PTSD first diagnosed 100 years ago, midstate author contends

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Far from the front lines in Afghanistan, bombs explode everyday inside soldiers on the home front suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

“It’s very common for veterans who have seen combat, or who have been in battle and firefights,” said Doctor John Wallace, a PTSD coordinator.

The problem is huge and its fallout is frightening: anxiety, anger, suicide. The problem is getting a lot of attention recently, but the problem is not new.

“Probably the most common way people talked about it was shell shock. That was an early term that the British came up with,” said Wendy Moffat, a biographer and English Professor at Dickinson College.

All war is hell, but the flames never burned brighter than during World War I, which began exactly 100 years ago Monday. With its mustard gas and flame throwers, it took battlefield brutality to a whole new level.

“We got very, very good at killing people,” Moffat said. “As it turned out, we also got good at traumatizing them in ways nobody had expected.”

Moffat is writing the biography of Doctor Thomas Salmon, a civilian psychiatrist who voluntarily went to the front during WWI to study, diagnose and treat mentally broken soldiers. He’s the first U.S. Army psychiatrist and the first to recognize PTSD.

“He (Dr. Salmon) trains doctors to pull soldiers out who are exhibiting these symptoms. People who can’t stand up. People who are shaking so hard they can’t hold a gun,” Moffat said.

Salmon develops treatments for returning soldiers. He also pushes the government to officially recognize the problem and pay for rehabilitation. But Salmon dies shortly after the war. His work gets lost in the shuffle of the post-war roaring 20’s. Moffat hopes to bring him much-deserved recognition.

“The greatest sorrow of his life was not being able to bring home to veterans the kind of care that they needed long-term,”

Moffat insists that the United States’ failure to embrace and extend Salmon’s work doomed future generations of American soldiers to needless suffering. She blames a lack of political will and wonders why the U.S. continues to grapple with a problem that was initially recognized a century ago.

“I think that we don’t want to accept that a real cost of war is taking care of the veterans when they come home,” Moffat said.

She spent three years researching Doctor Thomas Salmon. She’s currently writing his biography.


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