have courage. take heart. bear witness.
Dr. Tom Berger practices what he teaches.
As Executive Director of the Veterans Health Council at Vietnam Veterans of American (VVA) and former chair of VVA's PTSD & Substance Abuse Committee, Tom wants others to understand the deep impact of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among veterans and their families. Often, he says, mental illnesses, like PTSD, are greatly misunderstood, and that can get in the way of urgently needed treatment.
"We're afraid of people that exhibit behaviors that are different from our own. And then when you slap a uniform on it, there's a further tendency to ostracize. 'Look at Uncle Joe over there in the corner. You know, he was wounded in the war. Don't go near him on Veterans Day, because he's thinking about when he was in France,' or 'in World War II,' or 'in Vietnam.' We need to overcome those kinds of things. Learning more about the veterans is a good place to start."
Tom's expertise in this area is heightened and informed by his own experience living with PTSD. During the US war in Viet Nam, he served as a combat Navy Corpsman. While reluctant to discuss the details of his experiences on the battlefield, he readily acknowledges the chronic symptoms of PTSD that developed as a result. Some—like intense nightmares—still occur, more than forty years later.
Tom urges others with PTSD to seek treatment, as he did.
"It's not a weakness to seek help," he tells fellow veterans. "What you saw or underwent simply was an abnormal event or an abnormal situation happening to a perfectly normal person. If left untreated, [PTSD] can change the structure and function of your brain in certain areas."
To those of us who know someone living with PTSD, Tom suggests, "Learn about PTSD yourself, and then approach your friend and say, 'I'm interested in helping you. Is there anything I can do?' Let them suggest what may be helpful."
Recorded in Silver Spring, Maryland, March 2009.
NOTE: Since this conversation was recorded, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) enacted new regulations that make it easier for veterans to support benefits claims regarding PTSD.
"The longer that you stayed unhurt in the field, the less you cared about your own safety, or in many cases you even quit carrying a weapon and carried more medical supplies—bandages and that sort of thing—as opposed to your weapon and ammunition, because, you just really got into your job, and your job was to keep people alive."
"If you're really a caring friend of someone who's been through a traumatic stiutation and suffering from PTSD, number one, I think you have to understand some of the things I've been talking about—that there is a change in the person, and it could be, actually, long-term change, depending on the severity of the event and how long it's been since the person attempted to seek treatment."