Broders lecture on broad psychological impact of war

Nicole Likarish

On Monday, Oct. 1, psychiatrists Judith and Donald Broder came to Olin Hall and spoke on the devastating, often unthought-of psychological impacts of war. Working out of L.A., the doctors have dealt firsthand with returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan and have spent the last several years documenting cases and symptoms in hopes of determining the best therapy regimens for veterans of modern war. Dr. Judith Broder has developed The Soldier’s Project, through which she and her colleagues can use what she and her husband have learned to provide free psychiatric treatment for soldiers and their families.

Beginning the presentation, Dr. Donald Broder spoke specifically of the poorly understood efforts of war on private Iraqi citizens. Determining an actual body count is difficult, but Broder cited the British Medical Journal’s Lancet report that provides a crude mortality rate of 655,000 excess deaths since the start of the invasion in 2001. Broder also noted a less rigorous study performed by the Opinion Research Business that places that number at 1.4 million and injured as somewhere near three times that number. With such shocking estimates, the psychiatrist pointed to the countless number of lives touched by each loss and expressed his concern of a lack of sensitivity for those left behind.

Forced to speculate on the incidence of psychiatric injury like post-traumatic stress disorder, Broder believes a life led under the constant threat of loss, in the midst of cholera epidemics and artillery fire, is precisely the high-anxiety existence to make PTSD nearly unavoidable.

Sharing these unstable environs, U.S. squadrons also operate under constantly heightened stress. Worries of personal injury, the loss of fellow squad members, sleep deprivation, temperature extremes and increasing threats of civil war put soldiers into an unsustainable state of hyperawareness. The very nature of this war, with unclear victories and largely unidentifiable enemies, Broder said, is psychologically exhausting. With some soldiers on their fifth or sixth deployments, coming home is no longer a sufficient reprieve to service men and women who now expect to be called at a moment’s notice to return to this high-stress atmosphere.

Dr. Judith Broder spoke specifically of these returning soldiers and their struggle to reintroduce themselves into families and workplaces, where standards of culture and conduct seem irreconcilable with those of war. In one disturbing anecdote, a returning soldier could not attend family barbecues because of strong associations with the smell of burning flesh. Others suffer unknowingly from traumatic brain injuries affecting the mind’s ability to learn new things and commit them to memory. Veterans often can’t understand their inability to advance in their former careers or readapt into former lives, and because symptoms are relatively subtle and sometimes shameful, many cases go undiagnosed and untreated.

Broder explained that the military psychology of proud self-sufficiency is in many ways antithetical to asking for help and that the high 35 percent of active duty soldiers accessing help is a testament to the considerable psychological damage of our military personnel deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. She shared one particular letter from a high-ranking officer begging the psychiatrists at The Soldier’s Project to help him overcome the numbness he feels towards his family upon his returns home. Ashamed, he wrote that as a military superior he shouldn’t be feeling this way anymore, but that he could not help but withdraw from his family.

Broder revealed this as a common problem for veterans reassuming roles of parents and spouses and cited the deep complexes of guilt and shame for what they’ve seen or done and the difficulty of regaining closeness with loved ones who can never understand the images and violence that haunt them.

Struggling to attract and maintain the 1,830 psychiatrists that must serve the psychological needs of some 23 million former and current military personnel and their families, the VA fears escalating suicides and undiagnosed depression. Hoping that recently expanded VA budgets coupled with efforts of outreach will alleviate this suffering, the Broders encouraged those attending their talk to spread awareness of and display sensitivity towards the difficulties that will continue to plague soldiers and their families long after the U.S. military pulls out of Iraq.

Students were deeply affected by the presentation. Senior Rachel Stein, moderator of the event, said she appreciated learning “the human side of the war, the part that is most important.”
Others were enraged at the increased death and psychological disruption of both U.S. troops and Iraqis. Introduced to more of this “dreadful reality,” senior James Most was left incredulous as to how “anyone could believe that the occupation is beneficial.”

Either way, the Broders’ message was clear: Veterans must be provided affordable, if not free, psychiatric care that is lifelong.