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Book Review: When the War Never Ends: The Voices of Military Members with PTSD and Their Families by Leah Wizelman

Rowman & Littlefield (2011), $32.00

By Doug Bradley, NAMI HelpLine Information and Referral Associate

When the War Never Ends

When the War Never Ends is a collection of accounts of traumatic events and the continuing effects they have on veterans, their spouses and other family members. Each chapter is told by a service member or other family member describing what exactly triggered the posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and how the symptoms of PTSD manifest themselves in the narrators’ current lives.

In the foreward, Howard Kudler, M.D., of the Duke University Medical Center gives a brief overview of the recent history of PTSD. While doctors and society have recognized some kind of mental harm to some troops who had been in battle (e.g. “battle fatigue”), the study of this field was quickly abandoned once wars ended. Only after Vietnam did those who experienced recurring stress from their military service come to regard it as a distinct syndrome. While it was difficult for many veterans to talk about, it was even harder to get the medical establishment to recognize it. Finally, with the 1980 release of the DSM-III, the American Psychiatric Association offered PTSD as a diagnosis.

The stories in this book are varied. While some PTSD came out of one catastrophic event (such as a bombing), others resulted from repeated, high-level stress (like seeing civilian casualties many times while peacekeeping in the Balkans). All of the veterans in this book, however, felt that these experiences fundamentally changed them. Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, withdrawal from friends, anxiety and depression all eventually plagued these veterans, even if they did not notice changes at first.

The accounts by family members, in some cases spouses and relative of the veterans in the book, are also illuminating. The lives of family members are disrupted, often permanently through divorce and estrangement, when a loved one returns with PTSD. Children especially may not understand what has happened and feel that they are to blame for their parent’s problems.

The good news is that many of the veterans and their families are finding ways to cope. Lower-stress careers, medications, therapy, the support of other veterans and friends are all helpful to those in this book. While there is no magic cure, the people here take advantage of what they can to move on. Like the Vietnam veterans who knew that PTSD was real, these current veterans are on the cutting edge of recovery from this disorder.

Although some interpretation and analysis by the author might have proven useful in making sense of these stories, these accounts stand on their own. As the foreward states, PTSD—or any mental illness—does not belong to mental health professionals, but to the people who live with and are in recovery from it.   

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