The act of killing is as fundamental to war as oxygen is to fire. Yet it is also the one thing many combat veterans avoid discussing when they return home, whether out of shame, guilt or a deep fear of being misunderstood.
But a new study of Iraq war veterans by researchers in San Francisco suggests that more discussion of killing may help veterans cope with an array of mental health problems stemming from war.
The study, published in The Journal of Traumatic Stress, found that soldiers who reported having killed in combat, or who gave orders that led to killing, were more likely to report the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol abuse, anger and relationship problems…
Shira Maguen…the principal investigator on the study, said the results suggested that mental health professionals need to incorporate killing more explicitly into their assessments and treatment plans for veterans. That would include finding ways to discuss the impact of killing, in public forums and in private treatment, to reduce the stigma and shame, she argued…
Mental health experts said the new study confirmed findings from research on Vietnam veterans and did not break much new ground. But they said it underscored that treating stress disorder among veterans is often very different from treating it in people who, say, have been raped or have been in car accidents.
“People don’t understand the moral ambiguity of combat and why it is so hard to get over it,” said Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. “What makes combat veterans ill is not always about being a victim, but, in some instances, feeling very much both a perpetrator and a victim at the same time…”
Some experts said military law had also complicated therapy by having unclear rules about when a soldier’s conversations with a therapist are protected from legal action. The mere threat that those conversations could be used in war crimes prosecutions discourages many troops and veterans from seeking counseling, those experts say.
My closest friend was our home state’s most decorated soldier in WW2.
He was in parachutes reconnaissance – dropped behind enemy lines to work his way back and record everything of military importance. Still, the toughest memory he tried to excise from those missions was crawling through a field up to a German sentry apparently sleeping against a tree – plunging a knife into his chest to kill him – and discovering that he already was dead from a bullet wound.
Something we revisited time and again.