A New “Classic” Approach To Addressing PTSD

May 6, 2009

The topic of PTSD and how to deal with it, has been forefront in the media over the past few years, as our Troops have served multiple deployments in the combat zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. Not only has repeated deployments taken it’s toll on our Troops, but the events that they’ve experienced while in combat zones has played an even bigger role in the symptoms that are being seen, as our Troops return home. In past conflicts that our military has been involved in, PTSD, while present, had been virtually ignored and our Troops told to “suck it up” and “soldier on.” It’s been known in the military, that to ask for help dealing with their “mental demons” was a career killer and a sign of weakness, so many ignored what was going on with them and refused to seek help.

With the advent of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the military has taken a totally different approach and is attempting to address the mental health concerns of our Troops who return suffering from PTSD. New programs across the military have been implemented and even civilian agencies and non-profit organizations are creating services are working to provide services to our Troops who suffer from PTSD.

First Sgt. Lorenzo Zamora draws parallels from his personal experiences to the characters in ancient plays before an audience that includes the brass at Fort Drum, N.Y.

At Fort Drum, last week, a new program called Theater of War, which was conceived by Bryan Doerries, who is a New York theater director, funded by Respect-Mil, a Walter Reed Army Medical Center program, took a different, classic approach to addressing PTSD. The program was brought first to Fort Drum by the 10th Mountain Division command, intent on getting Soldiers to recognize PTSD and how it affects them, as well as their family members.1

After nine grinding years of war, the once-mighty soldier abruptly comes unglued. Denied an honor he thinks he’s due, he goes to kill the officers he holds responsible, but after his night of rage finds he has slaughtered barnyard animals, not generals. Shamed beyond endurance, he plans suicide. ‘A great man must live in honor or die an honorable death,’ he tells his wife. ‘That is all I have to say.’ The soldier is Ajax, fighter of the Trojan War, his downfall portrayed in a Greek tragedy written more than two millennia ago.2

For many who watched the play last week in a bar located on Fort Drum, it was like watching a scene from their own life. It definitely struck home with them and even brought back memories of the struggles they themselves have had with PTSD. Even then, during the Trojan War, Soldiers faced the same problem, the psychic trauma of war. The performance is designed to provoke soldiers into more awareness of the emotional toll that deployed place on themselves as well as their family members.

“We’re calling it PTSD now … but it’s timeless,” General Kevin Mangum tells the audience of brigade commanders and their spouses. “Ajax’s ego drove him to his ‘divine madness’ … I know a hell of a lot of Ajaxes out there.”3

There are several plays in the series, each addressing the important issues regarding PTSD. In one play, a wounded soldier is abandoned by his fellow troops. Another portrays a warrior chief who goes mad and kills himself, despite the pleadings of his wife. That warrior chief is Ajax. In the play, Ajax’s wife says, “He sits shellshocked in his tent, glazed over, gazing into oblivion. He has the thousand-yard stare.”4 1SG Jeffrey Birgenheier was one of the senior leaders present at the pilot performance. The performances will be eventually presented for enlisted Troops as well.

“Although the technology of war has changed over the years, the basic concept behind that has remained the same: a lot of gruesome stuff going on and people having to deal not only with what they’ve done and what they’ve seen but also being apart from their families,” he said.5

The military is attempting this new and novel approach to PTSD, in the hopes that Soldiers suffering from PTSD and who haven’t yet sought help due to the stigma, will do so. The hopes are that if Soldiers who are suffering will recognize the symptoms and seek help, that they can stem the record high numbers of suicide that have been plaguing the military. Perhaps, by viewing this play, Troops will be encouraged to seek help, instead of taking the ‘final way out of suicide.’ This new approach, similar to the Army’s approach to sexual assault with the Sex Signals show is encouraging to me. Instead of the typical ‘death by power point’ approach of the past, the military is approaching these problems from a whole new direction, one that’s more likely to grab and keep the attention of the Troops whom the training is geared towards.

“This is not new territory that we’re in,” says Col. Charles Engel, director of the Respect-Mil program. The story’s age makes the message easier to take for Troops worried about admitting weakness,” he said. “It helps us get over the sense that we are flawed.” About three quarters of Soldiers who have PTSD have not sought help for it, fearing it will hurt their military career,” he says. “In some ways, seeking help is counter to Army training. We’re taught self-sacrifice,” Engel says. “It’s a value. Part of self-sacrifice means you learn to ignore your own needs at times.”6

The play served it’s purpose in reaching those who might be suffering from PTSD and reminded several of the times where they felt they were spiraling out of control into their own form of ‘divine madness.’ One, Capt. Christopher Tramontana thought about the day he was in the motorpool at Fort Drum when suddenly a fleet of Humvees fired up their engines. The sound caused him to panic and it brought back memories of his time on deployment.

“They have a very distinct motor sound,” Tramontana says. “That brought back everything.”7

He panicked until a SGT told him that he could ride in a different truck, if he wished. In an effort to help remove the stigma of seeking help for PTSD, Tramontana doesn’t hesitate to tell others in his support maintenance company that he suffers from PTSD.

“The Army’s putting a lot of focus on it now,” said 1SG Stanton Brown, “but why did it take 2,500 years for us to say this is a real problem?”8

I’m looking forward to following the Theater of War program and hopefully being able to see it when it comes to the installation I work on. Hopefully other military audiences will be as receptive as the Fort Drum Soldiers were. I think that programs like this have much more potential than the typical power point trainings. Soldiers are more likely to pay attention and hopefully learn something, than they are with the power point trainings. I applaud the Army for recognizing this and finding different and new approaches to getting this important information out there to our Troops.

  1. http://www.usatoday.com/news/military/2009-05-05-fortdrum_N.htm []
  2. http://www.usatoday.com/news/military/2009-05-05-fortdrum_N.htm []
  3. http://www.usatoday.com/news/military/2009-05-05-fortdrum_N.htm []
  4. http://www.usatoday.com/news/military/2009-05-05-fortdrum_N.htm []
  5. http://www.usatoday.com/news/military/2009-05-05-fortdrum_N.htm []
  6. http://www.usatoday.com/news/military/2009-05-05-fortdrum_N.htm []
  7. http://www.usatoday.com/news/military/2009-05-05-fortdrum_N.htm []
  8. http://www.usatoday.com/news/military/2009-05-05-fortdrum_N.htm []


One Response to “A New “Classic” Approach To Addressing PTSD”

  1. Ralph M. Holman » Blog Archive » Gerald Ford Supreme Court candidates on May 6th, 2009 5:09 pm

    [...] A New “Classic” Approach To Addressing PTSD : A Soldier's Mind [...]

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