“Soldier’s Heart” was coined after the Civil War to describe what is now diagnosed as post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. The authors of Soldier’s Heart are Vietnam veterans who suffer from PTSD. William Schroder is a writer, and Dr. Ronald Dawe is a psychologist who specializes in the connection between PTSD and substance abuse. They decided to talk to other veterans with PTSD in order to try to better understand their own symptoms and experiences.
Soldier’s Heart: Close-up Today with PTSD in Vietnam Veterans was recommended to me at the Field’s End Writers’ Conference. I decided to read it because viable treatment protocols for PTSD will most likely arise from the military. The book is expensive: $49.95. I was lucky our library system had a copy.
If you are a veteran or are concerned about a veteran with PTSD, the soldiers’ stories will give you a candid glimpse into life in a combat zone. Dr. Dawe inserted diagnostic explanations into each soldier’s story. I will be focusing this review on what I learned about PTSD.
Carol Jean Sundling was an Air Force Flight Nurse from rural Pennsylvania:
- Her very first exposure to combat induced traumatic stressors. Her brain released amino acids and neurotransmitters which gave her the ability to deal with the immediate threats to her physical integrity ~ chemicals that transformed and damaged her brain. Repeated stressors would make the damage to her brain permanent.
- She began to psychologically and emotionally isolate herself. She succumbed to fatigue and the gruesome nature of her daily existence:
I put on an iron mask and kept it on every single day for 365 days. I kept everything I felt behind my mask, and I’d not realize until many years later I’d never learned how to take it off and let my emotions out.
- The psychological insults were exacerbated by the physiological strain on her body and the resulting fatigue.
- She couldn’t fight or flee. The only survival strategy left was to freeze. During moments of extreme danger and stress, the brain may develop a survival strategy of dissociating or freezing out the threat.
- Her faith helped her to feel she hadn’t been abandoned to evil. However, she admits she was “pissed off at God.”
- Avoidance of people, places, or activities that arouse recollections of traumatic events is a symptom of PTSD and quite common.
- The olfactory (sense of smell) is considered the most powerful of the senses related to triggering traumatic recall. Auditory is another.
- The rage and frustration she felt toward the government over useless threats to her life eventually were turned inward into self-destructive behavior. She turned to alcohol to avoid the night terrors to numb the pain and still her fear. Nightmares ~ significant sleep disturbance ~ are a red-flag symptom of PTSD.
- Avoidance ~ a form of running/escape ~ is a manifestation of PTSD. Another symptom is feeling alone and uncomfortable in a room full of people.
Marlin Jackson, Marine Corps from Oregon:
- The human brain does not fully develop until approximately age 25.
- To react to threats, our brains pump large doses of neurochemicals throughout the neocortex. The chemicals that motivate us to self-protective action have an immediate and deleterious (obscure or unexpected harmful) effect on still-developing brains.
- He numbed his pain before he felt it ~ a classic PTSD symptom.
- We develop distorted interpersonal relationship skills via our coping skills such as misdirected anger and self-medication with drugs or alcohol.
- The inability to feel safe ~ even for one day ~ has a devastating effect on our ability to remain resilient in the face of unremitting traumatic stressors. Our brains are constantly on guard, hypervigilant.
- Estrangement, inability to bond with others, and isolation are common. Bereft of human closeness and support, our isolation will make our PTSD symptoms more pronounced and debilitating.
David Sekol, Navy from Missouri:
- Childhood trauma sets us up for PTSD. His father was aloof and hostile, and his mother was detached and disconnected:
Living with my father was like being kenneled with General Patton. Steely-eyed and inflexible, he rarely showed affection toward his children. . .Prone to fits of violent anger, when Dad looked at me, gritted his teeth, and curled his lips, I knew I was in trouble. I swear to you, when very angry, he growled like a wolf. . .his belt came off, and in a blind fury, he chased me down and whipped me. If I moved, covered, or did anything to protect myself from the stinging leather strap, he swung harder and hit whatever body part was available. Relentlessly and unmercifully, like a Roman guard beating down a slave, he went for the back, arms, legs, and head.
- Since 1980, a great deal of research has been conducted into what clinicians term Complex Trauma. These disorders are related to trauma associated with early childhood and adolescent abuse and neglect that contributes to or causes chronic stress related dysfunction in individuals. Combat veterans who experienced childhood trauma are twice as likely to develop PTSD. The earlier in life the abuse begins and the longer the duration of the abuse, the more likely the person is to be pre-disposed to PTSD later in life.
- The character deficiencies of his father predisposed him to being vulnerable to becoming traumatized more easily when under the authority of his commanding officer ~ the officer and his father shared similar volatile personalities.
- His childhood didn’t harden him. The exact opposite is true. His brain became malleable and more prone to developing a stress disorder.
- Dave was unable to find joy or satisfaction ~ his only emotions were fear and rage.
- Persistent symptoms of increased arousal ~ hypervigilance ~ includes difficulty falling or staying asleep and an exaggerated startle response are the first signs of PTSD.
- His principal self-defense mechanism was escape. Brutal corporeal punishment had a lasting impact on his cognitive worldview and on his defenses against being re-victimized.
Although there are more soldiers’ stories in the book, these stories reflect the essential elements of PTSD. I was stunned to discover that PTSD causes us to have difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships. And, I was blown away to learn that we do not develop a hard shell to protect ourselves. We’re as vulnerable as a turtle deprived of its shell.
The most important thing all of us need to take away from this book is that PTSD causes permanent brain damage. The wounds are inside where they can’t be seen with the naked eye. We are as disabled as those with visible physical wounds. But, we will have to fight harder to get rehabilitation treatment.
I was shocked to read at the end of the book that Freud first noticed PTSD in his patients who had experienced child abuse and molestation. He abandoned his theories, however, because he didn’t want to offend the wealthy parents who were picking up the therapy tab. The DSM on PTSD was developed to diagnose battered women. It was extended to cover veterans.
This doesn’t surprise me because those of us who have experienced domestic violence in its many guises are veterans. Our homes are not peaceful. They are like living in a war zone. The terrorists who threaten to kill us aren’t strangers. We know them intimately.
Soldier’s Heart exposes the horrors of war and dispels any romantic, heroic notions about war. I think it should be required reading for anyone thinking about enlisting in the military as well as their families. I skimmed most of the veteran’s stories ~ the details were too brutal for me. I read enough, however, to become even more strident about world peace.