Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day: Remembering the Children of War, Political and Private

The front page of today's Courier & Press newspaper is a tribute to Kalab Lay, the three year-old boy who was beaten to death by his parents after being failed by the system that was supposed to protect him. Kalab's parents, like many in the Tri-State and beyond, were involved with methamphetamine. Click the link below to read the article in its entirety (please click the "back" button to return to this article).

It is fitting that Kalab's face adorns the front page of the C&P today, the Sunday before Memorial Day. We most often think about soldiers at this time, especially those who lose their lives while fighting to protect our freedoms. However, there is a large portion of our society whose lives are also impacted by war, and whose traumas most often go unrecognized: The children of veterans serving in Iraq and Afganistan. With the numbers of veterans returning after sometimes multiple tours of duty, and many of them not receiving assistance for their own traumas, the numbers of children who are abused by their military parents continues to grow.

A while back I wrote an article about the effect of PTSD on military families, and given the timing, I believe it is worth reposting. This is the bulk of today's post. Resources for more information about PTSD and military families are posted at the end of this artcle.

The Effect of PTSD on the Family:

One of the scariest things for someone suffering from PTSD is when something in the present happens that "triggers" memories of the past. This is the same thing that happens when a Viet-Nam veteran suddenly drops to the ground, covering his head or assuming the fetal position when a car backfires (or when the "pop" and "flash" of exploding fireworks catches him off- guard). While we are probably all aware of the difficulties suffered by combat veterans, I have come to realize that as a society we are very unaware of the impact trauma has on adult survivors of child abuse. This needs to change. To illustrate my point, I will use an analogy, as I often do when working with clients in therapy. For the purpose of this example, I will refer to Viet-Nam veterans, as it was only after that war that PTSD was officially recognized. (Before Viet Nam soldiers suffered the same devastating symptoms, but it was referred to as "Shell Shock.")

Imagine yourself as a combat soldier in Viet Nam. You and your buddies are hunkered down, rifles at the ready, creeping through thick jungle foliage. Your body is tense. All your senses are on high alert for any sign of danger. Suddenly a bullet whizzes by you so fast you can feel the breeze on your face as it slices through the air. Then another one flies by. And another. You call on your heightened senses, frantically trying to figure out where the bullets are coming from but the jungle is so thick you can't see your attacker. Another bullet zings by and hits your best buddy. He falls, bleeding from his belly and writhing in pain. You go to him, kneeling, trying to help stop the bleeding. Meanwhile, the onslaught of bullets continues and you have to make a decision to stay and help your friend or retreat and try to keep from becoming another war statistic. As you are trying to figure out what to do, your friend dies in your arms. You are still under attack. You do not have time to think about your friend or to experience the painful emotions of losing him. You refocus your attention on the situation at hand and do what you can to avoid being killed.

Now imagine that this scenario repeats itself over and over again for several months or even years on end. It is easy for us to see how the lives of combat veterans would be impacted, with the ongoing traumas they face. Not only are they facing horrendous conditions and repetitive traumas, they can't get away from it. They can't just say, "I've had enough. I'm outta’ here." They are, in effect, trapped.

Imagine you are the child of a combat veteran returning from the war. You have missed your daddy terribly and have spent many hours dreaming of the day he would come home again. You remember how he used to play catch with you in the yard or crawl around on the floor with you on his back squealing with delight, shouting, "Yee-haw! Giddy-up!" As a child, you expect things to return to the way they were and life will continue as it was before Daddy left. But Daddy is not the same. He doesn't laugh. He hardly even talks to you. When he does, he sounds angry or annoyed. You try to figure out why he's mad at you and you work hard to be good so maybe, you can make him happy. Maybe you can make him smile. Time goes by and Daddy doesn't smile. He is even more quiet than before and gets angry over the littlest things. Unlike before, when Daddy gets upset, he yells. Sometimes he throws things. Sometimes he hurts you. Or Mommy. Sometimes he storms out of the house and drives away in his car with the tires squealing, and you cry because you're afraid he won't come back. Or you cry because you're afraid he will. The man who came home looks like Daddy but it isn't Daddy. Like the combat soldier, you are living in a war zone. Like the combat soldier, you don't know when the attack will come, what will set it off, or how bad the damage will be. You just know it will happen and you have to be ready for it when it does. Like the combat soldier your body goes on high-alert, always watching out for signs of danger. You can't sleep and when you do you have nightmares but you can't wake up Mommy and Daddy to tell them because Daddy might get angry. So you keep it to yourself. It's hard for you to concentrate on your schoolwork and your grades start falling. You are afraid of what will happen when Daddy sees your report card. Like the combat soldier, bad things are happening all around you. Like the combat soldier, you are trapped. Because you are a child, you can't just say, "I've had enough. I'm outta’ here."

The human brain is a wonderful thing. It has the ability to go on autopilot when necessary, shielding us from awareness when things get too overwhelming. This is what we call a "defense mechanism" and it is a very important coping skill that allows us to survive even the most terrifying of experiences. As we all know, many veterans of the Viet-Nam War basically accomplished the same thing through self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, which allowed them to "zone-out" and escape the pain, if only for a while. Others did not turn to substance abuse, but became sullen, withdrawn, and unable to interact with others or hold a job. Many families were split and the suicide rate among veterans skyrocketed. If there is anyone who does not see parallels between Viet Nam and Iraq, at least in this regard, he or she has simply not been paying attention.

Many people, even those who have little faith in the necessity or effectiveness of mental health based interventions, can and do accept that the lives of our veterans are often immeasurably changed as a result of their experiences. Tragically, we as a society do not afford the same compassion for adults, who as children experienced their own terrifying battles, in many cases continuing for several years without any end to the conflict. For many adult survivors of child abuse (war-related or not), their "tours of duty" extended far beyond anything this nation would require of even the strongest, most well trained adult soldier. For many survivors of child abuse, the consequences of their experience have never been acknowledged. Not even by themselves. If there is any hope of changing the cycle and helping today’s military children, we must learn from the past.

There are many good sources of information on the web. A few very relevant websites are listed here, in case you wish to read further.