CAMP CASEY, South Korea — The 2nd Infantry Division is experiencing a surge in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among soldiers who rotated here from assignments in Iraq or Afghanistan, says a senior health official.

Division psychologist Capt. Mary Dorritie said that although most of the combat-related PTSD cases she treats haven’t been severe, they are the bulk of her caseload; she treats from 10 to 15 soldiers suffering from the condition. Last year, in contrast, virtually all PTSD cases treated by 2nd ID mental health workers were related to sexual assault, she said.

PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that occurs when a person is exposed to a traumatic or life threatening event such as war, assault, sexual assault, natural disasters or disasters in general, Dorritie said.

Symptoms include panic attacks, nightmares, insomnia, hyper-vigilance, flashbacks, outbursts of anger and irritability, concentration and attention problems and the inability to relax, she said.

“We are starting to take a number of cases coming in. I’ve no idea how many the chaplains are seeing, but I expect it is a good number. I suspect there are going to be a lot more cases out there,” she said.

In January, health officials began tracking the number of combat veterans arriving at 2nd ID — soldiers who have served in conflict areas such as Panama, the Middle East, Haiti, Somalia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Hungary and Afghanistan.

Since then, 750 combat veterans have joined the division, Dorritie said.

“By June, 50 to 60 percent of NCOs (noncommissioned officers) in the division will have come directly from combat theater. The majority of my caseload is NCOs with PTSD,” she said.

Thirty percent of soldiers who serve in combat zones develop full-blown PTSD and 25 percent have at least some symptoms, Dorritie said. “So at least half of the soldiers in combat zones will have (some form of) PTSD.”

Not all of the 2nd ID soldiers suffering from PTSD seek help, she said; “most people deal with it on their own or by talking to friends or the chaplains.”

But others are discouraged from seeking professional help, Dorritie said, because of the perceived stigma attached to talking to mental health officials. “I had a soldier whose first sergeant switched him out” of his unit, she said, “because he came to us” with PTSD. The first sergeant “thought he was defective. The soldier is doing great at his new unit because his new first sergeant has been in combat and knows these things are normal.”

The 2nd ID chain of command is encouraging all company and battalion commanders to send soldiers with PTSD symptoms to mental health providers, she said.

Many 2nd ID soldiers suffering from the disorder have experienced traumatic events while serving in conflict zones, Dorritie said. Earlier this year, the division also reported higher-than-normal rates of suicide attempts, also attributed to the ongoing conflicts.

“They have seen their friends blown up, they have killed women and children,” she said, recalling one soldier who told of shooting into a vehicle that ran a checkpoint, accidentally killing women and children inside. “That is very traumatic for them.”

Other soldiers had been traumatized by seeing the vehicle in front of them in a convoy blown up by an improvised bomb, or by the constant barrage of mortars at forward operating bases, Dorritie said. “Shooting people and seeing people blown up is not normal.”

Some have developed an exaggerated startle response, she said. “You will see someone on a range and a weapon will go off and they will jump. It can be caused by sounds from combat such as helicopter rotors. For that instant it takes them back into combat.” Soldiers with PTSD will try to avoid the things that trigger it, such as fireworks displays or ranges, she said.

Most PTSD cases in 2nd ID have not been severe, Dorritie said. “The majority are having nightmares, sleep problems and anxiety attacks.” She said she treats PTSD by teaching soldiers relaxation techniques such as controlled breathing. “It helps them feel less stress.” After they’re relaxed, “We start to talk about the images that are disturbing them.”

Among soldiers with PTSD, she said, one of the most common complaints is not having people to talk to about it.

“I haven’t been in combat. We are working on getting a combat veterans group together so they can hang out and get together and talk to people who have been through the same things,” Dorritie said.

Maj. Shawn Lockett, 2nd ID deputy surgeon, experienced PTSD after dealing with the aftermath of a grenade attack by a U.S. soldier on a group of his comrades in Kuwait in March last year.

Lockett worked with a medical unit that tried, unsuccessfully, to save the lives of two soldiers injured in the attack. “There was a two-month period of time where I went through a lot of emotional things related to that grenade attack,” he recalled.

Lockett said before the “wake-up call” of having to deal with PTSD himself, he would have dismissed other soldiers suffering from the disorder as “not tough enough.” But after the grenade attack he had trouble sleeping; in South Korea certain sounds still bother him.

“Our alarm siren sounds the same as the Scud siren in Kuwait,” he said.

Lockett said counseling by Army psychologists immediately after the attack helped him and fellow medics deal with their PTSD in a healthy way. “We are very aware that soldiers are going to be coming here from Iraq. We have alerted all the providers in the division to be on the lookout for these symptoms. We are eventually going to have a division that is mostly combat-experienced,” he said.

author picture
Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now