Opinion: Combat veterans and their battle with PTSD

The struggle a veteran faces is especially marked The struggle a veteran faces is especially marked in those with PTSD and/or traumatic brain injury. Photo Credit: Tribune Content Agency / Paul Tong

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Mark was a decorated retired colonel in the Army who found himself in a supervisory role with a national retailer.

One morning, he unsuccessfully tried to access his e-mail, and he called the IT department for help. A short time later, a young employee walked into his office without knocking. "Hey dude, what's up?" the employee said. "Step away, and I'll checkout your computer."

Mark berated the IT worker and reported him to management for failing to knock and ask permission to enter his office -- and for calling him "dude" and not sir. In the military, you don't do anything without permission from superiors. Military language is also very different, and everyone is addressed as sir and ma'am, or by rank.

Jerry had a successful career as a fighter pilot in the Marines and seemed to be doing well when he joined civilian life full time. His training had taught him that when something is scheduled for a specific time, you show up not a minute late.

He once scheduled a noon lunch with his wife, but Mary arrrived at the restaurant 15 minutes late. Jerry lost it, raising his voice and lecturing her on the importance of being punctual. It got so loud, restaurant management called the police and Jerry was arrested.

As we recognize our American heroes this Veterans Day, it's not only important to acknowledge the men and women who served our country but also to better understand the daily challenges many of them face. One in five combat veterans suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The struggle a veteran faces is especially marked in those with PTSD and/or traumatic brain injury. However, the true archetype of PTSD is far less volatile than the public is led to believe. The most common problem a veteran with PTSD faces is reintegration back into civilian culture.

When veterans return to civilian culture, incidents like the ones described by Mark and Jerry are very likely. They can happen to anyone who served a significant amount of time in the military because of the cultural differences, but such incidents are more common for those with PTSD. Shootings, murders and other violent acts are extremely rare for a veteran with PTSD.

Part of the challenge to reintegration into civilian culture and corporate America are misunderstandings, misperceptions and miscommunication about those who served in the military and how they can fit in. Gaining an understanding and discovering the truth will lead to a greater appreciation for those who served.

Veterans are by training loyal, reliable, disciplined, good communicators, productive and highly skilled. They have the capacity and should be able to retrain themselves to function in a new environment, other than the one in which they were accustomed to being successful.

Unfortunately, some media reports link PTSD to recent shootings and other incidents of violence, with little to no basis to support the claims. Early reports only further the stigma and misconception associated with this condition.

Overcoming the PTSD stigma involves a few steps:

-- Veterans need to educate themselves about PTSD. Family and friends need to do the same.

-- Employers need to learn about PTSD. This would help them understand that the vet is not trying to be disrespectful or obstinate and shed light on why veterans sometimes behave the way they do.

-- The media, in many cases, needs to refrain from throwing the term "PTSD" around when it comes to violent acts. PTSD may be present in these individuals, but there's a much larger underlying mental disturbance.

-- Medical professionals need more training or continuing education to better recognize the signs of PTSD. Too often, these professionals attribute a patient's symptoms to everyday stress.

-- Finally, everyone must understand that the majority of PTSD cases are mild, and with proper treatment and hard work, veterans can recover and go on to be great assets to the community, their families and their employers.

Harry Croft, MD is medical director at HealthyPlace.com and is a psychiatrist who has worked with veterans diagnosed with PTSD and co-author of "I Always Sit with My Back to The Wall: Managing Combat Stress and PTSD." Sydney Savion, EdD is a retired military officer, applied behavioral scientist and author of "Camouflage to Pinstripes: Learning to Thrive in Civilian Culture."

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