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Tracing Combat Stress Through History

Even in ancient times, we can see signs of combat stress following military deployment.

Post Traumatic Stress is not a new experience pertaining to modern warfare in the War on Terror, however it can be traced throughout all of recorded history.  In this article, we’ll discuss some examples Combat Stress and PTS dating back to ancient history through the American Civil War.

History Of PTSD

There is evidence of PTS in historical literature going as far back as Ancient Greece, as documented by Homer’s The Iliad in his character, Achilles.  For those who may not remember from english class, Achilles was the greatest warrior of all of Greece during the Trojan War and his extreme anger and wrath can be traced throughout the entire story of The Iliad.  You may have heard of Jonathan Shay’s classic work on PTSD entitled Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, which deals with analyzing the history of PTSD throughout The Iliad and seeing some of the same trends in our service men returning from Vietnam.

In the Middle Ages, there is documentation of an English commander named Alfred who fought the Danes in 1003 AD and would become so overcome with anxiety that he would compulsively vomit and was rendered useless in leading his men to battle.

Later, in the seventeenth century, doctors in Switzerland were one of the first to recognize the cluster of symptoms that accompany combat related PTSD, labeling it as “nostalgia.”  German physicians at the time called it “homesickness” due to their belief that the symptoms originated from soldiers wanting to return home as a result of the mental and psychological effects of war.

Fast forwarding to the American Civil War, military physicians saw more severe psychological symptoms as a result of advances in modern warfare on the battlefield.  Changes in military technology included repeating rifles, telegraph, reconnaissance balloons, torpedoes, Gatling guns, and delayed artillery rounds, all of which amounted to an increased psychological strain on soldiers during combat.  At the time, unfortunately, many of the soldiers who suffered from “fear of combat” were either left to wander on their own or sent to special group homes for soldiers out in the countryside.

So why does this matter?  Who cares if soldiers 2,000 years ago suffered from combat stress or PTSD?  We should all care because it continues to affect us today.  Knowing more is half the battle and serves to break stereotypes and stigmas associated with PTSD.  At the PTI, we see education and breaking stigmas as one of our primary responsibilities so that we can serve as many people as possible, whether they are a patient of ours or not.

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