Posted with permission from Brigadier General John E. Michel, USAF – Commanding General, NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan; Commander, 438 Air Expeditionary Wing. This article was co-written with my good friend, actor and activist Ken Wahl.
“You can’t patch a wounded soul with a Band-Aid.” Michael Connelly
In 1945, General George Patton’s distinguished military career was severely tarnished after slapping and yelling at two soldiers who he believed to be cowards. The privates, whose maladies were not visible, were recuperating in a military hospital in Sicily alongside others with visible wounds.
Almost overnight, President Franklin Roosevelt began receiving hundreds of letters related to the incident. The majority supported Patton and his actions; some even suggested a promotion was in order. Ultimately, though, Patton was reprimanded, ordered to apologize and relieved of command of the Seventh Army. Why? Because General Patton fell into a trap many others had fallen into throughout recorded history. That is, they failed to understand that sometimes, the most significant wounds of warfare are not physically visible on the outside, but rather, rage on the inside in the form of severe mental distress.
Experts today understand that mental distress as it relates to armed conflict likely began when the earliest humans picked up the first stick or stone. Only the name has changed. During the Civil War, soldiers who lost their will or capacity to fight were afflicted with nostalgia, later diagnosed as soldier’s heart.
During World War I, physicians began characterizing soldiers experiencing combat trauma as shell shocked. They assigned the diagnosis to those with neurological symptoms but no discernable physical injuries. They derived the term from the belief that nearby exploding shells dramatically changed atmospheric pressure, harming the nervous systems of soldiers in the immediate vicinity.
“…about 1 in 30 adults in the U.S. suffer PTSD in a given year–and that risk increases dramatically in veterans of war.”
Researchers later determined relatively few cases involved exploding ordnance, which only added to the mystique of the centuries-old mystery. World War II introduced the concept of combat fatigue and statistics now reveal that one in four causalities from this conflict resulted from some form of mental disorder. But it was the experience of the Vietnam War that eventually brought greater clarity, understanding and eventually an accurate descriptor for this oft-debilitating and even deadly emotional and psychological phenomenon-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
PTSD can affect many different people, from rape survivors, victims of natural disasters to military service men and women. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 1 in 30 adults in the U.S. suffer PTSD in a given year–and that risk increases dramatically in veterans of war.
Recent scientific understanding reveals how experiencing traumatic events can change the way our brains function. Especially with severe or repeated exposure, the brain produces signals that makes a person feel as though the event is happening again and again; which can impede healing and keep someone stuck in a pattern that induces excessive anxiety, promotes fear, sleeplessness, or primes them to seek relief via alcohol, drugs or other harmful substances.
Fortunately, there are promising new treatments for PTSD, one of which is the use of service animals
Most people may not realize the tremendous value that therapy/companion/comfort animals have for the purposes of easing the suffering of those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, (PTSD), particularly within the military. This is entirely understandable and stands to reason. Most people do not suffer from PTSD. For those that do, however, research abounds that confirms animals can be a crucial part of their recovery.
A large part of the despair associated with these invisible maladies is a deep sense of uselessness and being a burden to family and friends. This then brings on feelings of guilt, which intensifies the sense of worthlessness, igniting the downward spiral. I know this from personal experience, as I had sustained a severe spinal injury in 1992. I, myself, sank into that abysmal pit of feeling utterly worthless, useless and burdensome. The caring for an animal, especially one that’s been rescued, can help return one to a sense of being needed and useful. In my own case, it was nearly miraculous. The relationship between human and animal is wholly symbiotic. The person needs the animal for comfort and companionship, and the animal needs the love and caring of the human. It is a classic “win-win” situation. It sounds simple – and it is. That is why it works so well. However, it is not a panacea. It is just one method for the easing of suffering from PTSD. If you know someone struggling with this profoundly frightening and frustrating condition, please encourage their friends and family to connect them with a rescue pet. In most cases, it will be remarkably spiritually uplifting to both human and animal.
“…I felt compelled to reach out to anyone who cared to listen to try to help with this terrible situation.”
I am not a doctor. Nor am I (Ken Wahl) a member of the military. What I am is an appreciative, concerned American citizen, who was horrified when I heard about the horrendous rates of suicide (22 per day on average for veterans and active-duty troops) and PTSD within our military. As such, I felt compelled to reach out to anyone who cared to listen to try to help with this terrible situation. This is not just life and death. It is both life and death for those that defend our freedom. Adding to my passion for this effort is my love for animals and my desire to help ease their suffering as well. To me, nothing I could do could be more important. Fortunately, I have found many others that feel likewise. Hopefully, anyone who may happen to read this will also come to feel this way.
Despite many reports to the contrary, kindness, concern, and a desire to do good and make a positive difference in this life is alive and well in America. For that, I am extremely grateful…
Ken Wahl is an American actor, film director, producer and veteran advocate. He has won various awards, including a Golden Globe for leading actor in the hit series “Wiseguy”, and has been nominated for numerous Emmys. A severe neck injury forced Ken to retire from his film career and since that time, he has dedicated his life to helping veterans suffering with PTSD with rescued animals.
John E. Michel is a widely recognized expert in culture, strategy & individual and organizational change. An accomplished unconventional leader and proven status quo buster, he has successfully led several multi-billion dollar transformation efforts and his award-winning work has been featured in a wide variety of articles and journals, including the Harvard Business Review. In addition to serving our nation as an active duty General Officer in the United States Air Force, John enjoys helping people learn to walk differently in the world so they can become the best version of themselves possible. He is blessed to be married to the most patient person on the planet and together, they have two amazing sons. You are encouraged to learn more about John at his website, www.MediocreMe.com – Contact John Michel via email ( JohnMichel@GeneralLeadership.com) – Military Biography