How One Army Town Copes with PTSD

Posttraumatic stress disorder can terrorize veterans, their families and military communities. How one Navy veteran — and one Army town — is coping

  • Ashley Gilbertson / VII Network for TIME

    A memorial at a corner in Colorado Springs. The site is where Private First Class Jomar Falu-Vives, who served one tour in Iraq, allegedly shot and killed two men

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    PTSD wasn't recognized as an illness until the 1980s, but it has been around for as long as men have been killing one another. Its symptoms include the abuse of alcohol and other drugs, an overall emotional numbness punctuated by outbursts of rage, severe depression and recurring nightmares. In extreme cases, it can lead to suicide or murder. One military doctor described PTSD's symptoms as "going from zero to combat speed in nothing flat."

    The incidence of PTSD is on the rise as two wars drag on. In April, a Rand Corp. study concluded that 1 out of almost every 5 military service members on combat tours — about 300,000 so far — returns home with symptoms of PTSD or major depression. "Anyone who goes through multiple deployments is going to be affected," says Dr. Matthew Friedman, director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' National Center for PTSD. But nearly half of these cases, according to the Rand study, go untreated because of the stigma that the military and civil society attach to mental disorders. The suspect in the Fort Hood shootings, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, counseled returning vets with PTSD, though there is no proof that this work unleashed his demons. But as Antonette Zeiss, deputy chief of mental-health services for Veterans Affairs says, "Anyone who works with PTSD clients and hears their stories will be profoundly affected."

    Down the road from the Waddells' home lies Colorado Springs, home to Fort Carson and the 4th Infantry Division, a spearhead in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Like those cycling in and out of Fort Hood, many soldiers at Fort Carson have endured at least two tours of duty, some three or more, sometimes with only a few months sandwiched in for them to reacquaint themselves with their families. Since 2007, eight men — all from a single combat-weary 500-man infantry battalion nicknamed Lethal Warriors — have been charged with carrying out a string of murders and attempted murders in Colorado Springs. So far, four have been convicted. In a drive-by shooting, a young couple was killed while hanging up signs for a garage sale; a woman was run over by a car and repeatedly stabbed; a learning-disabled teenage girl was taken into the woods, was raped and had her throat slashed. One soldier was shot five times by drinking buddies from his battalion; another was robbed of $20 by a fellow soldier and then shot point-blank. During the trials of these infantrymen, their lawyers claimed that prior to carrying out the crimes, they had all displayed classic symptoms of PTSD during and after their combat tours in Iraq. Other soldiers fall into a spiral of depression and kill themselves — so many, in fact, that idyllic Colorado Springs has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. (Army figures show that 76% of soldiers who committed suicide this year had served at least one tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.) As Colorado Springs police commander Fletcher Howard cautions, "If a guy comes home disturbed from Iraq, he's going to close the door. We don't know what we don't know."

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