PTSD and TBI The unseen toll of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars
Michael Jernigan knew a lot about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder before he ever deployed to Iraq. His father developed it after fighting as a Marine in Vietnam and brought his demons back to Jernigan’s childhood home.
His father-in-law was a psychologist in the Air Force Special Operations and taught Jernigan about the secondary trauma that people living with someone with PSTD can develop.
So when Jernigan joined the Marines in 2004 on his 24th birthday--his dad was the officer that swore him into the service--he knew the risks of entering the military during wartime. Soon deployed to Iraq, Jernigan was seriously wounded by a roadside bomb blast in Falluja in late 2004.
“The current situation I was in,” Jernigan said, “I didn’t like. I wanted a change, so I joined the Marine Corps, cause it had worked for everyone else in my family. And I got blown up.”
He was blinded, losing both eyes. Part of his skull was crushed and removed, he sustained debilitating injuries to his right hand and left knee, and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
His close-cropped haircut exposes a 14-inch scar running from the right ear across the top of his head. He wears a diamond-studded fake eye in the empty right socket, and a Marine Corps pin on his lapel.
Medically retired from the Marines in December 2005, Jernigan began a protracted--and ongoing--battle with PTSD. But he attributes his psychological injury not to the bomb blast itself but simply the stress of fighting the war.
“It comes from the previous six months in a combat zone,” he said, “the constant adrenaline dumps from firefights.”
“The IED that I lost my eyesight in was not my first,” he said, pausing. “It was my third. Multiple blasts. The stress of just living in a combat zone where at any time a mortar could land or a rocket could land or a sniper round could go off....I think that all of that leads up to the psychological injury.”
Jernigan was lucky in many ways. First of all, he didn’t die. But perhaps more important, his family was and remains extremely supportive. They flew to Germany to meet him after he was flown out of Iraq for medical treatment, and helped him through every step of his transition.
With his family’s support, he reluctantly entered into therapy for his PTSD. This therapy helped Jernigan “come to grips with what happened to [me] and learn to live with it.”
Despite significant advances in PTSD treatment over the last two decades, many veterans have a hard time confronting the traumas they experienced at war.
“People that are willing to go back to the ninth circle of hell and confront their demons and are often much better for it,” said Dr. Matthew Friedman, Executive Director of the National Center for PTSD. “But not everyone can or wants to.”
Friedman, the VA’s top PTSD expert, said that a preventative approach to traumatic stress needs to be developed, both within the military and VA as well as in wider society.
“In the same way that we put Fluoride in the water and we vaccinate people,” he said, “I think we need to prepare for the inevitability [of traumatic stress].”
According to the Center’s research, roughly eight percent--almost one in ten--of Americans will suffer from PTSD, and one in two will be exposed to a traumatic event. Among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, roughly one in five is estimated to have PTSD.
“We shouldn’t be surprised that bad stuff’s gonna happen,” Friedman said, “and we shouldn’t be surprised that some people are not gonna be able to cope with it.”
Overview of PTSD Military footage courtesy of the DoD