General Defies Military Culture Of Silence About Mental Health Issues

November 18, 2008

As those who’ve been to war before them, our Troops who are fighting in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, sometimes come home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The military culture has long been that to admit that they were having trouble dealing with the traumatic things they had to do or that they saw on the battle field, was a sign of weakness. In the past, those who spoke up about problems they were having were told to “Suck it up and Soldier on.” The military is working hard to erase that stigma and one General is defying that culture of silence and sought help to deal with his PTSD.

(AP Photo/Blackledge Family Photo)

(AP Photo/Blackledge Family Photo)

Army Major General David Blackledge was a commander of a civil affairs unit on two different tours in Iraq and now works in the Pentagon as Army assistant deputy chief of staff for mobilization and reserve issues. In February 2004, while on a mission during his first deployment, his convoy was ambushed. Since that time, he has suffered from flashbacks and nightmares. His interpreter was shot through the head, the vehicle he was in rolled over numerous times and when he crawled out of the wreckage, he was suffering from a crushed vertebrae and broken ribs. As he crawled from the vehicle, he found himself in the middle of a firefight. Blackledge and the other survivors took cover in a nearby ditch.1

“It’s part of our profession … nobody wants to admit that they’ve got a weakness in this area,” Blackledge said of mental health problems among troops returning from America’s two wars.

“I have dealt with it. I’m dealing with it now,” said Blackledge, who came home with post-traumatic stress. “We need to be able to talk about it.”2

The stigma of silence about mental health problems is something that has military officials worried. Today’s leaders don’t wish to see mistakes of the past repeated with today’s warriors and are encouraging leaders to act as examples for the Troops they lead. It is estimated that as many as 1/5 of the more than 1.7 million Troops who have served in wars, have symptoms of PTSD. Leaders know they have a tough road ahead in changing the stigma, as about half of those with symptoms have not or are not seeking help. Many feel that it will harm their chance for promotion, if they seek help. Others feel that they’ll be thought of as weak and ostracized by their peers, if they admit they need help.

“Stigma is a challenge,” Army Secretary Pete Geren said Friday at a Pentagon news conference on troop health care. “It’s a challenge in society in general. It’s certainly a challenge in the culture of the Army, where we have a premium on strength, physically, mentally, emotionally.”3

Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has asked senior leaders to help by setting an example for their Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines. According to Mullen, the culture can’t be challenged and changed, if senior leaders won’t seek help when they need it. While much work is still needed to eradicate that stigma, slowly, it is changing. But there’s much more work to be done.

Brig. General Loree Sutton, the Army psychologist who heads the defense center for psychological health and traumatic brain injury, is currently at work to develop a campaign where those suffering from PTSD, the families and others, are able to tell their personal stories. They will be able to also share their concerns and ideas through web links and other programs. General Blackledge volunteered to help. Last week, he and his wife Iwona, an Air Force nurse, spoke on the subject at a medical conference.4

After he was injured in Iraq, Blackledge was flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for treatment. He was visited by a psychiatrist shortly after his arrival. Throughout his 11 month recovery, Blackledge had several sessions with the doctor.

“He really helped me,” Blackledge said. That is the message that he conveys to the Troops. “I tell them that I’ve learned to deal with it,” he said. “It’s become part of who I am.”5

Occasionally, Blackledge admits, he still has dreams about what happened about once a week or so. But he no longer awakes in a cold sweat and they no longer unsettle him as much. On his second tour in Iraq, Blackledge traveled to Jordan to work with local officials on issues concerning the Iraq border. He was in a hotel in Amman in November 2005, when suicide bombers attacked. That attack killed around 60 people and injured hundreds more. He received a whiplash injury that took several months to heal. That trauma, rekindled his PTSD symptoms. This time however, they weren’t as strong as they were after the 2004 event.6

General Blackledge is a prime example of Military leaders taking steps to erase the stigma against seeking mental health care and he’s leading by example, seeking help for his own problems. Over the past year the military has made it much easier for Troops suffering from PTSD to get the help they need. One way they’ve done that is by embedding mental health teams into military units. What better way to show your Troops that it’s alright to get help, then to do so yourself. Hopefully we’ll continue to see leaders such as General Blackledge taking the necessary steps to erase this stigma. General Blackledge should be commended for his bravery in dealing with his PTSD, but most importantly for his willingness to stand up against the stigma attached to doing so, and sending a clear message to all Troops, that seeking help is the right thing to do.

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4 Responses to “General Defies Military Culture Of Silence About Mental Health Issues”

  1. General Defies Military Culture Of Silence About Mental Health Issues | The Exercise Site on November 18th, 2008 3:56 am

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  2. general blackledge on December 22nd, 2008 10:24 am

    [...] [1] General bucks culture of silence on mental health - [2] Washington File [3] General Defies Military Culture Of Silence About Mental Health Issues … [4] DefenseLink News Transcript: Coalition Provisional Authority Briefing [...]

  3. John Hassel on December 22nd, 2008 11:05 am

    I’m not surprised he did that. I knew him when he was my commander in the 426th Civil Affairs Bn. He left within a year or two after I joined, but he was a really good guy.

  4. News » about : general blackledge on December 22nd, 2008 1:37 pm

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