Behind the wheel, some returning troops fight post-traumatic stress disorder
Imagine driving down a street and the car next to you backfires. The noise probably will startle you for moment. However, a driver suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may interpret this sound as gunfire and veer off the road, possibly causing a crash.
As more members of the military return from deployment overseas, driving issues associated with PTSD are being brought to the forefront by organizations like USAA, an insurance company that caters to active-duty and retired members of the military along with their families.
A comparison of driving records by USAA done before and after deployments (from 2007 to 2010) found that car accidents that were the fault of members of the military rose by 13 percent in the first six months after an overseas tour.
To the rescue?
As a result of the study, USAA is collaborating with PTSD experts, traffic safety advocates, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and branches of the military to see what can be done to address the problem, says Roger Wildermuth, a spokesman for USAA.
“It may include new programs, greater awareness or new technology, although a specific approach is yet to be determined,” Wildermuth says.
Wildermuth says full results of the study about post-deployment traffic accidents will be released sometime in February 2012.
Dr. Harry Croft, a psychiatrist and Army veteran who has evaluated more than 6,000 veterans dealing with combat-related PTSD, says about 15 percent of returning combat veterans have varying degrees of PTSD. That estimate may be low, he says, as not all veterans who have PTSD report it. Whatever the percentage, it’s safe to say that thousands and thousands of military veterans with PTSD are navigating American roads.
“Driving on a crowded freeway with cars all around them may cause some vets to avoid driving altogether,” Croft says.
One veteran’s battle
It’s been six years since Vietnam War veteran Leonard Keith Crosby of Hawaii has driven a car. Crosby, who’s 61, still owns a car but his wife does all the driving. Crosby has suffered from PTSD since his return to the States in 1969 but was diagnosed only about five years ago.
“I didn’t know what was wrong with me,” Crosby says. “It was a gradual thing. I became more and more fearful on the road until I could no longer drive.”
In a combat situation, you can’t trust anyone, Crosby says. He says he felt the same way behind the wheel.
“I’d drive in combat mode. I thought everyone was out to get me,” Crosby says.
Although he never crashed his car, Crosby was never able to overcome that trauma.
PTSD comprises clusters of symptoms, all of which can affect driving, says Croft, former president of StayStrongNation.org, a nonprofit that helps veterans cope with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. For example, PTSD often causes sleeping problems, which can lead to drowsy driving and an increased risk of crashes.
Plus, vets who’ve been in life-threatening situations in combat may experience flashbacks while they’re awake, Croft says. “So instead of driving down the freeway, they’re suddenly back in Iraq,” he says.
Another PTSD symptom — known as hypervigilance — prompts veterans to be on “high alert,” such as fearing that garbage on the side of the road is hiding explosives, Croft says.
Any event, noise or situation can trigger a negative response from a veteran struggling with PTSD, according to Croft. PTSD suffers also are prone to outbursts of anger, irritability and aggression; still others become risk-takers and drive too fast.
Where to get help
Unfortunately, PTSD does not go away on its own. “Time does not make a difference,” Croft says.
Croft says veterans must seek help for combat-related PTSD from a psychologist, psychiatrist or other health professional. When Crosby came back from Vietnam, PTSD treatment programs didn’t exist.
“Now that I know I can get help,” Crosby says, “I may get back in the saddle someday, when I’m ready to start driving again.”