General George Washington and P.T.S.D.

george-washington-statueThe commander-in-chief of America’s Continental Army was alleged to have never told a lie.  If this is true, what might George Washington have said about using the term “PTSD” to describe our veterans?

First, some background:  The acronym PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, was introduced during the Vietnam War. Today it describes the post-war experience of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans.  It is clinical, crisp and impersonal.  My particular beef is with the word “disorder.” It implies something is wrong with the veteran, rather than the experience they have been through.  Who would not be disordered by the choice each day to kill or be killed? PTSD denies the truth of the veteran’s experience.

In a video, comedian George Carlin riffs on the World War II veterans who came home with “battle fatigue.” This euphemism reduced the terrors of war to extreme weariness. In the 1947 film, The Best Years of Our Lives, three veterans struggle to transition to civilian life. One of these, Homer Parrish, is played by Harold Russell a real life solider who lost his hands in the war. When Homer’s mother takes off his prosthetic hooks before he goes to bed, he wonders aloud if his fiancé will want to do this. The film won seven Oscars in 1947, including Best Picture. Moviegoers were not deterred by this realistic drama. It remains one of the top 100 grossing films of all time.

In World War I, veterans returned “shell shocked.”  These words described the actual experience of this war.  The punctuating “sh” sounds evoke the image of deafening explosions that maimed and killed soldiers in rat-infested trenches.  Civilians could relate to these words. Carlin called this label “simple, honest and direct.” It legitimized the wartime experiences for returning soldiers and vividly described the experience for people who stayed home.

What was the postwar label used in the Civil War?  In Healing the Heart of Democracyauthor Parker Palmer tells us it was “soldier’s heart.”  When you think of this term, understand that the word “heart” had a different meaning during the Civil War than today.  Back then it described the convergence of all of our human ways of knowing:– “intellectual, emotional, sensory, intuitive, imaginative, experiential, relational and bodily.”  This term embraced the fact that war “shatters a person’s ‘sense of self’” and also their connections to family and community. To be labeled as disordered can further isolate returning soldiers.

When I consider alternative labels to “PTSD”, “soldier’s heart,” seems a good choice. Remember that the word “heart” has the same root as the word “courage.” It can help veterans reconnect to themselves, their families and communities.  Carlin believed that if PTSD had been replaced with real words like “shell shock,” Vietnam veterans might have gotten the help they needed to recover, not just cope.

Why bother changing our words?  At almost 19 million views, The Power of Words video shows how significant this can be. When it begins, we see a blind man sitting on the pavement in front of an historic European building.  An empty tin can is next to him and a cardboard sign. It reads, “I’m blind, please help.” Few do this. People walk by, oblivious, talking and laughing.

In the distance, we see a young woman approaching. She is dressed in black, wears lizard green heels, dark glasses and carries a brief case. Suddenly, she stops in front of the blind man. Stooping down, she pulls out a pen, grabs his sign and writes something on the opposite side.  She puts it back. No words are exchanged. The blind man touches her shoes as if they were Braille.

Now strangers fling coins into the blind man’s tin can like hailstones from heaven. Ka-ching, ka-ching. As he empties the coins into his hand, the mysterious woman returns. The blind man rubs her shoes. “What d’ye do to my sign?” he asks. “I wrote the same”, she replies “but in different words.” Now we see the new sign: “It’s a beautiful day and I can’t see it.” The screen fades to blue as these words appear: “Change Your Words. Change your World.”

How did the new words make a difference? They transformed the connection between the beggar and the passers-by. “I’m blind, please help.” paints the blind man as a victim. It makes us uncomfortable, even guilty that I can see and he cannot. This creates distance.

The new sign resets this relationship. Now the blind man has a gift to offer. He reminds us it is a beautiful day, a fact that the strangers in the video seem not to have noticed. His sign implies, you can see and I can’t, but I can still experience this beautiful day and share it with you. No longer, a victim, the blind man is a giver. Can it be this easy to find words that restore our connections and move us to action?

On George Washington’s birthday, help to restore a soldier’s heart by changing your words. It is your gift to give.

Recently, I met a man who waits tables in a neighborhood restaurant. He comes from a family of veterans. When I told him how the labels describing veterans’ post-war experience have changed over time, he listened politely. I asked, “Did you know what PTSD was called during the Civil War?” He did not. But he gasped when I told him. His face softened as if he just had seen the sun on a cloudy day. The words “soldier’s heart” pierced his own.

Removing the stigma of PTSD will show our veterans we want them to heal physically, psychologically and spiritually. Finding words that build empathy will lead to political connectedness, not political correctness. They will reinforce our common humanity. They will transform lives. Change our words. Change our world.

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Laura Rittenhouse

Laura Rittenhouse

Laura Rittenhouse is Founder, CEO and President of Rittenhouse Rankings, Inc. She works with CEOs and CFOs to create Accountability Cultures that sharpen execution, grow trust and achieve financial leadership.

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