Aussie’s War With PTSD Leads Him To The Brink

 

Taken from the  Army Times  which is located    HERE.

In the exploding hell of battle, a single hand poked through the earth.

John Cantwell could see the ridges and calluses of the skin, and the pile of desert sand that had swallowed the rest of the Iraqi soldier. The troops Cantwell was fighting alongside in the Gulf War had used bulldozing tanks to bury the man alive.

This hand — so jarringly human amid the cold mechanics of bombs and anonymous enemies — was about to wedge itself, the Australian man would write decades later, “like a splinter under the skin of my soul.” It would lead, along with other battlefield horrors, to the splintering of his mind and to a locked psychiatric ward. And it would lead to the abrupt end of a 38-year military career that saw him ascend to remarkable heights as the commander of Australia’s 1,500 troops in Afghanistan.

In the process, Maj. Gen. Cantwell would become two people: a competent warrior on the outside. A cowering wreck on the inside.

He hid his agony to survive, to protect his loved ones and — he admits it — to pursue professional glory. But in the end, the man with two selves found he had lost himself completely.

A disheartening number of veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. What made Cantwell so extraordinary was his ability to hide his escalating pain for so long, while simultaneously soaring through the military’s ranks — eventually taking charge of an entire nation’s troops in a war zone.

But the higher he climbed, the further he fell into the abyss of mental illness.

“I became an excellent actor,” he says, 20 years into his battle with PTSD and going public for the first time with the release of his autobiography, “Exit Wounds.”

“It did, though, come at a price. It was like pressure building in a hose, and you finally release the tap.”

And when that tap was opened, Cantwell nearly drowned.

IRAQ

He had practically begged his way onto the battlefield.

In 1974, he joined Australia’s Army as a 17-year-old private, after a childhood spent worshipping Vietnam veterans and poring over military-themed comic books. He ended up on exchange with the British Army, and two years later, the Gulf War erupted. Cantwell hounded his superiors for his first chance at combat. “Be careful what you wish for, John,” one warned him. But on Dec. 17, 1990, he said goodbye to his wife and two sons and headed to the Persian Gulf.

It was exciting at first — the strategizing, the explosions, the sense of being part of something big. He whooped with victory alongside his comrades when bombs blew apart Iraqi artillery.

Then came the hand.

Cantwell stared at it as his tank rolled past. He had been unnerved by the plan for American troops to bulldoze over a network of trenches hiding Iraqi soldiers but had said nothing. Now he wondered: Had the soldier been reaching for help when he was entombed?

The U.S. Defense Department would later defend the operation as a necessity of war, arguing that the Iraqis who were killed had chosen to stay in the trenches and fight. The Defense Department’s former spokesman, Pete Williams, told reporters at the time: “There is no nice way to kill somebody in war. War is hell.”

On the battlefield, there was no time to process it. Cantwell was a warrior, and this was war. He pushed forward.

The horrors piled up. He saw the twisted, charred remains of men. He fought to stay calm when several small bombs exploded under his vehicle. Inside a blood- and excrement-smeared torture chamber in a former Iraqi headquarters, he saw a drill, hammers, pliers and rope. He imagined the screams of the victims.

Through it all, he knew he must remain focused. That was what he had been trained to do, and he did. But there were moments when he felt something gnawing at him.

He was looking for survivors near a blown-out truck when he spotted the first head lying in the sand. A second head lay nearby, one eye staring back at him, a scarf still wrapped around the remains of the neck.

Cantwell felt an overwhelming compulsion to put the men back together.

With sweaty hands, he lifted the second head by the scarf and carried it over to its former body. He grabbed the other head by the hair and placed it alongside the shoulders to which it had once been attached.

Then he climbed into his tank, and got back to the business of war.

AUSTRALIA

Cantwell was falling apart.

The nightmares arrived swift and brutal upon his return to Australia. In them, the hand summons him. He falls to his knees, helpless as the hand yanks him into the ground toward certain death.

He woke to his own screams.

The nightly torment was relentless. He dreamed of being blown apart by land mines, of the decapitated heads. Mornings brought exhaustion and flashbacks. In public, he scanned crowded areas for exits, convinced an attack was imminent. Lightning made him jump.

The nightmares grew worse. One night, he shoved his wife, Jane, out of bed, pinned her against the wall and held his arm across her throat. Jane was terrified. When her husband woke up, so was he. What if he had hurt her?

He suffered alone. At the time, Australia hadn’t experienced battle since Vietnam, so he was an anomaly. He hid it from his sons, wanting to protect them. He confided in Jane, but only to an extent. He worried his fear would contaminate her.

He began to live behind a mask. Every morning, he dragged himself out of bed and ruthlessly quarantined his fear into a tiny box inside his mind. He showered, shaved, slapped on a smile and adopted a confident tone: This is the John Cantwell the rest of the world will see.

The double life was exhausting. He consulted a psychiatrist, who offered a cold dismissal: Get on with your job and your life. Stop fixating on bad memories.

He slid further into depression. A year later, a psychologist diagnosed him with PTSD. Cantwell took sleeping pills at night to try to find peace.

It never came.

IRAQ

It was 2006, and the Iraq war was raging when Cantwell landed in Baghdad. Australia had sent 2,000 troops to support the U.S. and the British, and Cantwell, by then a brigadier, was deployed to coordinate operations across the country.

Despite his PTSD, he’d lobbied hard for this job. Maybe he could help, he told himself. And maybe if he returned to the place where his torture began, he could find a way to move on.

This time, though, his decisions determined whether his soldiers lived or died.

One day, he had to choose which of two groups of soldiers would travel with the only available explosives-clearing team. The group he sent out with the team had no trouble. The group he sent out alone hit a roadside bomb.

Three soldiers died. Cantwell wanted to vomit.

The violence left him in despair. He was visiting a neighborhood when a car bomb exploded. Cantwell stared at brain matter and blood sprayed across a wall. Two tiny pink sandals lay on the ground below the stain. One floated in a pool of blood, the wind turning it in a circle.

Cantwell knew the dead child’s sandals would join the hand in his nightmares.

He grew bitter and disillusioned. The job left little time for sleep. When he did, the nightmares were grislier than ever.

An officer asked one morning if he was OK. Cantwell assured him: “I’m fine.”

He wasn’t. But before he left Baghdad, he was promoted to major general and appointed Deputy Chief of the Australian Army.

AUSTRALIA

Jane was stricken by her husband’s appearance when he returned home. He was exhausted and sick.

The guilt of the soldiers’ deaths from the roadside bomb was eating at him. Jane tried to assure him he was not responsible. He ignored her. In his mind, it would always be his fault.

He quietly visited another psychiatrist who put him on medication. It did little to help.

The pressure of pretending was almost unbearable.

AFGHANISTAN

Cantwell stared at the two flag-draped caskets before him. Inside lay the first Australians to die in Afghanistan since Cantwell had taken command of Australia’s forces in the Middle East.

They had been his responsibility. Now they were dead, torn apart in an explosion.

At their memorial, he spoke of bravery and sacrifice. Many in the audience cried. He strangled his own misery into silence.

After the service, he climbed on board the plane bound for the morgue and sat next to the caskets, thinking about the men inside. His warrior self tried to reject the nagging feeling that they had died because of him. He tried to think rationally: He had done his best.

But the line between his two selves was disintegrating. He began to cry. A friend on board asked if he was OK.

Cantwell could not answer.

AUSTRALIA

He wondered if all the bloodshed was worth it.

He was at the beach on vacation with Jane. But he was detached from everyone and everything.

There were rumors he was up for a promotion to Chief of the Army when he was summoned to the nation’s capital to give his debrief on Afghanistan.

He donned the warrior mask one last time. He appeared calm, made jokes.

When it was over, his superior asked him how he was really doing.

Cantwell surrendered. He said: I am not OK. I am not sleeping. I am not who you think I am. Please tell the chief of the defense force.

Cantwell told the chief himself that he could not take the job. The chief understood.

His truth exposed, Cantwell hoped the worst was over. It was not. On a train, he was so startled by the conductor calling out for tickets that he shouted in terror. The other passengers laughed. He cried.

A psychiatrist finally asked: Had he thought of suicide?

He answered: Yes.

The pressure that had been building for 20 years was at bursting point.

Cantwell let go.

———

A pajama-clad woman in the psychiatric ward asked the general why he was there.

He wondered, too.

He had checked himself into this hospital, knowing he was broken. Still, he argued with himself: What is a major general doing here?

The doctors changed his medication, and he attended regular counseling sessions. One night, he only had one horrible dream — an improvement.

He left after a week of intense treatment. A few months later, he retired. He and Jane moved to a peaceful coastal community, where he continues his therapy.

He doesn’t regret his career. Australia’s Defense Chief Gen. David Hurley said Cantwell’s courageous decision to go public has already encouraged other members of the military to come forward with their own struggles.

But speaking out isn’t easy. Military personnel often fear the stigma of mental illness will ruin their careers, and they worry that people will think they are not fit to lead, says Matthew Friedman, executive director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD.

To Cantwell, soldiers are simply not conditioned to expose their pain.

“We’ve instilled in them this idea of physical and mental toughness — that’s how they win battle, that’s how we win wars,” Cantwell says. “We expect that same person with the self-image of a warrior — someone who is tough and imperturbable and able to shrug off pain and difficult environments and horror and get on with their job — suddenly we expect them to turn around and open up? It just doesn’t work.”

He sits at his computer and reaches for the mouse. There is a click as a button attached to the bracelet he wears hits the table. He wove it out of parachute cord as a reminder of the 10 men who died under his command in Afghanistan.

He insists the bracelet is not a punishment but a mark of respect.

Maybe it is both.

———

How are you feeling today, John?

His answer is now honest: Not good.

His sleep has been tormented by the usual nightmares. Upon waking, he sees the headline that another Australian soldier has died in Afghanistan.

His stomach drops. He knows these feelings may never go away. He hopes he can eventually forgive himself for the men who died under his command. But he never wants to forget.

“One day I’m hoping to be able to touch on these emotions, experience them and yet not let them get their hooks into me,” he says. “That’ll come one day. One day.”

Until then, he will focus on rebuilding himself — his real self. He wants to learn to sail and scuba dive. He wants to write and paint and draw (“something a bit creative rather than destructive,” he says with a chuckle). Maybe he’ll work with veterans, or become a mental health advocate.

Not long ago, he turned 56. He wanted to celebrate with a trip to the beach, but driving a car brings flashbacks of car bombers in Iraq. So he and Jane hopped on his motorcycle and roared down the road. At a surf club, they grabbed seats on the deck. The general clutched a cold beer.

“Life is pretty good,” he thought, watching the waves roll in. “Despite everything — life is pretty good.”

Prayer Requests & Praise Reports: December 30th, 2012

The Same Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,

You do not change. The earth cracks, the seas roar, the nimrods shake their fists, dark doers threaten. We are not affected in Spirit and Truth. There is no turning. Our face is toward You Who equipped us with promises fulfilled. As we wait, we worship. As we worship, we rejoice. As we rejoice, we love. Love never fails.

Take us into the inner court and wash us in Your Word. Prepare us for the Coming in the Clouds. Brighten our hope with the twinkling of an eye. Blow the trumpet. Keep us in ready response.

Alter our offerings that we might please You Who is worthy. All Three in One, satisfy our longing to be eternalized from this world and its devious assaults. We spew our own lukewarmness. You have allowed the Taste of heaven to walk among us to teach and admonish. Cinch the meaning of Your exactness of the Father’s will into our understanding and fullest desire to obey continually. We pray for less interruption.

Grant us peace in the midst. Diminish our awareness of the temporal conditions that single us away from the finished sacrifice that proved Your love toward us. Set our mind on things above. Stay our hearts upward.

We love You God of All. We adore, though feebly. Yes You Lord. First and Only. Amen      ~clean hands pure heart~

God Knows: Streams In The Desert, December 29th, 2012

 

“He knoweth the way that I take” Job 23:10

Believer! What a glorious assurance! This way of thine–this, it may be, a crooked, mysterious, tangled way–this way of trial and tears. “He knoweth it.” The furnace seven times heated–He lighted it. There is an Almighty Guide knowing and directing our footsteps, whether it be to the bitter Marah pool, or to the joy and refreshment of Elim.
That way, dark to the Egyptians, has its pillar of cloud and fire for His own Israel. The furnace is hot; but not only can we trust the hand that kindles it, but we have the assurance that the fires are lighted not to consume, but to refine; and that when the refining process is completed (no sooner–no later) He brings His people forth as gold.
When they think Him least near, He is often nearest. “When my spirit was overwhelmed, then thou knewest my path.”
Do we know of ONE brighter than the brightest radiance of the visible sun, visiting our chamber with the first waking beam of the morning; an eye of infinite tenderness and compassion following us throughout the day, knowing the way that we take?
The world, in its cold vocabulary in the hour of adversity, speaks of “Providence”–“the will of Providence”–“the strokes of Providence.” PROVIDENCE! what is that?
Why dethrone a living, directing God from the sovereignty of His own earth? Why substitute an inanimate, death-like abstraction, in place of an acting, controlling, personal Jehovah?
How it would take the sting from many a goading trial, to see what Job saw (in his hour of aggravated woe, when every earthly hope lay prostrate at his feet)–no hand but the Divine. He saw that hand behind the gleaming swords of the Sabeans–he saw it behind the lightning flash–he saw it giving wings to the careening tempest–he saw it in the awful silence of his rifled home.
“The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!”
Thus seeing God in everything, his faith reached its climax when this once powerful prince of the desert, seated on his bed of ashes, could say, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” –Macduff

Praise & Worship: December 28th, 2012

Song List

1.  The Lost Get Found-  Britt Nicole

2.  It’s Going To Be Alright-  Sara Groves

3.  Our God Reigns-  Brandon Heath

4.  Your Hands-  JJ Heller

5.  In The Sweet By And By-  June Carter Cash& Johnny Cash

6.  Savior’s Here-  Kari Jobe

7.  Forgiven-  Sanctus Real

8.  Live Like That-  Sidewalk Prophets

9.  Healing Begins-  Tenth Avenue North

10.  Healer-  Bethel Live

11.  You’re Still God-  Godfrey Birtill

 

 

Bullying Changes Genes in Children’s DNA, Scientists Say

Taken from  ABC News  which is located   HERE.

New research shows that the chemical structure surrounding part of the genetic blueprint of a young child is physically changed by bullying, leaving the victim less able to respond properly to the stress and possibly paving the way for mental problems later in life.

The findings challenge the popular assumption that DNA is largely immutable, remaining basically unchanged throughout a person’s life.  But what does change, according to the research, is how one critical gene known to be involved in regulating mood is crippled, leaving the victim unable to deal with the stress.

“Bullying is a serious matter, not only on the short term consequences, but it also leaves kind of a physiological change that could affect (the victim’s) mental health later on,” Isabelle Ouellet-Morin of the University of Montreal, lead author of a study in the current issue of the journal Psychological Medicine, said in a telephone interview.

Overreacting to stress can be harmful, of course, but failing to react in a reasonable manner isn’t healthy either, she added.  Her previous research shows that “children who were bullied or maltreated showed less reactivity to stress and had more problems in social interaction and had more externalized problems, such as aggression.”

It’s normal to be angry when bullied, and failure to deal with that stress may be just as harmful as overreacting.

Ouellet-Morin and her colleagues found that the level of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone, was suppressed in children who had been bullied.  That reduction, she said, resulted in a change in the structure surrounding a gene that regulates serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in mood regulation and depression.

The work is part of a growing body of research on epigenetics, a relatively new field that has challenged many beliefs on genetics.  That work shows that while genes themselves may remain largely unchanged, the way they are expressed — or what genes do for a living — can be profoundly influenced by the environments in which we live.

Nature vs. Nurture

It’s sort of a revival of the old nature-vs.-nurture debate. In this age of genetic advancement, nature has held the upper hand, but epigenetics adds a new twist — nurture, or our social interactions, may be an extremely important player in determining how our genes are expressed.

While the finding that bullying can influence DNA may be frightening, the research also suggests the possibility of reversing the damage.  It isn’t known yet whether the physiological changes from bullying are permanent.  It may be, she suggested, that dealing with bullying and nurturing the victims may reverse the damage.  But at this point, no one knows for sure.

Ouellet-Morin’s research is part of the Environmental Risk Longitudinal Twin Study in England, where she worked before returning to Montreal.  The researchers concentrated on 28 sets of identical twins from 2,232 British children in the overall study.  In all 28 cases, one twin had been bullied, but the other twin had not, according to the children, their mothers, and others.

DNA samples were collected at ages 5 and 10, and cortisol was measured at 5, 10 and 12.

The researchers found “blunted cortisol responses to stress in bullied twins in comparison with their non-bullied co-twins.” Thus, the victims were inhibited in having a normal reaction to the stress of being bullied.  That difference could not be attributed to genetic differences, because they were identical twins. Nor could it be blamed on different family environments, because both twins were raised in the same conditions.  The difference, the researchers concluded, came from changes in gene expression through epigenetics that left the victims less responsive to stress.

“The victims were not reacting physiologically to stress,” Ouellet-Morin said in the interview.  “The non-bullied twins showed the normal response, which is secreting the stress hormone while under stress.”  That failure to deal normally with the stress could have left them less resilient, and more prone to mental and social problems, she suggested.

The researchers conclude that the difference resulted entirely from bullying.

“This hypothesis is consistent with accumulating evidence, mainly derived from animal studies, showing that epigenetic remodeling represents a mechanism by which adverse experiences disrupt reactivity to stress and health,” the study adds.

The bottom line here is that bullying must be taken very seriously, she said, but there is reason to hope that the effect doesn’t have to be permanent.

“If we accept the idea suggested by this study,” she said, “that social environment can change DNA manipulation that is important for stress reactivity and mood regulation, then if we change that environment, if we make sure the victims are not victimized anymore, or if we give them the proper resources to cope better with the situation and get on with their lives, then we have the possibility of reversing what we are observing right now.”

Maybe there is light at the end of this very dark tunnel.

As Veterans Return, PTSD Could Become More Common In Workplace

Taken from  The Record  which is located   HERE.

At a recent weekly staff meeting, human resources manager Zetta Ferguson noticed that one of her employees wasn’t sitting at the conference table.

She encouraged the employee who was sitting against the wall, Corey Michael McGee, to join the rest of the group at the table, but he declined. After the meeting, McGee explained: “I sit against the wall where I’m safest. Or in my mind I feel I’m safest.”

An army veteran who was struck by an improvised explosive device and gunfire in Fallujah, Iraq, McGee says post-traumatic stress disorder and some remaining effects of his injuries affect him in some ways in the workplace, but “it’s gotten a lot better over the years.”

Many employers have not delved deeply into how they might address PTSD, a relatively new issue, but they could face it more frequently as more veterans return to the workforce.

About 2.4 million members of the military have been deployed in the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tens of thousands are returning home. The influx is expected to continue until 2016.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates as many as 11 per cent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan and 20 per cent of Iraqi war veterans are afflicted by PTSD, which can generate both sympathy and fear.

Employees with the disorder may face problems arising from anxiety or have limited ability to perform certain tasks. At the same time, some employers may overreact, and veterans often don’t want employers or co-workers to assume they have a condition resulting from combat.

Ferguson, an HR manager at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Decatur, Ga., is experiencing the challenges firsthand. It sometimes takes creativity to address McGee’s needs while capitalizing on his strengths and maintaining his privacy, she said. She decided, for example, to invite employees to sit wherever they wanted to avoid singling McGee out.

“Nobody wants to feel like they don’t fit in,” said Ferguson, who is a veteran herself.

PTSD can often rise to the level of a disability protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which calls for employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees to do their jobs, said Jennifer Sandberg, a partner at labour and employment law firm Fisher & Phillips. Administrative charges of PTSD discrimination filed under the ADA totalled 593 in fiscal year 2011, and have increased every year since 2006, according to data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Some who suffer PTSD have problems with memory, concentration, organization or sleep — all of which can affect their work, according to a Department of Labor website for employers.

PTSD affects about 7.7 million adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

A variety of accommodations can help people with PTSD, including flexible work schedules, schedule reminders and checklists, rest breaks or white noise machines, according to America’s Heroes at Work, a Department of Labor website that addresses employment challenges of returning veterans with traumatic brain injury and PTSD.

“We want to make sure we return the favour, basically the debt that we owe to them to help find them placement in the workforce — give them all the tools that they need and assist them,” Georgia labour commissioner Mark Butler said.

Leander Hines, a reservations agent for Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, has a service dog he brings into work that serves as a medical alert dog and helps him with PTSD.

A retired army criminal investigator, Hines says he suffered a traumatic brain injury from an IED explosion more than five years ago.

At Delta’s reservations centre in Dallas-Fort Worth, “when I’m on the phone with somebody that’s just negative, she’ll stand up under my desk and I’ll just realize that I need to step back,” Hines said. “She knows that I’m angry, so she’ll pretty much turn a circle and jump up on me, redirect me.”

Atlanta medical centre trauma recovery program director Bekh Bradley said employers should not assume veterans have PTSD — particularly since estimates show a sizable majority do not.

“No veteran wants to come in under suspicion that because they’re a veteran they have PTSD,” Bradley said.

He encouraged employers to learn more about PTSD. Though some people affected by PTSD may worry that they’ll be seen as “crazy,” “they’re really not crazy — they’re just having a response that is not adaptive to their current environment,” Bradley said.

He said some veterans may go out of their way to avoid traffic because in combat they learned to be very cautious about things on the side of the road that could be improvised explosive devices. Then, “when they return here, veterans might become very anxious when they get caught in traffic” or when there’s a trash bag on the side of the road, Bradley said. That can affect their ability to get to work during rush hour, he said.

Many companies don’t have specialized programs to address PTSD in the workplace and depend on existing resources such as employee assistance programs to help.

An employee is not required to disclose any disability to his or her employer, Sandberg said. But some employers become too anxious about the possibility of an employee with PTSD, she said.

“What is typically a challenge for employers is that they worry this person might be violent when that might not be the case at all,” Sandberg said. “Don’t assume the worst and try to take action when you’ve had no signals” that cause concern.

And even when there are employees with PTSD, it’s probably not a good idea to tell other employees unless there is a business reason, Sandberg said.

Ferguson, who has plenty of exposure to veterans while working at the VA, said rushing to conclusions about veterans with PTSD can get employers in trouble. “Could a vet with PTSD go off? Of course,” she said. “Could a non-veteran go off? Of course.”