. Soon, he became known as "the drunk in the trunk," as he was often seen in the trunks of cars pulling out spares to change flat tires at the garage. On a good day, John was lucky to receive a stale sandwich for lunch and a bowl of canned beef stew for dinner from his "caring" cousin. He had very few clothes and, most of the time, lacked the most basic of hygiene supplies.

Neighbors who saw John wearing flannel shirts in the heat of summer or shorts in sub-zero weather chalked it up to his alcoholism. He became the butt of jokes from the adults in the community to the children who enjoyed teasing him whenever he went out for a walk. So, John stayed home most of the time except, of course, when he visited the American Legion, the Army and Navy store, or the local package store.

John's younger brother said he had tried to talk John into leaving the room he was renting, but he refused to do so. Confrontations with his cousin usually ended with John being treated even worse, so the family looked the other way.


Finding a Mission

Then, on one of John's drinking sprees, the American Legion Post commander, in an attempt to help him, asked if he would help collect donations on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day at the local market, and he agreed to try it. The first few times, John was uncomfortable, but it seemed those who donated gave him the respect he deserved. He would lecture those on the significance of the red poppy, usually garnering weird looks from those who didn't quite understand, but most held him in high esteem.

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John's mission

For John, he wished that every day was Veteran's Day, and he wanted all Americans to know that. The red poppy represented the friends he lost, his brother who never returned, those crippled both physically and mentally, and the honorable deeds that organizations like the American Legion and others were doing for veterans.


As he aged, he could still be seen sitting outside the local Food Lane supermarket every Veteran's Day and Memorial Day, collecting donations, and handing out poppies. His lawn chair eventually became a wheelchair as he slouched at the table, still doing what he loved, but it was obvious the effort was draining him. The liquor and unhealthy living had taken its toll. John's time was running out.


A Lonely End

Life ended for John one chilly March night when he was found dead in his bed, succumbing to a cirrhotic liver. A proud American veteran who gave all he had for the country died in squalor and loneliness. To make matters worse, it became apparent that the "caring cousin" had exploited John for his money. A brave soldier who had battled the enemy and saved countless lives on the battlefield in a foreign land to keep America free returned home only to become a victim of financial abuse by a family member. There was not even enough money to bury him. Thankfully, a local veteran's group stepped in and interred him with the honors he deserved.

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A Final Word

"John's story, although decades old, could have occurred today. John is like many of America's veterans who returned home with PTSD and left to deal with it alone," said Attorney Connelly. "The question then becomes, what have we, as a society, done to support and assist our veterans in this silent battle? While we often see slogans like 'We Support Our Troops' on bumper stickers and yard signs, it is vital that we go beyond mere words and take concrete actions to support our veterans. They have selflessly served our nation, and it is our duty to ensure that they are well taken care of upon their return home. Please remember them on this Veteran's Day."

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Please note that the information provided in this blog is not intended and should not be construed as legal, financial, or medical advice. The content, materials, and information presented in this blog are solely for general informational purposes and may not be the most up-to-date information available regarding legal, financial, or medical matters. This blog may also contain links to other third-party websites that are included for the convenience of the reader or user. Please note that Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. does not necessarily recommend or endorse the contents of such third-party sites. If you have any particular legal matters, financial concerns, or medical issues, we strongly advise that you consult your attorney, professional fiduciary advisor, or medical provider for advice.

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