FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Unseen Wound

by JERRY LEMBCKE

The headline was alarming: “Almost half of New Vets seek Disability.” According to the May 28 Associated Press story, 45% of the 1.6 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking some kind of compensation for war injuries, more than double the percentage from previous wars. What’s more, today’s veterans typically pursue claims for 8-14 different ailments, compared with fewer than four for Vietnam veterans, and two for veterans of Korea and World War II. About 54% of the new veterans are getting some kind of health care through the Veterans Administration.

The numbers are high, wrote reporter Marilynn Marchione, because more troops are surviving wounds, and the awareness of PTSD and brain injuries is greater than ever. More aggressive outreach by advocacy groups may be swelling the numbers. As well, joblessness might be moving some veterans to pursue compensation cases as a form of income, according to the story.

The AP story, however, was also sprinkled with suggestions of something more ominous about the skyrocketing numbers, words conveying skepticism about some claims. “America’s newest veterans,” read the first paragraph, “are claiming to be the most mentally and medically troubled generation,” seeking compensation for injuries they say are service connected.” Even lay readers of the news could see the shadow of doubt cast over the reports by the words I’ve italicized, uncertainty we have to wonder if the reporter picked up from her sources.

The possibility that veterans might falsely pursue disability payments when what they really want is the income that a successful claim might yield is obviously a cause for concern. The cost that looms for the care of this generation of veterans runs to the hundreds of billions of dollars and will not peak for thirty years by which time costs will likely have escalated.

But there might be another and even more troubling dynamic at work: the association made between war injuries and military prowess, even heroism, that can lead some men to seek a diagnosis as a way to document their combat bona fides.

That troublesome association began in the years following the war in Vietnam when the loss of the war combined with the participation of many veterans in the anti-war movement led to the dismissal of Vietnam veterans by their fathers’ generation as “not real veterans,” Vietnam “not a real war.” The physical wounds returning from Southeast Asia exempted veterans carrying them from their second-guessing elders, but what about the majority who returned with no visible damage to validate their combat status? The answer involved the formulation of something unseen that nevertheless could be appreciated as a war injury, a “wound” even. The answer was PTSD.

Arising in the closing years of the war as a way to psychologize the dissent of Vietnam veterans, PTSD matured into a full-blown diagnostic category by 1980. Along the way it brought attention to the devastating effects of war trauma, and mobilized material and professional resources to ease the burdens brought home. But PTSD also doubled as a credential, a way for veterans to claim the unseen, the “wound on the inside” as it came to be called, as a badge of honor, a kind of Purple Heart. By the time troops embarked for the Persian Gulf in 1990, it was not uncommon to hear men claiming a combat-veteran identity with the boast, “I’m 100% PTSD.”

The U.S. incursion in the Persian Gulf was hardly a war so it was no surprise that the return of troops was accompanied by conflicted emotions and imagery. With no war stories to tell and virtually no wounds for display, virtual wounds became the currency of authenticity. Sleeping disorders, lethargy, depression, mysterious rashes, unexplained cancers—none of it confirmed by epidemiological studies—quickly dominated the coming-home narrative. Coming home sick, it seemed, was the way to say, “I’m the real-deal combat veteran.”

Troops headed to Iraq in the spring of 2003 with their homecoming already scripted: they would return with PTSD—news reporters said so.  Just as importantly, the conflation of wounds, seen or unseen, with martial accomplishment was by then so ingrained in the culture that expectations mutually held by soldiers, their families and friends, was that “hurt” was the only honorable way to come home.

Not all the damage was unseen, of course. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) took a terrible toll of arms and legs. But it was the bundling of psychic trauma and brain injuries as Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) soon after the invasion of Iraq that confounded the clinical picture: brain injuries could be traumatic but could trauma cause brain injury? By spring 2012, there were reportedly 25 veterans claiming TBI for every death due to IED explosions. How could that be when Humvees, the targets of choice for IEDs, are manned by units numbering only four or five? If one is killed, how can twenty more be injured by the same explosion?

These perplexing questions arise out of the obligation men feel to authenticate their combat identity, and the blurring of distinctions between trauma, wounds, and valor. In the end, the questions are about more than medical and psychiatric diagnoses. When the Department of Veteran Affairs in July 2010 proposed dropping the requirement that claims to PTSD be supported by documentation of the battlefield events that cause the trauma, Paul Sullivan Executive Director for Veterans for Common Sense supported the change saying, “PTSD is associated with deployment . . . . It’s a cultural thing.”

By that thinking, all soldiers who have been deployed have been traumatized; if trauma is a wound, all war veterans are wounded and eligible for disability; and if wounds document the combat experience that confirms manhood, the pursuit of a diagnosis for an “unseen wound” becomes a powerful imperative.  It’s a cultural thing.

Jerry Lembcke is Associate Professor of Sociology at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He is the author of the 2010 book Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal. His next book PTSD: Diagnosis or Identity in Post-empire America? is forthcoming. He can be reached at  jlembcke@holycross.edu.

More articles by:

Jerry Lembcke is Associate Professor Emeritus of Sociology at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He is the author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam and  Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal. His newest book is PTSD: Diagnosis or Identity in Post-empire America? He can be reached at  jlembcke@holycross.edu.

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

July 25, 2017
Paul Street
A Suggestion for Bernie: On Crimes Detectable and Not
David W. Pear
Venezuela on the Edge of Civil War
John Grant
Uruguay Tells US Drug War to Take a Hike
Charles Pierson
Like Climate Change? You’ll Love the Langevin Amendment
Linda Ford
Feminism Co-opted
Andrew Stewart
Any Regrets About Not Supporting Clinton Last Summer?
Aidan O'Brien
Painting the Irish Titanic Pink
Rob Seimetz
Attitudes Towards Pets vs Attitudes Towards the Natural World
Medea Benjamin
A Global Movement to Confront Drone Warfare
Norman Solomon
When Barbara Lee Doesn’t Speak for Me
William Hawes
What Divides America From the World (and Each Other)
Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity
Was the “Russian Hack” an Inside Job?
Chandra Muzaffar
The Bilateral Relationship that Matters
Binoy Kampmark
John McCain: Cancer as Combatant
July 24, 2017
Patrick Cockburn
A Shameful Silence: Where is the Outrage Over the Slaughter of Civilians in Mosul?
Robert Hunziker
Extremely Nasty Climate Wake-Up
Ron Jacobs
Dylan and Woody: Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad
Dan Glazebrook
Quantitative Easing: the Most Opaque Transfer of Wealth in History
Ellen Brown
Saving Illinois: Getting More Bang for the State’s Bucks
Richard Hardigan
The Media is Misleading the Public on the Al-Asqa Mosque Situation
Matthew Stevenson
Travels in Trump’s America: Memphis, Little Rock, Fayetteville and Bentonville
Ruth Fowler
Fire at Grenfell
Ezra Kronfeld
The Rights of Sex Workers: Where is the Movement to Legalize Prostitution
Mark Weisbrot
What Venezuela Needs: Negotiation Not Regime Change
Binoy Kampmark
From Spicy to the Mooch: A Farewell to Sean Spicer
Wim Laven
Progress Report, Donald Trump: Failing
Weekend Edition
July 21, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Kevin Zeese
Green Party Growing Pains; Our Own Crisis of Democracy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Red State, Blue State; Green State, Deep State
Paul Street
“Inclusive Capitalism,” Nancy Pelosi, and the Dying Planet
Anthony DiMaggio
Higher Education Fallacies: What’s Behind Rising Conservative Distrust of Learning?
Andrew Levine
Why Republicans Won’t Dump Trump Anytime Soon
Michael Colby
Ben & Jerry’s Has No Clothes
Bruce Dixon
White Liberal Guilt, Black Opportunism and the Green Party
Edward Hunt
Killing Civilians in Iraq and Syria
Matthew Kovac
Is the Flint Water Crisis a Crime Against Humanity?
Mark Harris
The Revolutionary Imagination: Rosa for Our Times
David Rosen
America’s Five Sex Panics
Robert Fisk
Saudi Arabia: the Kingdom Whose Name We Dare Not Speak At All
Jack Heyman
Class War on the Waterfront: Longshore Workers Under Attack
Kim C. Domenico
Marginalize This:  Turning the Tables on Neoliberal Triumphalism
Brian Cloughley
Trying to Negotiate With the United States
John Laforge
Activists Challenge US Nukes in Germany; Occupy Bunker Deep Inside Nuclear Weapons Base
Jonathan Latham
The Biotech Industry is Taking Over the Regulation of GMOs From the Inside
Russell Mokhiber
DC Disciplinary Counsel Hamilton Fox Won’t Let Whistleblower Lawyer Lynne Bernabei Go
Ramzy Baroud
The Story Behind the Jerusalem Attack: How Trump and Netanyahu Pushed Palestinians to A Corner
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail