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Shrinking With the Stars: American Sniper and the Heartbreak of PTSD

I’m not sure what to make of the controversy that’s surrounded the movie American Sniper. I know that there are some conflicting stories about Chris Kyle, the Navy Seal on whom the movie is based, and comments he may have made. I don’t claim to know all about him but some things seem very clear and indisputable to me that this movie does a fine job illustrating.
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The movie focuses on Chris’ four tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq but spans from his civilian life prior to enlisting, his time on active duty, his return to his family and ends with his tragic and untimely death at the hands of a fellow veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. I took several messages from the movie that I would like to share.

#1, there are very brave souls out there who sign up to join the military and put themselves in incredibly dangerous situations that require more courage than I can imagine. Their service to our country is a tremendous sacrifice.

#2, the military has a real problem with PTSD. A problem that needs many more resources and interventions. And perhaps a different way of approaching the problem.

The movie finely illustrates the instant judgment calls that this most lethal sniper in US military history made on whether or not to shoot someone, determining in an instant whether a potential target posed a threat to his fellow soldiers. At one point when Chris has a child in is sight the marine with him says something to the effect of, “You know, they fry you if you’re wrong.” The point being that there’s the weight of taking a potentially innocent life on the one hand and on the other hand the awesome responsibility of protecting his fellow soldiers. If, by not shooting, they are killed or injured–how hard is that to live with?

A later scene shows Chris sitting at home in front of the TV watching war coverage, oblivious to the comfort of his surroundings to which you would expect him to be glad to have returned. His attention is rapt, bordering on obsessive, but having already seen how fully he bears his responsibilities how else can we expect him to cope with feelings that he’s left a job unfinished and knowing that while he sits in his living room helplessly watching, his friends and fellow soldiers are still in mortal danger?

Chris did lose friends on his tours and he believed his struggles with PTSD stemmed from these hard losses. The movie does a fine job showing the residual effects of having experienced trauma. At a family picnic we see him scanning the environment, a classic symptom of PTSD. This is called hyper vigilance, the sense of being on high alert for danger which was necessary and helpful in war but not so much at a family gathering. In the movie Chris misinterprets the family dog playing for being threatening and almost takes him down before his family intercedes.

Another scene shows him calling his wife from a bar. Though she’s expecting his return to the states she’s surprised to learn that he’s already back in the country. He tells her he needed ‘a minute’ before coming home. And one can imagine that this transition must have been very difficult to make. From soldier in Iraq to husband and father in suburban Texas, the bar being the only place to try to step down and gather himself.

This scene was upsetting to watch. We know a lot more about trauma now than we did after Vietnam, Korea or World War II. Why doesn’t a tour of duty include a structure for soldiers to decompress and assimilate upon their return home from war? Are returning soldiers still immediately left to fend for themselves with the offer that they can get help if they need it? I’m not sure if this is the case but I hope it isn’t.

In the past year I have been trained in a treatment approach to deal with trauma called TIR, or Traumatic Incident Reduction. It’s a remarkable method of quickly addressing and lessening the emotional charge from a trauma. The thinking with trauma and TIR is that there is an initial traumatic event and that one thing that can happen is a person tries to cope by getting distance from the event and not thinking about it. This can result in aspects of the trauma not getting processed and then we often see a web of other symptoms cropping up. An example of this might be a veteran who goes to a picnic on the Fourth of July and has a reaction to the fireworks because they sound like an explosion he experienced in combat. He may first come to avoid Fourth of July celebrations and maybe later become averse to the smell of hotdogs which he comes to associate with the picnic where he felt re-traumatized. And so the web continues to build from there. This can become debilitating for some people and it isn’t surprising that some people try to cope by using alcohol or drugs or other unhealthy methods–anything to stop the intrusive thoughts and feelings.

Practicing in the DC metro area I’ve worked with many members of the military and other defense organizations. I’ve seen firsthand the consequences and repercussions of untreated PTSD and the tremendous stigma that still exists for people trying to seek help. I had one client say “Now that I understand PTSD I can see that everyone I work with in my office has it and no one will get help for it” People are very fearful of losing their clearances, of being on medication and of being seen as weak.

When I left the movie I had the thought that what if rather than going to a bar to try to deal with transitioning from soldier in Iraq to husband and father in suburban Texas that Chris Kyle and other vets had a place to regroup and deal with their traumatic experiences? What if we understood that the whole culture and how we approach PTSD needs to be changed? We can’t expect to train soldiers to show no weakness and be tough in the field of battle but then try to say to them, when they come back, that now they should seek out help if they are struggling. If from the get-go we say, “We are expecting you to do things and see things in combat that people shouldn’t have to deal with. We know how this affects people and therefore part of you mission and tour of duty is to come back and go through the other side of basic training than where we ramp you up for war. The last part of your mission is to transition to civilian life and we are going to train you for that, too.” A process that all returning soldiers participate in, scaled so that additional resources are tapped into for those who need continued help and where no one is stigmatized for struggling–it is expected.

We can’t expect vets to turn off emotion for combat, experience trauma then just come back and switch back to experiencing emotions in a healthy way. We can’t expect people whose identity is wrapped up in being tough–who are trained to kill–to admit they are struggling and to not only seek out help but have to jump through all sorts of red tape to get it. The military needs to educate and normalize the effects of trauma. We see the need to take people and train them for combat, basic training is eight weeks. How many weeks should be allotted for readjustment and what are the steps to processing and working through the aftermath?

The trial for Chris Kyle’s killer is starting soon and hopefully it will be an opportunity to talk more about PTSD and how we need to improve the way we help those suffering from it and not just a way to add further shame and stigma.

I am trained in TIR and have successfully used it in my practice even as I’m pursuing certification. If you or someone you know could benefit from working through a traumatic incident, contact me.

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1 Comments on “Shrinking With the Stars: American Sniper and the Heartbreak of PTSD

  1. Excellent post, as always. War is a destructive force, and it breaks human beings, even those who believe they are doing the right thing. We need to come to terms with the psychological damage war does, and to start figuring out ways to avoiding sending human beings to fight and die needlessly.

    I’m heartened by the ongoing studies using MDMA (Ecstasy) to treat PTSD. The results have been very promising, and when coupled with appropriate psychological counseling, this medicine may be a key component to helping our veterans heal.