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The Ravages of War Related PTSD Spread to Partners and Children of US Soldiers

The heartbreaking story of a family's secondary trauma.

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Meanwhile people like James Peterson, husband of Kateri of the Olive Garden breakdown, are signing up for experiments. James was so anxious and so suicidal that he couldn't even muster the self-preservation to get into inpatient treatment. With three kids, eight, five, and two, and Kateri's full-time job—as a VA nurse, actually—she could no longer manage his emotional plus physical problems: rheumatism consults, neuro consults for TBI, plus a burning rash on both feet he got in Fallujah in 2004. Chemical exposure, stress reaction, no one knows, but the skin cracks and opens up raw with lesions sometimes. Finally they enrolled him in a private clinical trial to get a needleful of anesthetic injected into a bundle of nerves at the top of his collarbone. Kateri writes me that just moments after the injection, he "went from ballstothewall PTSD to *BOOM* chill."

That's when her symptoms got worse, precipitating another meltdown, this time at a steak house where she took him to celebrate his newfound calm. They'd "assumed the normal positions," she with her back to the restaurant, he facing it so he could monitor everyone, and suddenly, a server dropped a tray out of her periphery, setting her circulatory system off at a million miles a minute. "He just ate his steak like nothing," she says.

"When you've become hypervigilant, the place you are most functional is on the battlefield," McGill's Brunet explains. Caleb, despite his injuries and his admission that war was pretty excruciatingly awful, told me he wishes he could go back. Kateri, despite wishing her system hadn't learned to run at a heightened state, at this point is like a drug addict, needing stimulation to maintain it. For the first time since Iraq, her husband felt at peace, and was able to enjoy a steak dinner with his wife. "He just sat there," Kateri says. His normalcy "was so distressing to me that I wanted to stab him."

Researchers posit that traumatic brain injury can make the brain more vulnerable to PTSD, or that it can exacerbate its symptoms of exhaustion, agitation, confusion, headaches.

There are trials  where patients take MDMA (ecstasy's active ingredient) while talking about trauma to promote more positive and less scary associations with the events. Animal trials where rats are  lightly tortured and then injected with a protein that will stop the enzymes in their brains from being able to form memories of it. Some of the most interesting research involves beta-blockers, drugs that suppress the adrenaline response. In  one small study, trauma victims given beta-blockers within six hours of the incident had a 40 percent less likelihood of developing PTSD. Brunet runs trials where patients take beta-blockers while talking about trauma so their reactions are weakened and then presumably lessened the next time it comes up, so far with promising results. But as of yet, "pharmacologically, there's no magic bullet," he says. And "we're much less effective at treating more complex PTSD" with traditional therapy. "Treatment offered vets might be less effective than what's offered to civilians with trauma. With veterans, there are important concomitant issues."

Like traumatic brain injury. Researchers posit that TBI can make the brain more vulnerable to PTSD, or that it can exacerbate its symptoms of exhaustion, agitation, confusion, headaches. They're not positive about that, or about whether TBI makes PTSD harder to treat. James Peterson's post-injection chill-out wore off after a month, faster than it does for other patients—maybe because of his TBI. Maybe not. Either way, as for TBI, well, "there isno cure," says David Hovda, director of  UCLA's Brain Injury Research Center and an adviser to the Department of Defense.

 
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