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Fields of Combat

Fields of Combat: Understanding PTSD among Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan

Erin P. Finley
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press,
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Fields of Combat
    Book Description:

    For many of the 1.6 million U.S. service members who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, the trip home is only the beginning of a longer journey. Many undergo an awkward period of readjustment to civilian life after long deployments. Some veterans may find themselves drinking too much, unable to sleep or waking from unspeakable dreams, lashing out at friends and loved ones. Over time, some will struggle so profoundly that they eventually are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress Disorder (PTSD).

    Both heartbreaking and hopeful, Fields of Combat tells the story of how American veterans and their families navigate the return home. Following a group of veterans and their their personal stories of war, trauma, and recovery, Erin P. Finley illustrates the devastating impact PTSD can have on veterans and their families. Finley sensitively explores issues of substance abuse, failed relationships, domestic violence, and even suicide and also challenges popular ideas of PTSD as incurable and permanently debilitating.

    Drawing on rich, often searing ethnographic material, Finley examines the cultural, political, and historical influences that shape individual experiences of PTSD and how its sufferers are perceived by the military, medical personnel, and society at large. Despite widespread media coverage and public controversy over the military's response to wounded and traumatized service members, debate continues over how best to provide treatment and compensation for service-related disabilities. Meanwhile, new and highly effective treatments are revolutionizing how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides trauma care, redefining the way PTSD itself is understood in the process. Carefully and compassionately untangling each of these conflicts, Fields of Combat reveals the very real implications they have for veterans living with PTSD and offers recommendations to improve how we care for this vulnerable but resilient population.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6070-8
    Subjects: Psychology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. List of Characters
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    (pp. 1-11)

    Stocky, jovial, and a master of the wry grin, Brian O’Neil served two tours as a combat medic for the U.S. Army Reserves. When his ten months in Afghanistan were up, he and his unit climbed into their vehicles and drove five hours from their fire base to Bagram Airfield. Upon reaching Bagram, they waited fifteen hours for their plane to arrive, then climbed aboard for the ten-hour flight to Germany. There was another ten-hour flight to Atlanta and then three days at Fort Benning, Georgia, before the last flight brought him home to San Antonio, Texas. “So in seven...

  7. 1 FOURTH OF JULY: A Tradition of Service in San Antonio
    (pp. 12-21)

    July 4, 2007, dawned rainy in San Antonio, but the day had turned sunny and sweltering by the time I found a seat at an empty picnic table down at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post. An older woman in a red shirt came and joined me at the same table, sheltering under the shade of its umbrella. She introduced herself as Melissa, and we chatted for a while, laughing about the fact that we had both gotten lost on the way to the VFW.

    We were both there for the same reason. As part of its Fourth...

  8. 2 WAR STORIES: Case Studies of Combat Deployment
    (pp. 22-50)

    This chapter introduces four veterans who describe their own experiences of war in Iraq and Afghanistan in the months and years following 9/11.¹ These four veterans—although all male, all American, all combatants—make it clear that that war is a big enough territory to leave room for a wide variety of experiences: combat and quiet, anger and love, peace and boredom. This is not a new observation. Most war movies have their token scenes depicting funny things that happened on the way to the land mine and the camaraderie between brothers-in-arms, bright moments amid the irregular storms of attack...

  9. 3 HOME AGAIN: Early Experiences of Post-Deployment Stress
    (pp. 51-72)

    When I ask Brian to describe coming home from Afghanistan, he describes the journey first, starting with the hours spent driving through the Taliban-controlled territory between his unit’s firebase and Bagram Airfield. He shrugs and says, “When you’re there, you’re always switched on. You can get up and get dressed without ever having a cognitive thought or doing anything. You’re up, your boots are on, your body armor’s on and you’re walking out the door and you say, ‘Well, I’m awake now.’ But you did it all automatically.” Upon reaching Bagram, he and his unit waited fifteen hours for their...

  10. 4 OF MEN AND MESSAGES: How Everyday Cultural Influences Affect Living with PTSD
    (pp. 73-88)

    Certain kinds of crises make it easy to know what to do next. For air force veteran Chris Monroe, a long period of steadily worsening family conflict, drinking, and hopelessness came to a head when he got drunk one night and, although he blacked out and does not remember, tried to commit suicide. When he came to, he says sheepishly, “I was being wrestled down by half a dozen San Antonio cops. They threw me in the back of the car and took me to the hospital. Fortunately they didn’t arrest me. My wife told them I was a veteran,...

  11. 5 CLINICAL HISTORIES: From Soldier’s Heart to PTSD
    (pp. 89-98)

    As far back as the Civil War, American military physicians have recognized and classified combat stress casualties into such categories as “insanity,” “nostalgia,” and what was called “soldier’s heart,” or “irritable heart.”¹ Individuals found to be insane were prevented from engaging in military service and dealt with as individual commanders saw fit, often treated as cowards or malingerers. Once the fighting stopped, Civil War veterans appear to have struggled with many of the functional and behavioral problems we continue to see among PTSD-diagnosed veterans today. The historian Eric Dean has uncovered accounts of physically sound veterans who after the war...

  12. 6 UNDER PRESSURE: Military Socialization and Stigma
    (pp. 99-112)

    “When I got back [from Afghanistan],” Chris says, “there was not even so much as a briefing that said, ‘Let us know if you’re having problems.’ There wasn’t so much as a [phone] number. There was literally nothing.” It was early in the post-9/11 era, the spring of 2002, and the American military machine was far from having mustered the full might it would in the coming years. This may be part of why Chris’s transfer received so little attention. And then there were the circumstances of his redeployment. “I was pretty much sent out of country because I—I...

  13. 7 EMBATTLED: The Politics of PTSD in VA Mental Health Care
    (pp. 113-134)

    I was sitting by the entrance of the local VA trauma clinic one morning when a middle-aged man came walking up the main stairway from the lobby, looking a little lost. He wore glasses and an oversized black T-shirt with flames and the name of an auto parts store on the back. I asked if I could help, and he told me he was ‘looking for mental health.’ I gestured toward the clinic door, then smiled and pointed to where the sign was hidden behind an event poster. He grinned and thanked me, and as he walked over to the...

  14. 8 NAVIGATION: Identity and Social Relations in Treatment Seeking and Recovery
    (pp. 135-157)

    Over the course of these pages, I have offered a portrait of how veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan experience combat PTSD as they move across time and a series of cultural environments, each of which adds another layer of memories, frustrations, and expectations to their understanding of themselves and their illness. We have, however, not yet heard veterans articulate how they understand what has happened to them, what is at stake for them in their journeys, and where they imagine themselves ending up.

    The anthropologist Arthur Kleinman has described what he calls “illness narratives,” the tales and accounts through which...

    (pp. 158-180)

    In the introduction, I suggested that PTSD is best approached via a series of stories being told about war and its aftermath in contemporary America. Subsequent chapters have recounted some of the stories that PTSD-diagnosed veterans tell of military service, of combat, of coming home from war to find themselves changed, of struggling to make sense of their distress and to take action in response to it. The book has been organized around two major focal points—personal experience and cultural politics—but it should be abundantly clear by now that one cannot separate the two. Combat trauma (the personal)...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 181-198)
  17. References
    (pp. 199-216)
  18. Index
    (pp. 217-222)