Story by Erin Wittkop, Defense Media Activity
Retired Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli doesn’t call post-traumatic stress disorder a “disorder.”
“Nobody who’s 22-years old wants to be told they have a disorder; that’s why I don’t call it PTSD. That’s why I call it post-traumatic stress,” the former Army Vice Chief of Staff told me emphatically backstage at the recent Stand for the Troops benefit concert in Washington D.C.
Gen. Chiarelli was at the event to present retired Army Maj. Ben Richards with a Purple Heart award for the traumatic brain injury he sustained while deployed to Iraq in 2007. Ben has also struggled with post-traumatic stress following his injury.
While Ben obviously reached out for help with his injury and stress, Chiarelli worries, rightfully so, that decisions like Ben’s aren’t always the norm. “There’s a tendency [for] some service members to not be diagnosed,” noting that the military’s diagnostics for such conditions aren’t as advanced as they need to be. He also points out that some troops just don’t want to get checked, again referencing their fear of being labeled along with a co-occurring fear that such a label will hurt their military or post-military career options.
With empathy and concern etched across his face, Gen. Chiarelli tells me that if there was one thing he could tell a service member struggling with PTS or TBI symptoms it would be to “go and get help.” He says it’s the most important thing they have to do, no matter how scary it is. Sometimes, the alternative is even scarier.
“You know, the alternative to going in and getting the help you need is you become dependent on alcohol and drugs … to mask the symptoms. And that’s what happens. So, we see a lot of kids … both inside the service and outside the service who turn to alcohol and drugs as a way to mask the symptoms from post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.”
Gen. Chiarelli spent much of his tenure as Army Vice Chief advocating for PTSD, TBI and military suicide awareness, garnering praise as “one of the most forceful advocates and passionate leaders” the Army has seen from former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
He’s credited with establishing the partnership between the Army and the National Football League dedicated to researching the effects of traumatic brain injury on soldiers and professional football players.
He wants Americans to know that post-traumatic stress and TBI aren’t just military problems.
“It’s not. It’s an everyone problem. It’s estimated that eight percent of the American [public] will suffer post-traumatic stress at some point in their life. And traumatic brain injury is 3.4 million Americans a year and you know, it can take many forms.”
Chiarelli stresses the importance of Americans embracing PTSD and TBI as issues of their own and not relegating them as hallmarks of military experience. He’s noticed “a tendency for the American public that’s not connected to the wars … to think that everybody [who] comes back from Iraq and Afghanistan has traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress. We know that over 80% of the people who come back do not.”
He wants American citizens to make sure they keep an open mind about all service members. “Yes, we need to help the percent that are affected but we must ensure that not everybody is painted with the same paintbrush,” he says.
And help those affected he will. He hasn’t been idle since hanging up his uniform in 2012. He continues his advocacy for post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury as the CEO of One Mind for Research, an independent, non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to curing the brain diseases and ending the stigma that accompanies them.
“I hope we find the biological underpinnings for it,” he said when asked about the future of PTSD, TBI care. He hopes organizations like One Mind, dedicated to the biological sciences behind such conditions, are able to crack the case against them, offering medical professionals better diagnostics and patients better options.
It’s clear that no matter where the future of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury research goes, Gen. Chiarelli will be there working tirelessly to ensure these wounded warriors won’t be left behind.
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