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Robert D. Stolorow Headshot

The Traumas of War

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Below is a letter I received from military psychiatrist, Dr. Russell Carr, describing the terrible toll the traumas of war have been taking on service members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families:

7 November 2010

Dear Dr. Stolorow,

It has been about a year since I first wrote to you about my use of your ideas in treating active-duty military personnel who are suffering from combat-related PTSD. Your ideas, as described in Trauma and Human Existence (http://www.psychoanalysisarena.com/trauma-and-human-existence 9780881634679), remain essential to my understanding of the ravages of war on its participants.

I have also been teaching your ideas to mental health professionals at our local military facilities. They, too, have found your ideas enormously helpful. One of them sent me a link to a recent article in Politics Daily about the past decade of war for America (http://www.politicsdaily.com/2010/09/09/in-the-10th-year-of-war-a-harder-army-a-more-distant-america/). It is entitled, "In the Tenth Year of War, a Harder Army, a More Distant America." The psychology intern felt that it exemplifies your idea of alienation that traumatized people feel, separating them from the "normals." I agree with him, and was struck by how much the article resonates with what combat veterans and their families tell me.

In the article, the author, David Wood, describes how military personnel who are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan cannot reconnect with the peaceful worlds of most Americans. He describes how, with the large number of military personnel having served at least one combat tour since 2001, there is a growing "warrior class" in America. This sense of isolation from the "normals," or in this case civilians, in America is something I also hear from service members that I treat for PTSD. Many feel isolated in their horror of seeing what humans, including themselves, can do to each other. Just as you describe the loss of "the absolutisms of everyday life," many describe how they can never feel safe again. Their separateness and finitude never leave their minds, and they realize that most Americans don't live this way.

These isolating feelings impact their lives on a daily basis. Most will not go into crowds back here in America, mainly because they cannot watch everyone around them in a large crowd, which still feels essential to them. They frequently can no longer relate to their families. Being away from home for a year or more, their families adapt to life without them, even while missing them. It can take effort to then reintegrate back with a family that has adjusted to living without the service member at home. Coming home with a sense of alienation makes such reintegration difficult if not impossible. Relationships become strained, and soon the service member begins to think about returning to combat, where he or she feels more attuned with that surround. They can only find their "siblings in the same darkness" back in a combat zone.

The traumatizing experiences affect family members as well. They might frequently feel that most of America is not as vigilant as they are about the casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq. In close-knit military communities, it is easy for a military family member to know someone who is currently deployed. The list of recent combat deaths on the evening news could easily be someone they know or the father, mother, or sibling of someone they know. Recognizing that the rest of America doesn't continuously fear the news that a loved one has died in combat, family members also develop a sense of isolation from the rest of America, and seek out community among other military families. I have spoken with several service members and their families who have struggled after being transferred to the Washington, DC area from a major military installation, such as Camp Pendleton or Fort Bragg. The service members and their families frequently say that they feel very out of place here, and even resentful towards their new neighbors who have no military affiliation. They are shocked how people go about their lives without paying much attention to the events in Iraq or Afghanistan. Of course, they cannot tolerate civilians' seeming indifference to the risks and sacrifices of deployed service members and their families. Military families who tell me they feel this way are usually in the process of transferring back to a military installation, where they feel more understood. They can no longer tolerate living among civilians, whom they perceive as "the normals."

I want to thank you again for all the understanding you have helped me reach about trauma. Your ideas are directly helping military personnel and their families bear the toll of a decade of war.

Sincerely,

Russell Carr, M.D.
Psychiatrist and Department Chief
Psychological Health-Traumatic Brain Injury (PH-TBI)
National Naval Medical Center
Bethesda, MD

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