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The lasting - and shared - effects PTSD has on veterans

Posted June 28

In October 1945, Lt. Col. Wilber Bradt returned home to his family in Washington, D.C., after four years of preparing for and fighting in World War II. His son, Hale Bradt, said everything seemed normal once he came home. In fact, Hale said, his father was as “conversant” and “energized" as he's ever been.

But just six weeks later, Wilber Bradt walked down into his basement and shot himself in the chest. Hale was just shy of 15 years old; his younger sister was 13 years old.

It wasn’t until Hale Bradt turned 50 years old in 1980 that, with the help of nearly 700 of his father’s handwritten letters, he discovered his father had post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

PTSD “develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health. A Yale study released June 1 shows veterans are especially susceptible to the disorder, with nearly one-third of all veterans who experienced trauma showing one or more symptoms of the disorder.

Symptoms of PTSD can manifest in different ways but typically include flashbacks of traumatic events, nightmares and frequent scary thoughts, according to NIMH. The National Center for PTSD estimates that between 7-8 of every 100 people will develop PTSD at some point in their lives.

Though The National Center for PTSD says the relationship between suicide and PTSD is unclear, the executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah said there "is definitely a correlation."

"We're learning through our research that PTSD is actually a very good predictor of suicidal behavior," said Dr. Craig Bryan.

And in regards to Bradt's father, Bryan said suicide is rarely impulsive.

"People have this up-and-down process where your outward appearance seems fine, but there might be some inner turmoil not apparent to the outside," Bryan said. "They become psychologically fatigued and kind of let go. They don’t necessarily choose death, but they run out of the energy to hang on to life any longer."

Now a retired professor of physics at MIT, Bradt spent the past 36 years searching through the letters he collected from his family and used them to write a three-part series called "Wilber’s War: An American Family’s Journey through World War II" (Van Dorn Books). Through his memories and ones left behind by his father, Bradt's books explore his family dynamics, his father’s legacy and the effects of war on a person’s emotional well-being.

By reading through those letters, Bradt said he was finally able to piece together the story of a man who suffered from an internal disorder that, in a time when masculinity trumped vulnerability, was difficult to speak about.

“He was willing to say he was blue in the letters, which was interesting in that very few people of my macho gender are willing to do that,” Bradt said.

In 2014, the Senate determined the epidemic of veterans affected by PTSD became so prevalent that it designated June as National PTSD Awareness Month in efforts to “encourage everyone to raise public awareness of PTSD and effective treatments.” They also designated June 27 as PTSD Awareness Day.

Bradt said that looking back, it’s now easy to see that his father was depressed after returning from a war where he was in charge of thousands of men and won multiple awards for service. To come home to no job, a newborn baby he didn’t father and physical reminders of the violence he survived only exasperated the stress he felt.

“He had a regimental combat team of regimental men who would have been in the first waves ashore in Japan, and on the ship home he was in charge of a ship that would have held 5,000 soldiers,” Bradt said of his father. “And then his unit was demobilized and he’s in command of zero. But he had all this other stuff going on too, like leaving his friends behind 6 feet under. And he was experiencing malaria symptoms.”

Bradt’s father was seeking treatment after he returned from war. He was participating in outpatient therapy at a hospital on a nearby Army base. He was doing everything right, Bradt insists, but he said it’s not always enough.

“They need help, and he was getting it,” Bradt said. “There was a psychiatrist at Fort Meade hospital involved in this, so it wasn’t as if the system totally ignored him.”

Bryan said that the "vast majorities of mental health clinicians cannot treat it effectively."

He described two types of psychotherapy that he and his team said are the only effective methods of treating PTSD. Prolonged Exposure Therapy and Cognitive Processing Therapy are both 12-session outpatient treatments that require the patient face his or her fears and thoughts directly.

Using the example of a patient who may be afraid of crowded areas, Bryan explained the two treatments as follows.

In Prolonged Exposure Therapy, the doctor would "gradually increase exposure to crowded areas" to overcome the fear and anxiety.

In Cognitive Processing Therapy, the doctor would guide the patient through a series of questions that re-examine the way he or she sees their world after a traumatic experience.

"By asking them 'Why you?' you force them to identify unhelpful thought processes and switch them into more productive thought processes."

Bryan said they do think about each patient's emotional capacity prior to treatment, but doesn't generally worry about pushing them too far.

"The fragilization of trauma survivors is actually harmful," Bryan said. "You're just reinforcing negative thoughts they have about themselves."

Bradt said that while his family dealt with PTSD in one way or another after his father's suicide, and that it made them stronger in other ways. The absence of his father, he said, pushed him to find ”the confidence and the independence to do more than what I might have done with (his) life.”

“Bottom line, it changes lives but, you know, human beings are survivors,” Bradt said.

Bryan echoed that idea and said that those experiencing PTSD or know someone who is should simply practice compassion, both for themselves and for the person who experienced trauma.

"I think the big thing is understanding that the behaviors people engage with when they have PTSD are actually really understandable," Bryan said. "Some therapies are better than others. If you've gone to treatment and you’re not getting better, it's possible you haven't gotten the right treatment for you. There is help for you somewhere, even if it’s difficult to find."

Email: sweber@deseretnews.com; Twitter: @sarapweber

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