Panel Notes Progress in Fight Against Post-traumatic Stress

WASHINGTON, Oct. 29, 2010 — A pan­el of experts last night not­ed sig­nif­i­cant progress in the efforts of the Defense and Vet­er­ans Affairs depart­ments to help ser­vice­mem­bers, vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies affect­ed by post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der.

At a spe­cial screen­ing of the HBO doc­u­men­tary “War Torn, 1861–2010” at the Pen­ta­gon Audi­to­ri­um, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey not­ed that the per­cent­age of ser­vice­mem­bers who avoid seek­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal treat­ment because of a per­ceived stig­ma attached to ask­ing for help has dropped from 90 per­cent to 50 per­cent.

Casey’s fre­quent asser­tion that build­ing ser­vice­mem­bers’ emo­tion­al resilience is just as impor­tant as their phys­i­cal con­di­tion­ing – known in the Army as com­pre­hen­sive sol­dier fit­ness — cap­tured the essence of a pan­el dis­cus­sion by med­ical and mil­i­tary experts fol­low­ing the doc­u­men­tary screen­ing.

Pan­elists who took the stage to dis­cuss how to treat PTSD were Gen. Peter W. Chiarel­li, Army vice chief of staff; Dr. Katie Chard, direc­tor of the PTSD and anx­i­ety dis­or­ders clin­ic at Cincin­nati Vet­er­ans Med­ical Cen­ter; Gre­go­ry T. Gold­stein, pro­gram man­ag­er for Marine Corps com­bat and oper­a­tional stress con­trol; Viet­nam vet­er­an and Medal of Hon­or recip­i­ent Capt. Paul W. “Bud­dy” Bucha; and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Greg Harbin, a vic­tim of PTSD. Doug Wil­son, assis­tant sec­re­tary of Defense for pub­lic affairs, and Tam­my Duck­worth, assis­tant sec­re­tary of vet­er­ans affairs for pub­lic and inter­gov­ern­men­tal affairs, served as mod­er­a­tors.

“The Army and rest of Depart­ment of Defense are com­mit­ted to find­ing ways to help [those with PTSD],” Chiarel­li said, not­ing that more than 900,000 peo­ple have used the program’s glob­al assess­ment tool that mea­sures resilience.

“We can teach peo­ple to be more resilient,” he added.

Harbin said the doc­u­men­tary — which chron­i­cles the effect of com­bat stress and post-trau­mat­ic stress on ser­vice­mem­bers and their fam­i­lies from the Civ­il War to the cur­rent con­flicts in Iraq and Afghanistan — pro­vides “a lot of hope.”

“We’re address­ing a dif­fi­cult prob­lem,” he said, “and we’re tak­ing the lead on it.” He spoke of his own strug­gle with PTSD. “One day, I called the Wound­ed War­rior Pro­gram, and it saved me. You peo­ple are the heroes,” he told the pan­el.

Chard said evi­dence-based treat­ment works for vet­er­ans and active-duty troops. The VA sys­tem has 3,000 PTSD-trained ther­a­pists, and DOD has 500, she said, so ser­vice­mem­bers can start ther­a­py while still active duty, and then con­tin­ue that ther­a­py at a VA hos­pi­tal after they leave the ser­vice. Chard said 150 hos­pi­tals around the Unit­ed States have clin­ics with trained PTSD ther­a­pists.

Bucha said it took him 40 years to come to grips with his PTSD.

“I think for the first time, we’re hav­ing open, sol­id, hon­est effort, but we won’t be suc­cess­ful, as [Casey] said, if we’re only at 50 per­cent,” Bucha said. “It’s 100 per­cent [that we need]. You can have four stars or no stripes, man or woman, [and] you don’t know when it’s going to man­i­fest itself, but it will. No one is exempt.”

More progress is need­ed in remov­ing the stig­ma attached to seek­ing treat­ment, Bucha added. “It will start to go away when the three-stars and the four-stars and the tough sergeants major stand up to it,” he said, empha­siz­ing that men­tal con­di­tion­ing for the armed forces is vital.

Chiarel­li said offi­cials are work­ing hard to get peo­ple the treat­ment they need as soon as pos­si­ble, not­ing that the aver­age time from the stress-induc­ing event to the start of ther­a­py is 12 years.

“We’re train­ing our medics to rec­og­nize symp­toms down­range so we can start treat­ing them imme­di­ate­ly,” he said.

Gold­stein said 1,400 Marines have been trained as men­tors and to rec­og­nize the symp­toms.

“So we’ve cre­at­ed the edu­cat­ed Marine who knows the behav­ior of oth­er Marines, and is trained to inter­vene at the slight­est behav­ioral change,” he said. “We can then turn to corps­men, med­ical offi­cers and the med­ical health team.

“It’s embed­ding into reg­i­ment lev­el in Afghanistan,” he con­tin­ued. “At the reg­i­ment lev­el, when we inter­vene at the ear­li­est moment, we don’t get to the tragedies we saw on this film tonight.”

He referred to an acronym, SMITR, for the treat­ment plan for PTSD: strength­en, mit­i­gate, iden­ti­fy, treat and rein­te­grate.

Fam­i­ly mem­bers are an inte­gral part of the equa­tion when a ser­vice­mem­ber suf­fers from PTSD, he said.

Chard added that it’s impor­tant for fam­i­ly mem­bers to go to fam­i­ly readi­ness meet­ings to find out what deploy­ment is going to be like and to stay in con­tact with oth­er fam­i­lies. “The VA is there for you before the vet­er­an returns,” she said. “We can treat the vet with fam­i­ly coun­sel­ing.” A hot­line, 1–800-273-TALK, is not just for sui­cide pre­ven­tion, Chard said.

“It’s for any dif­fi­cul­ties you want to talk about,” she explained. “It’s open to all active duty mem­bers, reservists, vet­er­ans, Guard mem­bers and their fam­i­lies.”

Chard said that if some­one exhibits PTSD symp­toms, it’s impor­tant to rec­om­mend that they seek help. Peo­ple can vis­it to find out how to rec­og­nize those symp­toms, she added.

“I think every­one in this room had a deeply per­son­al reac­tion to this doc­u­men­tary,” said Duck­worth, a for­mer Army heli­copter pilot who lost both legs in Iraq in 2004. She ref­er­enced a sol­dier-artist in the film who drew pic­tures of injured ser­vice­mem­bers in Viet­nam.

“I am one of those troops,” she said. “I sur­vived because the troops in my Nation­al Guard unit saved me, Wal­ter Reed [Army Med­ical Cen­ter] saved me, my peers saved me, and I’ve been giv­en every­thing I need to sur­vive, to thrive, to have the amaz­ing job I have. VA and DOD want that for all of us.

“We can do bet­ter,” she added, “for each and every one of our vet­er­ans.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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