November 11th, 2008
10:14 AM ET

PTSD: The invisible wounds of war

By Jennifer Pifer
CNN Medical Senior Producer

On Veterans Day, I often think of two men I never knew. Richard Hartman was a pilot during World War II. His plane was shot down over Czechoslovakia in early September, 1944. Around the same time, back in a small southern Illinois town, his wife, Mary, gave birth to their first child, a daughter they named Jane. Mary’s family found out while she was in labor that Dick was MIA. They decided to wait to tell Mary that her husband was missing. A few days later, word arrived that Richard had been killed in action. Mary later said that she knew something was wrong when she stopped receiving daily letters from her husband. This event isn’t written in any book, but its part of my history. Mary is my grandmother. Her little girl Jane is my mother.

One soldier survived the plane crash. My cousin Roberta, who is now on the shady side of 90, recently told me a little bit about what happened to him. He ended up in a VA hospital. Richard’s father and brother visited him once when he returned stateside. The soldier told the family that Richard was a hero and that he did everything he could to save the crew. Imagining the horror of such an event, I asked Roberta if knew if the soldier suffered “shell shock” as it was called back then. Roberta was silent for a moment. “The war changed a lot of people,” was all she said.

When I see battle pictures from Iraq and Afghanistan, I often think about the psychological effects of war. A report by the RAND Corporation this spring found that nearly 20 percent of men and women who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan report symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder or major depression. Yet – and this is a big deal – only slightly more than half have sought treatment. The reasons vary: Some soldiers are afraid that seeking treatment will ruin their careers. Others don’t have access to care. Some use alcohol and drugs to dull their pain.

There is a bit of good news. Some civilians are helping to fill in the gaps. Give an Hour is non-profit organization that is creating a national network of mental health experts to help soldiers and their families deal with PTSD and other psychological issues related to war. So far, according to the organization, nearly 3,000 experts have agreed to volunteer their services. “It’s a great way to commemorate the service of our military members,” says Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen Romberg, founder and president of Give an Hour.

Now it’s your turn. Have you had personal experience with PTSD either as a soldier or a family member? What happened? Do you think we do enough to help the men and women who defend our country deal with the ‘invisible wounds of war”?

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