I’ve been thinking about the Invictus Games (“Invictus” means unconquered) since the news coverage last month. Modeled after the U.S. Department of Defense’s Warrior Games, these Games honor athletes who are wounded, ill and injured military service members and veterans. From the Invictus website: the word “embodies the fighting spirit of the wounded, injured and sick service personnel and what these tenacious men and women can achieve, post injury. The Games harness the power of sport to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation, and generate a wider understanding and respect for those who serve their country.”
After seeing the U.S. Department of Defense’s Warrior Games in 2013, Prince Harry returned to England determined to organize similar games. His inaugural games were in 2014, followed by 2016’s Invictus Games in Florida. As I watched news coverage of May’s Games, I thought about how visible these wounded are. It feels like the public is finally encouraged to see the physical effects of injury. It’s inspiring to watch these athletes, and it got me to thinking about other kinds of injuries—the invisible kind.
It makes me wish for a way to honor with our respect and support, the men and women suffering from PTSD and TBI (traumatic brain injury)—the ones who are having difficulty re-integrating not only into society, but into their families and close relationships. The ones who become so isolated, suicide seems a viable option. The New York Times recently published back-to-back (June 9th and 10th) articles about these “invisible” wounds. In the scientific journal The Lancet Neurology, neuropathologist Daniel Perl published evidence of changes to the brain after exposure to blast waves from explosions. Dr. Perl and his team have identified a pattern of scarring on the brains of veterans who subsequently died of their injuries or took their own lives well after the initial exposure. TBI is known as the signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While more research is needed to confirm his findings and to understand their ramifications, this is an important step in our understanding TBI and its long-term effects.
Perl’s evidence shows “scarring” in the areas of the brain that seem to affect brain centers for cognition, sleep and other “classic brain-injury” trouble spots. Problems with sleeplessness and cognition would sound familiar to any of our counselors fielding calls on the NVF’s Lifeline for Vets. Some of our vet/counselors taking calls have personal experience these symptoms. What’s new here is that there looks to be solid evidence that what we call PTSD may not be entirely due to emotional trauma, a diagnosis dating back to World War I, almost a century ago. We’ll be watching as further research unfolds.
In the meantime, we need to explore ways to honor and support these veterans who have returned to us bearing invisible wounds. When I think about what that honoring would look like, I know it would have to be so completely tailor-made it would probably have to be one-on-one. That’s the way the NVF’s Lifeline for Vets works. Vet-to-vet. Dr. Paula Kaplan, veteran advocate and author of When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home, emphasizes the power of listening, of asking a vet to tell their story, and then just listening. A lot of healing can happen in that kind of space. There’s no grandstand, no brass band, no trophies. But it’s a start, and the rewards are lasting and can be life-changing while we wait for the next development in diagnosis and treatment of the complex symptoms and manifestations of TBI and PTSD.
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The worst part of war should not be coming home.