PTSD Can Last a Lifetime

Picture this: Late at night, in the middle of winter, a 69-year-old woman, less than 5 feet tall, flees her north suburban home, carrying two shopping bags filled with her belongings. When found wandering by police, she insists that someone is trying to kill her. 

The woman in question is Sonia Reich (mother of Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich), who is the subject of “Prisoner of Her Past,” a documentary from Kartemquin Films, renowned for “Hoop Dreams.” Sonia, who managed to hide from the Nazis as a young girl in the woods outside a small Polish village (now a part of Ukraine) has been diagnosed with late-onset post-traumatic stress disorder (the same PTSD which we normally associate with army veterans). Prisoner of Her Past, directed by Gordon Quinn, deals with the type of PTSD which appears years, or even decades after the trauma occurs. Moreover, the extent of Sonia’s PTSD is so great that not only is she suffering from the usual symptoms (sleeplessness and hypervigilance among others) but that she also, as her son writes, “had so deeply absorbed her childhood traumas into the fabric of her being that there simply was no way she could ever escape them…they were replaying themselves in an endless loop in her traumatized psyche.”

PTSD is something we need to think about seriously as we deal with the aftermath of traumatic events like the recent mass shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin and the return of servicemen and women from Iraq and Afghanistan. It is estimated that one in five soldiers suffers from PTSD or major depression. Brian Scott Ostrom is one of them. He was the subject of a 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning essay in the Denver Post.  After serving four years as a reconnaissance marine and deploying twice to Iraq, he has struggled with daily life, from finding and keeping employment to maintaining healthy relationships. But most of all, five years later, he’s struggled to overcome his brutal and haunting memories of Iraq.

PTSD Awareness Day was first established by Congress in 2010 after Sen. Kent Conrad, (D-N.D.), proposed honoring North Dakota Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Joe Biel, who took his own life following two tours in Iraq. Biel’s birthday was June 27. “National PTSD Awareness Day should serve as an opportunity for all of us to listen and learn about post-traumatic stress and let all our troops — past and present — know it’s okay to come forward and ask for help,” Conrad said in a statement.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called the recent surge in the number of military suicides “troubling and tragic” at a suicide prevention conference sponsored by the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs in Washington last week. 

There were 154 suicides among active-duty troops in the first 155 days of the year, according to a recent report from the Associated Press, a number that is 50 percent higher than the number of U.S. forces killed in action in Afghanistan over that time period. It is the highest rate in 10 years of war. Panetta also said he wants to make the Department of Defense a “game-changing innovator” on research in areas related to suicide prevention, including in post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.

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