We Called It “Cracking Up” - The Missourian: Columns

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We Called It “Cracking Up”

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Posted: Wednesday, April 9, 2014 6:00 pm

Some call it a mental health crisis in the Army. Others believe it is something less than a major crisis. But no one can deny a problem exists.

A second shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas, by a mentally unbalanced soldier that resulted in the deaths of four service personnel and the wounding of 16 others on the base, has high officials and the nation wondering what can be done to address mental illness among the military. It was the second incident of this kind at Fort Hood.

In this war era, we are hearing constantly about post-traumatic stress disorder, or simply PTSD. Back in the World War II and Korean War era it was simply called ‘cracking up’. Some of it was due to what we once called combat fatigue. PTSD had not been coined then.

Civilians thrust into military uniforms can cause major adjustment problems for some individuals. Certainly not for the vast, vast number of people who have served in uniform. There always have been military personnel who ‘cracked up’. They were among the individuals who couldn’t handle the transition from civilian to military life. Many never saw combat.

We knew a lawyer in St. Louis who worked for the Veterans Administration and one of his duties was to check on veterans who were receiving disability payments for service-connected medical problems, including mental cases. The VA wanted to know if the veterans or their families were using the money wisely on the medical problems. The majority of mental cases, or PTSD as we call it today, he checked on involved individuals who never saw combat. He checked on several cases in Washington.

Sometimes the adjustment from the military back to civilian life can be a problem also.

From this veterans’ experience, we were slow to recognize serious mental disorder problems. We were with an infantry company in Korea when one of the soldiers ‘cracked up’ and although he fired his weapon, he was subdued before he harmed anybody in the company. The warning signs were there by some of his actions, but none of the officers or NCOs recognized it as serious. His fellow soldiers simply thought he was a “screwball” and actually egged him on in some of his delusions. He was taken to the rear and we never learned what happened to him.

‘Crack ups’ also occurred in garrison. We know of one in which a basic training recruit jumped through a second-story barracks window. He wasn’t killed and was taken away to the base hospital. Again, we never learned his eventual fate.

Those of us who served during the draft period were in a different situation than today’s all-volunteer military. During the draft, the number of men being inducted was numerous and medical doctors could overlook or not spot danger signs when physicals were given. Today the number entering the service is much, much smaller and one would think better physical and mental screenings could be done. The problem is in so many cases of PTSD, there apparently aren’t easily detectable warning signs of potential problems.

Also, today it is so easy to obtain a gun and how do you keep a weapon out of the hands of a mentally disturbed person? And we aren’t just talking about military personnel. We have had mass shootings by mentally ill civilians — more than on military bases. The problem is not just with the military.

Why is it that a mentally disturbed person wants to kill a number of people? Why are there shootings at schools, malls, at a movie theater? In some incidents, the shooter craves attention, and is mentally disturbed because of that. There are some theories that Lee Harvey Oswald craved attention that he thought he deserved. Of course, he was a misfit. Even the Russians recognized that when he lived in that country.

Precautions can be taken to protect people from the mentally disturbed. However, there can never be 100 percent protection. We live in a dangerous country and world.

/opinion/columns