Recently an Army combat veteran, Maj. Benjamin Tupper, wrote an op-ed in the Daily Beast. In it he made the argument that veterans returning from war should be awarded the Purple Heart. We asked one of our better pontificationists, author and combat veteran Chris Hernandez, to respond. Should we award Purple Hears for PTSD, we asked. He said:
No, we shouldn’t.
I came home from Afghanistan angry and depressed. Most of my problems came from guilt over one particular incident. Without going into too much detail, I felt that I failed to prevent another American’s death in combat. I knew that my feelings were objectively irrational. The situation had been chaotic and confusing, I was sick and suffering severe fatigue, and there was no way I could have known at the time what I found out later. But feelings don’t follow logic; even though I knew the man’s death was solely the enemy’s fault, I still blamed myself.
I had studied Post Traumatic Stress Disorder extensively between my Iraq and Afghanistan deployments. I knew I would come home with some aftereffects, which if handled correctly wouldn’t be permanent or debilitating. I also accepted my own responsibility for my mental state; I had reenlisted many times just so I could deploy, left one unit to join another that was going to Afghanistan, and volunteered for many combat missions I didn’t have to be on. I couldn’t complain about the result of what I chose to do.
Occasional tears are my small but lasting tribute to a brave man’s life and death. But those tears don’t mean I have PTSD.
I went to a VA counselor, and a civilian counselor. I talked things out. I shared my story with trusted friends. I leaned on my wife for support. My home life was affected, my work performance suffered, but I stuck to counseling until I worked through the issues. I made peace with what had happened. I’ll never forget it, and even now, four years later, I sometimes cry over it when I’m alone. I accept that I will never truly be over this incident, and to tell the truth I wouldn’t want to be. Occasional tears are my small but lasting tribute to a brave man’s life and death. But those tears don’t mean I have PTSD.
Two years ago I attended a class about PTSD. We watched videotaped interviews with PTSD victims. One was a former Special Forces sergeant named Paul Schroeder who had been awarded a Silver Star for valor but suffered from horrible PTSD after his discharge (I met him face to face a couple times). Another man on the video was a former Marine infantryman who had nearly destroyed his life with alcohol after his return from Iraq. We also listened to a speaker, a young woman who had completed two tours in Iraq.
I could relate to this woman. On one of her tours she had been a vehicle commander on a convoy escort team. I had the same job in Iraq. I experienced the same things, on the same missions, in the same places. For a couple of years after Iraq I had a startle response if someone used a camera flash near me, without warning me first (the first thing I saw when IEDs detonated near us at night was a blinding white or orange flash). I identified with the young woman, and while I didn’t come home with PTSD – no, the aforementioned startle response does not by itself equal PTSD – I understood how she could have it.
But toward the end of her talk, she said something that has come to trouble me greatly. This comment didn’t really register with me at first. As time has passed, and I’ve encountered many more instances of this, it bothers me more and more.
The young woman said her disability rating for PTSD was 30%. She was trying to get it raised, though. The reason?
“If I get it a little higher,” she laughed, “I can park in handicapped parking spaces.”
Many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are developing an automatic “This person is lying” internal response whenever we meet someone who claims to have PTSD.
At the time, I thought it was a joke. I don’t think so anymore. In my opinion, too many veterans are jumping into the “PTSD business”, falsely claiming to have war-related emotional problems in order to receive a nice check every month, plus other little benefits, forever. This problem appears to be so widespread that many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are developing an automatic “This person is lying” internal response whenever we meet someone who claims to have PTSD.
This isn’t the response we should have. I’m not saying it’s “right”. But it’s hard to not feel that way after some of what we see and hear.
A sergeant, widely regarded as a malingerer, was on radio watch. A patrol near his firebase was ambushed. The patrol returned fire and pushed through the kill zone. No Americans were killed or injured, no vehicles damaged. The sergeant claimed PTSD because he listened to the ambush on the radio.
A large unit came home from a partnering/foreign military training deployment to a third world country. This country was not at war. There was no combat. Not a single soldier was in a firefight, no IED attacks occurred. Upon their return, a handful of soldiers claimed PTSD.
A Marine Iraq veteran I know well went to the VA to register for care. He saw a psychologist as part of the normal process. He told the psychologist the truth: he was never in combat, never heard a shot fired, never saw a casualty, never experienced anything more dangerous than rockets that landed far away and never hurt anyone. No nightmares, no isolation, no alcohol or drug abuse. His assessment? 30% disability for PTSD. He didn’t turn down the money.
A soldier told me that her deployment, which consisted of working 12 hour days as a supply officer, was traumatic. No, she was never in combat. But she worked crappy hours with no days off, was under constant stress from her superiors, and her marriage collapsed from the strain. “That’s PTSD,” she explained.
An Afghanistan veteran appeared on American Idol and told his story of being badly wounded in combat. He was called a hero on national TV and basked in sympathy for his terrible PTSD. Later, he was exposed as a liar who served one month in Afghanistan as a supply clerk and was never in combat (maybe I don’t have to go into much detail on this one, you might be familiar with it already).
My point is that fraudulent PTSD claims already abound, in addition to what certainly seems to be a zeal by the VA to diagnose veterans with PTSD. Those who legitimately suffer from it deserve all the help they can get. When they’re not stuck in the VA backlog, partly brought on by many vets who are gaming the system, they have access to therapy and medication. Yes, they deserve better treatment than what’s currently available. But do they need to be publicly recognized with a medal for suffering PTSD?
Last week an Afghanistan combat veteran, Army Major and author named Benjamin Tupper published an essay in the Daily Beast. Major Tupper wrote this essay as a plea on behalf of troops who came home from war physically sound, but suffer from PTSD. Tupper wants these veterans to be awarded Purple Hearts, just like those who suffer physical wounds.
Wait until you see his upcoming fiction novel Line in the Valley – fighting between our troops against the Cartels in the near future. It’s going to be awesome. Read excerpts of that in his blog.
Mad Duo, Breach-Bang-CLEAR!