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Media Does Disservice to Veterans by Sensationalizing PTSD Stories

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For the past two weeks, movie goers have flocked to the film American Sniper, the story of an American hero gunned down by a fellow veteran stricken with PTSD. But new information has revealed that, while the gunman had serious mental health problems, PTSD was not among them.

However, major media outlets continue to beat the PTSD drum, adding to the stigma associated with PTSD and mental illness, to the detriment of America’s veterans and mental health care at large.

Clint Eastwood’s latest war drama chronicling the life of Chris Kyle, one of the deadliest snipers in history, has become a smash hit with movie fans. The tragic irony that Kyle was shot in the back by a veteran suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has been the media narrative since Kyle’s death in February 2013.

But things may not be as they seem, according to at least one veteran’s organization. There is no question regarding the series of events that occurred at the Rough Creek gun range in Texas on February 2, 2013. Eddie Ray Routh murdered Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield in cold blood. Authorities found Routh in Kyle’s truck on the same evening and took him into custody.

But this isn’t the entire story.

Both the Routh and Kyle families were quick to point out that the alleged killer was getting help from Kyle because he was suffering from PTSD. After Kyle’s own discharge from the U.S. Navy, suffering from the disorder himself, he chose to try to help other vets who were coming home, enabling them to transition back into society.

Recently, however, it was revealed that Routh’s military service may not have been as traumatic as Kyle and Littlefield were led to believe. According to The Warfighter Foundation:

“Eddie Routh served one tour in Iraq in 2007, at Balad Air Base (the 2nd largest U.S. installation in Iraq), with no significant events. No combat experience. Let me say that again, he NEVER SAW COMBAT or any aspect of traumatic events associated with a combat deployment (i.e. incoming mortar or rocket fire). He never left the base, EVER.”

Balad Air Base had been the focus of some insurgent mortar fire, but none occurred while Routh was there.

After Kyle’s own discharge from the U.S. Navy, suffering from (PTSD) himself, he chose to try to help other vets who were coming home.
The Warfighter Foundation, a nonprofit veterans group, filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain information about Routh’s service record. It was through the information they received that the group discovered Routh had not experienced any type of combat.

“[Routh] held a non-combat arms occupation of 2111 (Small Arms Repairer/ Technician or more commonly referred to as an Armorer),” the group reported. “Balad Air Base had a Pizza Hut, 24 hour Burger King, Subway, Popeye’s, Baskin Robbins, movie theater, and even a miniature golf course. It even had a strictly enforced 10 mile per hour speed limit!”

It is known fact that Routh’s family contacted Kyle about their son’s diminishing mental health. Routh was admitted to inpatient psychiatric treatment prior to the events at Rough Creek Ranch, according to a report from the Daily Mail.

“Routh had been taken to a mental hospital twice in the past five months and told authorities that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, police records show,” the report says.

While some would argue that being placed in a combat zone can create PTSD, one thing is clear; the United States military and the VA have a growing problem regarding the mental health of returning veterans.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Mental health cases among war veterans, including PTSD, drug and alcohol dependency and depression, grew by 58 percent from 63,767 in 2006 to 100,580 in 2007, VA records show.”

Further bolstering the rationale for expanded mental health screening and treatment is the case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Bergdahl disappeared from his command post in Afghanistan in 2008 and spent 5 years as a Taliban prisoner of war.

What makes this case compelling is that there are allegations that he left his post intentionally. Despite media reports that he will not be charged with desertion, The Pentagon is still considering charges.

Prior to his enlistment in the Army, Bergdahl had been administratively separated from the Coast Guard for mental health reasons. In the days following his disappearance and once again following his return, Bergdahl’s letters and journals were examined and painted a picture of a deeply troubled individual.

It is no secret that the military and the VA’s mental health care programs are struggling to keep up with the needs of those returning from more than a decade of war, in addition to those who have suffered traumas at home, such as sexual assault.

A report from the Washington Post found that the military lacks an adequate number of mental health care providers and is using out-dated and ineffective methods for diagnosing and treating mental health problems of all varieties, but PTSD in particular.

“Imagine going to your doctor because you think you have a broken leg and your doctor asks 20 questions,” retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, a former Army vice chief of staff told the Post. “And then your doctor says, ‘You don’t have a broken leg. You can go home.’ You’d say, ‘Aren’t you going to X-ray my leg?’ That’s how we diagnose PTS.” Chiarelli does not believe that Post Traumatic Stress rises to the level of a “disorder.”

Since the beginning of the VA health care scandal, the VA says they have been actively working toward making meaningful changes to their health care programs — including mental health care — that would better serve veterans. According to a joint statement from the DoD and VA, many of these efforts concentrate on the continuity of care for those transitioning from active duty to civilian life and VA services. But many believe that the DoD and VA are still missing the mark.

“There are different methods by which clinical PTSD can be treated, ranging from pharmaceutical suppression of some of the effects and symptoms to various types of relaxation techniques, exercises and supportive ventilation that encourage a normal ‘reprocessing’ of the information regarding the trauma into ‘standard’ memory,” says Dr. David Reiss, M.D., a practicing psychiatrist in California.

Dr. Reiss has done extensive work with veterans recovering from PTSD. He maintains that a “one-size-fits-all” approach is ineffective and akin to poor medicine.

“However, every individual is different and may be more or less vulnerable to having difficulty,” he said. “Each individual may or may not respond well to specific treatment approaches.”

While most media outlets maintain that Kyle’s killer suffered from PTSD, when in fact his service record does not reflect this, they are doing a great disservice to America’s service members and veterans suffering with the condition by adding to the stigma that those with PTSD are people to be feared.

While there is anger and irritability, those feelings are usually internalized instead of lashing out. Most people with PTSD are more likely to become withdrawn than they are to resort to murder.

In World War II, it was referred to as shell shock; in Vietnam it was called combat fatigue. Today’s military calls it something else. But the tragic death of the man called ” The Legend” should be a wakeup call to the DoD and VA for increased vigilance and improved care, and to the media to stop sensationalizing tragedy to the detriment of the nation’s heroes.

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