Those who volunteer to defend their country know they are putting their lives at risk. But the troops and their families are only just beginning to understand the extent to which they are putting their mental health at risk. As we get better at keeping wounded warriors alive, we need to get better, and more serious, about developing tools for healing the injuries to the mind and brain that are often at least as destructive as more visible wounds.
Because of advances in medical technology and in body armor, soldiers are surviving combat situations that would have killed them in the past, but returning with traumatic brain injuries and with memories of mind-breaking horrors. Our military commitments in the wars on terrorism have required our troops to redeploy again and again, in some cases as many as eight times, such that nearly 13,000 soldiers have spent at least three cumulative years in Iraq or Afghanistan. Military historians call the frequency and cumulative length of the troops’ tours of duty historically unprecedented; compared with previous wars, deployments have been more frequent and breaks between tours are shorter. Given that redeployment is a major risk factor for post-traumatic stress disorder, this modern style of waging war comes with a profound cost to the troops: widespread psychological injury.