Veterans: Defeating ourselves, with the media’s help
A couple of days ago I read an article from the UK’s Daily Mail. It was about a young American veteran, Lauren Kay Johnson, and how service in Afghanistan affected her.
Since returning home three years ago, she’s lost interest in many things she used to enjoy. She feels like life here is trivial compared to military life in Afghanistan. She was diagnosed with Chronic Adjustment Disorder, which according to the article is “a milder form of PTSD”. She decided to get out of the military and learn to be a civilian. She now blogs about her life and struggles. According to that blog, she has a disability rating for Chronic Adjustment Disorder. I don’t know if that means she receives disability payments, although I suspect she does.
On its face, this sounds like the sad yet often-told story of a service member who goes to war, experiences unspeakable horrors, then returns home but can’t quite “fit in”. Many veterans, of all our wars, have experienced this. PTSD and adjustment disorders are serious problems, worth speaking and writing about. And yet, this story has done nothing but infuriate huge numbers of veterans. Including me.
So what’s the problem? Just this: Ms. Johnson served in Afghanistan as an Air Force Public Affairs Officer. According to her blog, she was never in combat.
Let me make a few things clear. First, I have nothing but respect for Ms. Johnson’s actual service. She’s being ripped apart as a liar on several web sites for saying in the article that she wore body armor and carried 225 rounds on missions. According to some veterans, AF Public Affairs people never leave the wire. I know for a fact that isn’t true. Ms. Johnson was on a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), which is made up of Army, Navy and Air Force personnel. I went on several missions with PRTs. They regularly go outside the wire, although not specifically to engage in combat. All the team’s troops are geared up and carry a full combat load. The PRT on my firebase before I arrived was in tons of combat, the first one I worked with was never in combat, the next one was in a handful of engagements and took a couple of IED strikes. PRT duty can be dangerous and Ms. Johnson has my admiration for serving in one. I don’t fault Johnson for not serving in a combat role.
However, I am mad that she cited these reasons for her “milder form of PTSD”:
1) “long hours”
2) “drab meals of dry meat and soggy vegetables”
3) “constant ‘paranoia’ that something could happen at any moment”
4) “Limited internet and phone service added to her feelings of vulnerability”
5) “sexual assault [was] a constant worry for her on the front line, because she ‘knew the stories’ and ‘overheard vulgar talk.’”
That’s it. That produced, according to her, a form of PTSD.
When I read that, I thought, “you have got to be f**king kidding me.” Sorry, but to have “post trauma” you have to have “trauma” in the first place. Call me evil and unsympathetic (and I’m sure many people will), but I don’t see how any of what Johnson described could possibly cause PTSD.
At this point, I’m sure someone is going to counter with, “Trauma is relative. Just because something didn’t affect you, that doesn’t mean it didn’t affect someone else.”
Fair point. In both the military and law enforcement worlds I’ve know people who just didn’t seem to be bothered by experiences any sane person would describe as traumatic. However, is there any limit to this? Since “only god can judge”, does that mean ANYTHING could be traumatic enough to produce PTSD?
Here’s a reductio ad absurdum example: When I was in Afghanistan, something truly devastating happened: Michael Jackson died.
Good god, people. I practically grew up hearing Michael’s voice. The man was the King of Pop. And he looked just like my white female best friend. If Michael was dead, what could possibly be worth fighting to defend? I was crushed, traumatized, left completely without an urge to go outside the wire and shoot Taliban. Now, since trauma is all relative, would I qualify as a PTSD patient?
Hopefully, the unanimous answer is “hell no.” Relative or not, there has to be a line somewhere.
I actually have tried to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt on this. It’s possible she was badly misquoted by the Daily Mail. Her blog does seem to have a pretty balanced view of PTSD, and illustrates her own doubts that she has it or should have it.
“Guilt – what right do I have to be linked with PTSD? I, who spent most of my deployment behind a desk, who was never shot at, who never shot at anyone, who was never blown up, who made it home safely with my entire unit. So many horrible things I didn’t experience. How can I be associated with veterans who did?
Weakness – maybe I am linked with those who suffered more, and because I suffered less but had a similar reaction, that makes me weak. They say everyone has a breaking point, maybe mine came sooner than most. Maybe I was never meant to be a soldier.”(http://uncamouflaged.blogspot.com/2012/05/ptsd-new-four-letter-word.html)
Sounds like Johnson herself doesn’t think she should have PTSD. However, since the Daily Mail published the article on October 4th, Johnson hasn’t published anything on her blog disputing DM’s reporting. She also hasn’t, as far as I know, issued a statement on any other forum challenging the article. As far as we know, she’s okay with this story about how her time not engaging in combat, having limited phone and internet service, working long hours and eating bland food has caused a disorder so severe she rates disability for it.
So guys, I’m torn here. On one hand, I’m trying to be even-keeled. Johnson obviously has a problem, she served her country honorably, and I should be happy that she’s speaking about it and getting the help she needs. It’s not for me to judge anyone else’s trauma. I should just be quiet and supportive.
On the other hand…
If you join the military during a war, don’t be shocked because you went to war. Military service demands a certain level of toughness; no, we don’t all have to be Captain Will Swenson or Salvatore Giunta. But we do expect long hours, crappy food, lack of communication with loved ones, and “vulgar talk”. And that’s just in peacetime. At war, those are the least of our problems. My uncles who jumped into Sicily/Normandy/Holland, or fought at the Chosin Reservoir, or died in the Bataan Death March, probably weren’t too concerned with how soggy their vegetables were. They might have actually had more important things to worry about, like not getting killed or not letting their friends die.
The public far too often buys into the “all those poor pitiful veterans have PTSD” fable. And crap like this doesn’t help. Whenever a veteran does something stupid, the media jumps onto the “PTSD-crazed veteran” bandwagon, even if the vet was just a run-of-the-mill moron who never served in combat. When Aaron Alexis committed the DC Navy Yard massacre, the media was quick to point out he was a Navy veteran who earned the “coveted” National Defense Service Medal. But Alexis never served in combat. Everyone gets a National Defense Service Medal just for being in the military during a war, whether you participated or not.
Articles about the recent traffic stop death of noncombat Army veteran John Van Allen garner numerous comments such as, “Looks like he was having a PTSD moment” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/04/oregon-highway-shootout-video_n_4044431.html). Too much of the public, helped by too much of the media, assumes we’re all damaged from wartime service. Guys like me argue against that. Then Johnson comes along and tells everyone that even if you were safe your entire deployment, gosh darn it, you’re still screwed up.
Thanks, Ms. Johnson. Thanks for perpetuating the stupid stereotype about all of us being debilitated by our service. Thanks for managing to make us look like crybabies who can’t handle stress that even most high school kids could brush off. Nonsense like this is why I absolutely oppose giving Purple Hearts for PTSD. I don’t want someone to get one because they couldn’t even deal with non-life and death stress (http://chrishernandezauthor.com/2013/09/19/purple-hearts-for-ptsd/).
Now please show me I’m wrong. Please issue a statement condemning the Daily Mail article. Please tell everyone that you were badly misquoted, and that your easy deployment did not so horribly affect you.
And please, for the love of god, tell me that you’re not receiving disability payments because you had to eat soggy vegetables, hear vulgar talk and weren’t able to call home anytime you pleased.
Ms. Johnson has posted a condemnation of the Daily Mail article on her blog. According to her, DM didn’t even notify her that they were writing it, and took all her quotes from an essay she published in Glamour Magazine. Links to her blog post and the original Glamour essay are below. Please read both.
I will post another blog on this subject tomorrow and add a link to it.
Filed under: Afghanistan, Iraq | 42 Comments
Tags: Afghanistan, lauren kay johnson, PTSD, veteran writers