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Student Explores a Century of Combat Trauma

When Jamie Loveland saw the faces of aging war veterans struggling with combat trauma from their past during a recent School for Social Work internship, she was compelled to look deeper into the issue.

It was at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Houston, Texas—the country’s second largest federal building after the Pentagon—that Loveland recently worked with the veterans. She was inspired then to base her thesis on an historical analysis of combat-related trauma through a biological, psychological and social lens. 

“I don’t have any affiliation with the military but when I sat down and started working with veterans, something just happened,” said Loveland. “I felt these individuals are such an important part of who we are as a nation…If we cannot prevent the development of combat-related PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], we have the responsibility to step up to the plate and help them.”

Currently, 216,000 veterans of Vietnam, World War II and the Korean War are being treated for PTSD, even as thousands more young veterans arrive from Afghanistan and Iraq. An estimated 30 percent from those serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, troops whose average age is 21, will eventually show signs of the disorder. 

“We know we are going to see the after effects of this war on terror well into the future,” said Loveland, who will graduate with her master’s from the School for Social Work on August 17. “Of the signature wounds from this war, PTSD—according to research—will be the most controversial and expensive.” 

A century of wars has taught the medical field and clinical social workers much about the stress that troops endure during wartime situations. History has shown that soldiers need periods of rest between tours of duty and that the tours themselves need to be time-limited, yet that is not currently happening, said Loveland. 

“It’s as though this has to be relearned every time there is a war,” said Loveland. “Ignoring the historical information has contributed to higher rates of PTSD.”   

During World War I, PTSD was called shell shock, and soldiers were treated with “three hots and a cot”—a reference to three hot meals and some bed rest. Sometimes they were forced to rest with sedatives, said Loveland. 

By World War II, the symptoms were referred to as “combat fatigue” and medical personnel explored ways to “prevent” the symptoms—an effort that led to intelligence testing, which was ultimately scrapped as a failure. However, another effort, group debriefings, offered hope as a treatment.  

Then, the U.S. sent troops to Vietnam and the Korean War, each experience adding to the body of knowledge about PTSD and reinforcing what had been earlier learned. 

But Afghanistan and Iraq are different from other wars in U.S. history in several ways, said Loveland, who will continue her research into those wars’ effects on soldiers after her graduation.  

For one thing, she said, military personnel in Iraq are all volunteers—more than half are National Guard members and Reservists serving alongside active-duty soldiers. Being a Guard Member or a Reservist can have an impact on the type of mental health care available, and the environment that they return to after combat, said Loveland. 

For example, instead of returning to a military base where help could be provided, most Reservists return home to families. About half of those who are serving are married, but families are likely not knowledgeable about PTSD symptoms or treatment. At the same time, families may be suffering from their own issues of trauma, a factor that must be incorporated into treatment, Loveland said. 

“I look at the media and think, ‘What it would be like if my sister, partner, brother or father was serving,’” said Loveland. “Secondary trauma must be a factor when a person with a loved one stationed abroad hears a media report about casualties in the immediate area of where their family members are serving. Imagine how upset they must feel until they hear word that their loved one is okay.” 

That is something that Loveland would like to explore further while she continues to work with veterans.

8/2/07    By Kristen Cole
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