PTSD is causing battlefield deaths that don't need to happen

Apr 21 2010 - 5:35pm

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After last Sunday's column I got a reminder that I hadn't touched on the worst thing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder does to our military people.

"Your article couldn't have come at a better time," wrote Ogden resident Sandy Wheeler, who works at Workforce Services. " We just lost our son-in-law to the war.

"He went to Iraq for one year. When he came back he wasn't the same. His wife tried to get him to get counseling. He refused. Said it would be a black mark on his record. He had just received orders to go back to Iraq.

"On 3/10/10 he took his life. He left his wife and three young children."

As sure as a sniper's bullet, PTSD kills. Mrs. Wheeler's son-in-law was Benjamin Thompson Miller, one of Utah's sons who went to war and came home the picture of health, but fatally wounded.

The photo on Ben's obituary shows a smiling man, 34 years old. He had a wife and children. He went to Weber State University. He was an expert in languages. He loved, and was loved by, many.

And smart? He joined the Army in 1997 as a Hebrew linguist. Hebrew!

He came home from Iraq in August and was stationed at Fort Riley, Kan. On March 10, after getting orders for another tour, he took a drive in his truck, talked to his wife on the phone, then killed himself.

He had been troubled ever since he got back.

"Jeannie (her daughter) said they weren't communicating or anything," Mrs. Wheeler said. "She tried and tried to get him some counseling, and he said 'I can't. It will be a black mark on my record.' "

It's easy to say "Who cares about a black mark?"

Even the military tells soldiers that getting help won't hurt their careers. But too many soldiers fear the stigma. Ben was a very smart, accomplished man, and he did.

Suicides are rising among active-duty military. There were 160 reported active-duty suicides in 2009, up from 128 in 2008, 115 in 2007, 102 in 2006, 87 in 2005.

National Guard and Reserve? Last year, 200-plus.

The wounds never heal. Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs Tammy Duckworth, a wounded Iraq veteran herself, says 18 veterans commit suicide every day.

Dr. Steve Allen, who heads the PTSD clinic at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Salt Lake City, said "One of the things we've found to be effective is, contrary to what soldiers think, not getting help actually renders them ineffective and that imperils their career."

To attack the perceived stigma of getting help, the military set up the RealWarriers Campaign three years ago at the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury. Director, Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton, calls the stigma "that toxic deadly hazard that all too often leads to needless suffering and loss."

Monday the VA will be at the Utah Division of Substance Abuse's "Generations Conference" at the Salt Palace. Keynote speaker is Dr. Mark Bates, director of resilience and prevention at the Defense Centers for Excellence. He will talk about that stigma. Mental health workers from around Utah are invited, and I hope they go.

Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. Mike Koplin, the Salt Lake VA Hospital's suicide prevention coordinator, is holding a roundtable for clergy "on how to recognize and deal with suicidal ideologies within their congregations."

If you're a minister, call 801-582-1565, extension 6310, for information.

Mrs. Wheeler wishes there was more.

"I just think that the military needs to be a little more aggressive getting these guys some help," she said. "Never mind black marks. They need help, they really need help and I'd like to see some action."

Wasatch Rambler is the opinion of Charles Trentelman. You can call him at (801) 625-4232 or e-mail ctrentelman@standard.net. He also blogs at www.standard.net.

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