Today is Remembrance Day. For most of my life I saw today as a day to go to an assembly at school and watch black-and-white videos of soldiers in the first and second world wars. I tried to understand what those men and their families went through but the video quality made me feel like we were learning about dinosaurs.
Last spring I did a few information sessions on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, where I met a lot of war veterans and soldiers on leave of absences. I met both men and women who fought overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan who had been through significant trauma. One man’s job had been to dismantle bombs – I could only imagine the horror he saw. Another civilian tried to make one soldier feel better by suggesting that they must have seen some cute kids while over there because some did work with families. One man quietly replied, “Yeah, I got to hold some cute kids…before putting them in body bags.”
So what is post-traumatic stress disorder? It’s an anxiety disorder brought on by witnessing or experiencing a life threatening situation. Obviously there are a lot of life threatening situations for those in the military, but civilians suffer can from PTSD too. Being in a car accident, witnessing a shooting, or experiencing a sexual assault can trigger PTSD. Even if the car accident was minor and no one got hurt, for a moment, it may have felt like your life was truly in danger. That’s all it takes for your mind to get overwhelmed and suspend you from reality. Have you ever heard of someone talking about an “out of body experience,” where they looked down on their body from above after something traumatic happens? That is called dissociation and it’s a survival mechanism. Our minds have to disconnect and temporarily step outside of the situation to cope. Someone with PTSD can experience dissociation often and may also have an exaggerated startle response. It’s not uncommon for a war veteran to throw themselves down onto the sidewalk and cover their head when a car backfires on the street. In their mind, that noise sends them right back to war and they are scared for their life.
Attending the post-traumatic stress disorder sessions made me see war veterans in a new light. I met both men and women, young and old veterans, learned about their traumas, and was shown tattoos detailing their history. They are no longer only old men in my mind. They are people just like you and me, who have had their foundation shaken.
A good resource to learn about both war veterans and PTSD is to watch the movie Stop Loss which is about veterans home from war being forced to do another tour of duty. The trouble they get into back home in the US illustrates the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on both the individual and their family.
The moment of silence held on November 11th at 11am should be a reminder to remember veterans and their families every day. Today is a day everyone talks about trauma. Let’s make it a year round thing.