Unraveling the Mystery of PTSD

New treatments and technologies are being pioneered to care for combat-induced psychological stress. A research arm of the San Francisco VA is leading the way.

by Leslie Mladinich

VFW June/July Magazine

When Vietnam War Navy veteran Max Gabriel came home from the Mekong Delta in 1970, the symptoms of what would later be identified as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) began immediately.  He cried frequently, entertained thoughts of suicide, and shut out loved ones. While relaxing with his family, a car backfired outside his window and he dove under his dining room table. One night, thinking the enemy was sleeping next to him, he punched his wife.  Today, Gabriel tries to reach out to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans coping with this disorder so they can get the help that he didn’t. As a veterans group volunteer with the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s New York state chapter, Gabriel encounters few veterans who openly admit to having PTSD. Those who do tell him they have a hard time getting help.  “I don’t see the treatment for PTSD being moved along at a steady pace,” he said. “I still feel it is lagging behind.” Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, just like those from his era, aren’t running to VA for help, he says. “They are not looking at the VA as an authority.”  By using advanced technology, endorsing alternative treatments and training staff in new forms of therapy, VA says it’s trying to get on top of the disorder that, according to a 2008 Rand Corporation report, will affect 14% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Combat veterans are the toughest population to treat, according to a 2008 Institute of Medicine report. 

Finding Biological Roots

Although PTSD symptoms are characterized as psychological—including nightmares, flashbacks, sleeplessness, emotional numbness and hypervigilance—researchers are learning that PTSD has physiological roots. 



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