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Combat veterans, families invited to forum on PTSD

Monday, March 20, 2006 - Bangor Daily News

Maine veterans and their loved ones may want to mark their calendars for a coming presentation on post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

The event will take place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, March 25, at the Senator Inn in Augusta.

PTSD is a widely recognized but poorly understood psychological disorder that affects people who have witnessed or participated in profoundly disturbing events.

A person who is affected by it may relive the traumatic experience over and over and may lose touch with reality. Intense feelings - fear, anxiety, horror or helplessness - typically accompany the episodes, and in a less acute form may become part of the individual's everyday life.

The person may become deeply withdrawn, depressed, paranoid, argumentative and prone to violence. Untreated, PTSD can disrupt family life, render the individual unemployable and lead to incarceration and suicide.

The disorder affects about 1 percent of the general population, but among high-risk groups - such as combat veterans - the prevalence may be as high as 58 percent, according to the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy.

That's why Maine Veterans for Peace is hosting the PTSD symposium next weekend, partnering with Paralyzed Veterans of America, the state Department of Health and Human Services, the Maine Council of Churches, the Southern Maine Labor Council and other groups.

Presenters will include Glenn Schiraldi, who serves on the stress management faculty in the public health department at the University of Maryland. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Schiraldi also served on the Pentagon's stress management staff and is the author of "The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook."

Also presenting will be Bruce Letch, a clinical psychologist at the Togus VA Medical Center near Augusta.

Though it wasn't formally recognized by the American Psychiatric Association until 1980, combat-related PTSD has been around in one form or another as long as humans have waged battle against each other, according to Walpole resident Michael Uhl, an accomplished writer as well as a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Uhl, who will lead next week's event, said the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are similar to the war experience in Vietnam in that they are being conducted largely in the midst of civilian populations.

"It's impossible to know who is the enemy, who supports the enemy or where the enemy is," Uhl said.

The stress of constant vigilance can have a profound and lasting effect, he said.

A person's own injuries, the injury or death of a buddy, and the relentless fear and anxiety of battle can also traumatize a soldier. And then there is the human "collateral damage" - the civilians who are killed or injured when fighting erupts.

PTSD can affect any soldier, Uhl said. "But 40 percent of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are there because they joined the National Guard. They're regular civilians here at home. Fifty percent are married with children," he said.

For these noncareer soldiers, he said, the bloody reality of war can exact a terrible emotional toll, especially when they come home and try to resume their former lives as Joe Citizen.

Veterans of earlier wars who were psychologically damaged by their experiences were often stigmatized, Uhl said, and didn't receive treatment to help them get on with their lives.

Fortunately, PTSD's recognition by the medical field, the military and veterans' organizations makes it easier for soldiers to come forward with their symptoms.

But many veterans - especially men - still find it difficult to admit they're having problems, Uhl said. Others may be so deeply affected that they can't recognize their behaviors as abnormal.

It's often family members or others close to the veteran who see the change and understand the need to seek help.

Though the Veterans for Peace organization is a leader in the antiwar effort, Uhl emphasized that the organization's other primary mission is to aid veterans in whatever way is needed.

"We identify with veterans regardless of their politics, regardless of the circumstances that drew them into the military," he said. "We're veterans who help veterans."

Anyone interested in PTSD is welcome to attend Saturday's program, although it is limited to 150 participants. So pre-registration is recommended. The charge for attending is $10 per person, which includes lunch. The fee may be waived if it's a hardship.

For information about the event or to pre-register, call 778-7292 or 293-2580.