Sebastian Junger on PTSD: 'It's coming home that's actually the trauma'

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman with The World. If you’ve ever had a panic attack, the kind where you think you’re losing your mind, you might relate to this story from journalist Sebastian Junger.


Sebastian Junger: One day, I tried to take the subway, and it was crowded, it was rush hour, and I was just seized by this incredible panic. I can really say I was more so scared in the subway than I’d been in Afghanistan, and I had a full blown panic attack. I had no idea it was connected to the war I’d just been in. I just thought I was going crazy.


Werman: As a reporter, Junger got very close to combat in Afghanistan. About as close as you can get without actually being a combatant. He spent a year embedded with an army platoon in the Korengal Valley. But he didn’t realize then that, like the soldiers he wrote about, he, too, was at risk for post-traumatic stress. He writes about that and what returning soldiers go through in the latest issue of Vanity Fair. Junger says in hindsight, his first brush with PTSD came in 2000, just two months after returning from Afghanistan. He was in the New York subway, as you heard, when he found himself pressed up against a metal column, convinced he was going to die.


Junger: The subway didn’t replicate anything I’d experienced in Afghanistan. What it seemed to be was that I felt out of control and sort of besieged by chaotic forces. There were too many people, everything was too loud, the train was going too fast. I somehow thought the train was going to jump the rails and kill me. Like, it was completely irrational, and I knew it was irrational, but I was absolutely terrified, and it was a very sort of split-screen experience. Like, I knew it didn’t make any sense, but it didn’t keep me from being terrified. And that’s what panic is.


Werman: I’d like our listeners to hear a bit of the sort of combat you experienced. This is from your unnarrated documentary, Restrepo, in which you and the late Tim Hetherington embedded with a US platoon in remotest Afghanistan. I think the sound alone should give us a small sense of what might’ve informed your post-combat stress, not to mention any symptoms faced by the soldiers. So, here’s a bit from Restrepo.


[Excerpt from Restrepo]


Werman: Yeah, well, talk about besieged and beset upon by chaotic forces. There’s a firefight obviously breaking out there at the outpost, Restrepo. One thing that that movie, Restrepo, shows us, Sebastian, is the proximity of the soldiers and the community that they form, but also the void they face when they’re back stateside. And some of the conclusions in your article, I think, will actually surprise people as far as that goes. You say witnessing more combat does not necessarily correlate with more PTSD. There’s no connection?


Junger: I mean, everyone’s traumatized by trauma in the immediate aftermath. That’s a very natural and healthy reaction. But long term, chronic PTSD is a different matter, and the rates of that seem to be determined not so much by what happened in the war, but the kind of society you come home to. I studied anthropology in college, I did field work on the Navajo reservation. I just had this idea that 100 to 150 years ago, the Apache, the Comanche, the Navajo, the fighters from those tribes probably weren’t getting PTSD when they were fighting other tribes or the US military. And I started to look into this with anthropologists who’ve worked all over the world, and indeed, if you come back to a cohesive, tightly-knit society, into a sort of communal existence with other people, it really mitigates the effects of trauma and it’s very, very effective at keeping people from getting long term trauma. The Israeli military, it’s a modern state, but it’s an extremely cohesive society. It has a long term PTSD rate of something like 1%. By comparison, the US military has a rate of 20%.


Werman: So, as far as Israel goes, how is that society more cohesive, and how are they able to kind of absorb some of those traumatized soldiers?


Junger: Yeah, I mean Israel’s a very interesting example because obviously it’s a modern state, it’s not a hunter-gatherer society. But there is national service. So, no one bothers saying, “Thank you for your service,” to a soldier, because everyone serves, it’s virtually universal. The war--whatever you may feel about it--the war is right on their doorsteps. There’s a sort of intuitive logic to the necessity to have an army and maybe even to fight. And the war is a shared public meaning that’s easier to grasp the closer war is. When you fly 5,000 miles, 8,000 miles, 10,000 miles away to fight a war, the population back home doesn’t necessarily have that intuitive understanding of the war, the shared public meaning. And so when soldiers come back, they come back from a very intimate, personal experience in their platoon, sleeping in groups, doing everything in groups. We basically evolved as a species to live out our lives like that, in small bands of hunter-gatherers. And so when that gets replicated in a platoon, it feels very good and very natural.


Werman: Right, so in the absence of that cohesion back home, troops miss the sleeping quarters in places like the Korengal Valley. What were yours like in Afghanistan?


Junger: I was in a little jerry-rigged plywood hooch that I could stretch out my arm from where I slept and touch three other men, and there was something incredibly reassuring about sleeping in a group, even in a very dangerous environment. What a number of vets have told me is that when they come home, even though they’re safe in their bedroom in their suburb, they actually feel more in danger than they did in Afghanistan, because in Afghanistan they were sleeping in a big group of heavily-armed men, and that actually felt safer.


Werman: So, I want to get back to that really kind of compelling part of your article, where you state, given the profound alienation that afflicts modern society when combat vets say they want to go back to war, they may be having an entirely healthy response to the perceived emptiness of modern life. So, are Western approaches to post-traumatic stress adequate?


Junger: First of all, very few people, I think, have classic long term PTSD. So, only 10% of the military is actually in combat, and some fraction of those people will actually get long term PTSD. It’s almost a language problem. I think a lot of people who weren’t traumatized but they do come back from the experience of war into an alienated modern society, and actually it’s their re-entry that’s traumatizing; weirdly, it’s coming home that’s actually the trauma. You know, I think they actually need a new word, some kind of “alienation disorder,” “re-entry disorder,” something like that. It actually isn’t related to trauma. I think that actually would be an important thing. But ultimately, the people who do have PTSD, the therapies are effective. I mean, one of the most traumatic things that can happen to a person is being raped. What they’ve found is virtually 100% of people who have been raped are deeply traumatized afterwards. But a year later--


Werman: And you’re not talking about being raped in the military, just to be clear. This is just”¦?


Junger: Just generally in the civilian population, rape is one of the most traumatizing things that there is. And a year later, something of over half of rape survivors have recovered enough to function in a healthy way, fully in their lives. That’s actually doing far better than the statistics on combat vets. I think what’s happening is that the vets who come back, they’re experiencing a re-entry problem that even rape victims are not experiencing, and I think that’s what society has to sort of tackle.


Werman: We’ve been talking vets, but many people suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress. I think of the Syrian people, like practically the entire country, and all the migrants we were discussing earlier on The World, whether they’re coming from Burma to Indonesia, or Syria and Libya to Italy. Do you think post-traumatic stress is discussed enough in relation to those people?


Junger: Listen, anyone who’s been traumatized has this problem. I don’t know how much it’s discussed, but it can affect someone their whole life if they wind up in a non-supportive environment and it’s not dealt with. It’s a very, very severe problem.


Werman: And your own personal experience? Do you think you’ve kind of come to grips with it?


Junger: Absolutely, yeah. Absolutely. But it took a few years, you know. As it should. But it is something people recover from.


Werman: Sebastian Junger there. He’s got a new article on post-combat stress in Vanity Fair. By the way, we often reach out to our community of veterans for help with our reporting. If you’re a vet and want to join our online group, grab your phone and text the word “return” to the number 698-66. You’re with The World.