Return of Afghanistan and Iraq Veterans Reveals the Psychological Toll of War

The culture of the military advocates resilience, courage, sacrifice by the individual and strength; think about just a couple of slogans from our military groups—“Army Strong,” or “The Few, The Proud, The Marines.”  Perceived weaknesses are simply not welcomed as we perhaps believe those weaknesses to be contrary to our perception of an effective military. It is clear that our society expects the men and women of our military to keep a stiff upper lip, even in the face of psychological trauma.

Consider, however, the fact that from 2007 to 2009 our military troops saw a 40% increase in suicide among soldiers. It appears that our society can readily accept the physical wounds of war, yet we shy away from open discussions of psychological wounds. The stigma we have attached to the mental health of our soldiers can have tragic consequences in their feelings of self-worth. While our expectations that our soldiers must have a warrior mentality may not change any time soon, maybe our culture can begin to acknowledge the emotional consequences of war.

One Soldier’s Story

Sergeant Louis Loftus, 24, was home on a mid-tour leave when he began to realize something was very wrong. Loftus was showing photographs to family members of his time in Afghanistan. Out of the blue a photo which showed a place where a fellow soldier had been killed brought him to tears. The problems grew worse. By the time Lofus came from his second deployment he was suffering nightmares, anxiety, sleep disorders and began distancing himself from those he cared about – and who cared about him. Loftus still has a hard time discussing his eventual diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, particularly because he admits to being “one of those guys that made fun of people with post-traumatic stress –in my mind.” Loftus spoke to Brian Williams in an interview which was seen on NBC’s Rock Center and sadly admitted that he now knows PTSD is a very real issue.

In fact, two and a half million American soldiers have been through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the psychological toll continues to mount. The Veterans Administration treated over a hundred thousand veterans for the disorder however it is likely these numbers are considerably higher since many veterans do not seek treatment. Loftus was stationed in Southern Afghanistan in a true Taliban stronghold where he and the other members of his unit were under constant attack. IED’s were common and because the roads were extremely narrow patrols had to be undertaken on foot. In less than one year, Loftus’ unit found over 6,000 IED’s and in their searches for the dangerous devices, 200 soldiers were injured and 38 killed.

When asked about fellow soldiers who died in those minefields, Loftus became very emotional, stating he generally tried not to think about it because he felt a responsibility to set a good example for the others in his unit. NBC News followed Loftus for two years – from the danger of the frontlines to his everyday life at home. Five months after NBC met Loftus he was honorably discharged and sent home to Ohio. Those around him noticed almost immediately that the trauma of Afghanistan had followed him home. Depression set in and his drinking escalated.

A 2012 report from the American Journal of Public Health showed that 39% of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan were considered positive for abuse of alcohol. A psychiatrist and director of the DOD Center for Psychological Health, Captain Paul Hammer, believes that many soldiers feel they are doing the most important thing in their life when they are fighting for our country. Once those soldiers have experienced the trauma of war returning home can feel anti-climactic and they may feel as though there is little purpose to their life.

While Loftus eventually sought help from the local Veteran’s hospital, beginning therapy and medication, his underlying rage began surfacing. Loftus’ life began spiraling out of control; his relationships disintegrated and eventually he suffered a serious anxiety attack that landed him in the hospital. Once out, Loftus was charged with a domestic violence felony after he engaged in an altercation with his girlfriend, then several days later he became intoxicated, beat up his father and fought with the police. A month following Loftus’ sentence of three years’ probation and time in a halfway house, Loftus and his girlfriend welcomed a son, Mason Loftus, into their lives. Although Loftus has learned to manage his PTSD – largely for the sake of his new son – he still considers it a daily struggle.

There are scores of veterans who have suffered in the same way Louis Loftus has yet many of them will never seek help due to the stereotypes of the tough soldier who can handle anything. It is clear that things must change and our veterans must get the help they desperately need – and deserve. Military leaders must be encouraged to speak openly about their own combat experiences and all veterans as well as those currently deployed must be able to talk about their experiences in a safe environment.