PTSD can cause unhappy childhoods

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Last week the CBC reported a rise in family violence linked to Canadian Forces members suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). What else would you expect, I thought on seeing the story’s headline. But not so, according to two Canadian Forces colonels quoted in the story — not proven, no established link.

The story reflected a military police report about increased family violence at one major military base — “methodological flaws” in the study, grumped the Forces’ deputy surgeon-general. Elsewhere in the story Canada’s head of military social work was skeptical about an American military report pointing to rising PTSD-related family violence. Neither colonel was quoted expressing insatiable curiosity to scrutinize the possible link.

The CBC website version of the story began with a current photograph of families welcoming soldiers returning from a mission abroad. Yellow ribbons fade. I attended a similar reunion in late 1953 when my father’s infantry battalion returned from the Korean War. About eight months later my father lost it on one occasion and took several unsuccessful tries at kicking me with his heavy army boots. That memory flared in June 2009 when I read a court story about a soldier who had gotten boozed up and began striking and kicking his sons. The judge seemed overly inclined to excuse the serviceman because he was suffering from PTSD. That stirred the first [June 20/09] of three columns by me in this paper dealing with the military PTSD problem. My father had not been drinking on the kicking occasion. Did he have PTSD? Two earlier incidents of extreme physical abuse towards me — one with hands and the other a belt, both of which connected — came not long after the Second World War in which he had been wounded. Reactions to PTSD might reflect a person’s basic personality from before the traumatic event. I think my father’s wartime experiences aggravated an already abuse prone personality stemming from his own harsh childhood. Then too, entirely outside the military and issues of PTSD, family life generates a lot of stress and too often this turns into violence. With difficulties in anger management a symptom of PTSD, introduce that malady into a family setting and guess what will be the likely result. At one crucial point in my family there was much marital strain.

My first column pointed out that my father’s conduct promoted a psychological gulf between us. Much as I respected him, I always feared and never trusted him. No matter how much kindness, care and concern he displayed towards me at times, my attitude remained that summed up in the military joke, “Remember kiddies, once his pin has been pulled, Mr. Grenade is no longer our friend.” My father’s pin was always pulled. My strained relationship with him went through my temporarily boycotting him twice and ended permanently about eighteen months before he went to his death with no reconciliation. A small child has a psychological need for a loving, supportive father. An old and sick man could have done with the emotional succour of reciprocity from his son.

To present day military parents suffering PTSD complications, I can say only get them under control lest your children later have cause to write the sort of bleakness I have written here.

A retired lawyer, David Haas is a former regular and reserve army officer, including infantry service.

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