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G.A. Bradshaw Headshot
Edward Tick Headshot

Of Pachyderms and Paratroopers

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"Last Sunday, a television program showed helicopters shooting down African elephants. When I saw those huge peaceful animals falling, I broke down. It's been forty years since I was a gunner in Vietnam. I did and saw the same thing with people".

We are not so different from elephants. Science shows that we share comparable brains sufficient to make the gentle giants vulnerable to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Elephant and humans minds both falter in the face of life-threatening violence. But the real lesson goes deeper. What veterans have learned and elephants know makes them formidable allies in helping solve what has become a problem of epidemic proportions.

War trauma afflicts 20% of our soldiers in Iraq and a staggering 40% of National Guard and reservists. Moreover, the trauma of war extends to soldier's families and healthcare professionals who are exposed vicariously to battlefield violence: a topic of concern in discussions surrounding the recent Fort Hood shootings.

In response to this debilitating condition, the U.S. Army has cast aside its historical unease with psychological injury and boldly launched a Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program. Increasing emotional resilience will do much to help soldiers on and off duty with the barrage of everyday stressors. However, warding off war trauma is more complex than achieving mental fitness or implementing a regime of anti-depressants. Veterans reveal that the mind cannot always be readied for the challenges war brings.

Veteran John Fisher confessed, "I never wanted to hurt anyone. Not even in the war. My nature is to give service for health and healing. . . [but] I was given a rifle and the training in how to use it. Then I used it--a lot." Body and mind may have been fit for duty, but Fisher's decades-long battle with PTSD began when his nature collided with military nurture.

Further, survivors and psychiatrists maintain that causes and treatment of PTSD cannot rest on the shoulders of soldiers alone. Former Green Beret Lee Burkins' PTSD derived as much from "society's acceptance of war" as from his own acts, and Fisher's restoration only started when he returned to Vietnam, where, in the "land of my nightmares," he used his skills as a chiropractor to heal broken bodies of former Viet Cong and re-build a sense of community.

How then is war's PTSD to be addressed? If, as often is the case, we look to nature for understanding, we find more questions before answers. For example, if healing requires community, how is it that elephants, our psychological kin renown for family values and cohesive herds, succumb to PTSD? And isn't some psychological fallout the inevitable cost of natural aggression and the Army's fitness program making the best out of a bad situation?

Not according to science. Modern warfare is not natural; our bellicose human habits violate long-evolved prosocial norms shared by animals everywhere, including the mighty, brainy elephant. Elephant society only fell victim to "soldier's heart" when culls, poaching, and habitat destruction shattered social structures that provided young elephants inoculation against trauma. Human culture, not elephant nature, is responsible for the onset of wildlife mental breakdown. Our aggressive excesses are no longer justified by saying, "nature made me do it." Human trauma is organic to human society.

Consequently, when the gunner wept as elephants fell, he might have recognized something more than commonality in deed. Perhaps, genetic memory stirred recollection of a time before economics and exigencies of industrial hostilities made war culture; when elephants and humanity put right before might and chose to live in peaceful co-existence. In this light, soldiers' PTSD emerges as a natural response to an unnatural violation of values we hold in common with the rest of the animal kingdom.

To stem widespread PTSD, we are advised by listening to the veterans who served, survived, and suffer from the ravages of PTSD, and the elephants who never raised arms. An Iraq veteran maintains that: "the only way to help us is to end war." Lee Burkins speaks of veterans' search for a reality that does not require trauma to justify its existence, "As damaged in soul as we were, each one of us wanted never to do violence again. . . many of the men passed on because of their frustration they experienced at not knowing how to bring an end to the ongoing violence in the world."

Their vision and lessons, and those of the elephant, must be used to shape concrete social programs that actively partner the military, public, and nature. The path is clear. It just takes thinking like an elephant.


G.A. Bradshaw
is a psychologist and author of
Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us About Humanity, Yale University Press. Ed Tick is a practicing psychotherapist specializing in veterans with PTSD and author of War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation's Veterans from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.