How to Help the Shell-Shocked
The Fort Hood tragedy put the military's PTSD problem in the spotlight. The platoon sergeant they called 'Bad Voodoo' on why the mental-health stigma won't go away.
Former Army platoon sergeant Toby Nunn—known as “Bad Voodoo” in his combat days—was horrified when he heard about the shootings at Fort Hood that left 13 dead and 30-plus injured.
“It was so hard to believe that a soldier would turn his weapon on other soldiers. It’s a very special kinship that we have. ... It was also surreal,” says Nunn, 34, of Bastrop, Texas. “In the early moments, hearing the news, the first thing I thought was it was an attack. ... But for it to be what it’s ended up being—an individual that put his personal life ahead of something he raised his hand and signed on to—is just a very selfish act, an act of cowardice. He’s a scumbag.”
Until he officially separated from the Army in October, Nunn had served 13 years—from Iraq to Bosnia to Iraq again. His platoon was the focal point of a PBS/Frontline segment, Bad Voodoo’s War, which aired in spring of 2008, three months before his final tour in Iraq ended.
Excerpt from PBS Frontline's Bad Voodoo's War
As much as anyone, Nunn felt like he knew the Army inside and out. And the more he learned about Thursday’s tragedy, the angrier he became. Not just over his fallen comrades—that was a given; but over something he kept hearing in media reports—hints that shooter Major Nidal Malik Hasan might’ve suffered from the very ailment he was treating soldiers for: post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I do not think you can get PTSD by treating people with PTSD. It is not a contagious situation,” says Nunn, who entered counseling for the disorder eight months ago, and jokes that he’s neither crazy nor contagious. “The reason I believe that is because, as a mental-health person you should know what you’re dealing with. You should not be traumatized by something that you expect. It's the opposite of what PTSD is.”
“I do not think you can get PTSD by treating people with PTSD. It is not a contagious situation,” says Nunn, who entered counseling for the disorder eight months ago.
The former infantry rifle sergeant knows all about it—the symptoms, the stigma, the insecurity. He lives with it and tries to help others with it. As operations manager for Soldiers’ Angels, a national nonprofit that gives soldiers mental, emotional, medical, and even financial support (from care packages to airfare to trauma seminars), he often hears from fellow fighters who are struggling with post-combat fallout.
“I’m not trained to help people with PTSD, but if a fellow soldier reaches out to me, my hand is there and my grip is strong. And I can tell him where to get help,” Nunn says.
Nunn also knows the slippery slope that is mental-health care in the military. It's been debated over decades: how to handle soldiers who are suffering extreme psychological distress. How to get them treatment without stigmatizing them in the macho culture of soldiers. After all, war is hell. But even today with clearly outlined policies now prohibiting discrimination against personnel who seek treatment for such disorders, Nunn is convinced that the stigma very much remains. It’s just less talked about.
So sure is he that disclosing a mental-health issue counts against you in the service that he says he “waited until it was safe—until I’d decided to leave the Army" before getting help himself.
Not everyone shares his skepticism. The military has made strides; recently, it has rolled out a new “resiliency” program, aimed at helping soldiers and their families cope with the terrible fallout of war. Fort Hood was, ironically, the site of the program’s first facility.
Army 1st Sgt. C.J. Grisham, a friend of Nunn’s who is still on active duty and suffers from PTSD as well, says he believes such programs demonstrate that the armed forces are committed to taking mental-health problems seriously. “They really are past the stigma,” he says.
The 35 year old, who is based at Alabama's Redstone Arsenal but will relocate to Fort Hood in January, came clean with his concerns while active in the military—albeit six years after he first suspected he needed it.
"I was writing a lot, but I started to realize that writing was sort of masking the real problem," Grisham says. Five months ago, he began therapy. "I'm sure it's even harder [to discuss openly] when you're at the senior ranks. I'm not at the top of my career yet. So I have a lot to lose if this backfires on me. ... But so far, two other 1st sergeants have followed that lead, based off what I'm doing. In fact, I pulled my entire company together and addressed them as their 1st Sergeant, and said, 'Here's what I'm dealing with, and if you're suffering from these things, it's OK to come forward.' So in a weird sort of way, I am challenging the Army's philosophy."
Nunn agrees that some progress has been made. Still, he faults the military for under-resourcing its mental-health providers, citing the fact that for each battalion—approximately 750 soldiers—only one therapist is designated. That, to him, speaks more directly to the reality of where the rubber meets the road.
"It's still a stigma, no matter what anybody says."
Nunn recalls the strong urge to suppress, even deny, the need for help until he was out of combat— and out of the military. It was only after he saw himself in Bad Voodoo's War that the rifle sergeant realized how disturbed he was.
"There's a scene in the film where I'm talking to the camera, and we'd just come back from a mission. We'd been through some pretty intense stuff, and the men were trying to get a little rest. I did a self-interview... And looking back," he says, "seeing the desperation in my eyes, seeing the profound emotional weight that was driving me almost to the core of the earth, I realized that that was a cry for help if I'd ever seen one. For a moment there, on camera, I gave the world a glimpse into my soul that I wasn't willing to take myself. Seeing that later was a red flag. I said, 'OK, Toby you better go talk to somebody.'"
Shermakaye Bass is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. She has written for People, the International Herald Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, National Geographic Traveler, The New York Times, and Texas Highways, among others.