The physical manifestations of stress are something Kenneth Pitts, M.S., research scientist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Mass., knows a heck of a lot about. A U.S. Army veteran who deployed to Afghanistan, Kosovo and Panama during his 23 years of military service, Pitts opened his talk with a YouTube video portraying how to drive a Hummer in Iraq: Basically, never stop, even if that means bumping other vehicles out of the way and driving the wrong way to avoid encountering an improvised explosive device.
“They think their life depends on it,” Pitts said.
Maintaining that level of alertness has lasting physiological effects, disrupting the body’s levels of the stress hormones adrenaline, prompting the first wave of the fight-or-flight response, and cortisol, which supports the body as it takes action. Cortisol is known to increase the storage of emotional memories.
“You can maintain that 60 miles per hour but you’re going to wear out your car,” Pitts said, noting that chronic stress produces increased inflammation that is linked to heart disease, strokes and autoimmune disorders.
Panelist Ross D. Zafonte, D.O., chairman of Harvard Medical School’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and vice president of medical affairs at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, discovered an alarmingly high use of ultra-caffeinated beverages among soldiers on deployment with some admitting to drinking “a half case a day.” None slept more than three or four hours a night. And most went right for the high-fat comfort foods, like fried chicken and fries, in the mess hall instead of salads and food with higher nutritional content. Additionally, soldiers breathe air with high concentrations of dust and wear 40 pounds of body armor in 117-degree heat.
Zafonte described some of the research conducted on the effects of blasts on the brain. Twenty-four hours after suffering a concussion, a soldier has essentially the same cognitive problems as an older patient with early dementia.
Less than 1 percent of Americans serve in the armed forces with many serving multiple deployments, says Kathy Clair-Hayes, a licensed social worker and director of family outreach for Home Base, a partnership between the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital that provides clinical care for New England’s veterans and families. It also conducts research to improve treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. She often hears soldiers upon returning home say that “no one told me it was going to be so hard.”
Research has shown that children’s anxiety remains high even after a parent returns from deployment. A retired general gave Clair-Hayes the anecdote of a family paddling along in a canoe when the dad jumps out to swim ashore for deployment, overturning the canoe and forcing the rest of the family to deal with it. And they do in his absence. But when the dad returns to the same bend in the river, the family is now downriver and he must swim to them, climb in the canoe, capsizing it again and throwing the family into the water, forcing everyone to work to get back inside.
Everyone in the family is affected by a deployment and the return home. Journalists can help illuminate the real struggles military families face and raise awareness of the treatment options and services available to them.