January 22, 2013

Impairment Honesty Without Sacrificing Goals

By Joseph Miller

It takes a couple of years to realize that the people who you surround yourself with will never truly understand the daily and constant battles that a veteran suffering from PTSD and mTBI go through. I have simply stopped trying to communicate these problems with my peers or even my friends and family. It is not because I am ashamed, though I certainly have been ashamed in the past, but more that people do not really want to understand how hard the little things in life have become. As a student in graduate program at a research university I doubt significantly that any of my colleagues regularly meet with neuropsychologists or speech therapist to manage their calendar and appointments. I doubt that they have trouble knowing what day of the week it is or can be thrown it days of painful migraines by getting a bump on the head or by whatever stimulus throws you into another round of painful memories. They often do not understand why you put yourself through the rigors of graduate school when your subsistence is provided by other means, and would not likely put themselves through the same challenges were they in the same position. If I did not constantly remind myself that my friends who have died do not have the opportunity to come home and find a way to continue supporting their communities then I would have quit a long time ago.

As scholar my research is on PTSD during the U.S. early national period will certainly be the focus of my future contributions, but I would rather provide some stark and unapologetic honesty about my own struggles following three tours of duty in Iraq. When I began to write my Master’s Thesis I recognized how writing about violence was a triggering my PTSD and I began to do what veterans do when they are reminded of their own traumatic experiences. At first when I wrote about violence I avoided it by putting anything I could in front of it in my schedule. Once I recognized it I used alcohol to help me face it. Though this is what got my drafts finished they were terrible and by engaging in this negative behavior they became difficult emotionally. Proofreading became a challenge, and worse they required a great deal of editing because I needed to self medicate to even finish them. This process has taken about a year and a half longer than it should have because I was not prepared for what research on warfare would do to me emotionally.

But this is not a cautionary tale; rather it is actually about growth. Like many students working on a Thesis I had a few unanswered questions that did not directly relate to the project. I had been researching military officers serving the revolutionary period since I was in high school and I began to realize that they were often “invalided” by unexplainable conditions. I was studying the Battle of Detroit and one of my sources had detailed descriptions about a fever called “ague.” I had PTSD for a long time and when I went back to Iraq the third time I had TBI and pretty severe PTSD. I was sick for the first two months and at times bedridden. I felt fevered and I constantly threw up, but when seen by doctors I had no discernible illness. Like my somatic expressions of a psychological disorder I realized that all the bouts of ague came after traumatic events and could also have been expressions of PTSD.

This realization did not provide enough material to prove that there was PTSD, and I will not get into my methodology, but it does illustrate how I have learned to use the terrible experiences and difficulties I face everyday as a worthwhile perspective to analyze warfare affect on the individual. PTSD casts a strange kind of amnesia about war because it causes those most affected by it to do everything in their power to avoid reminders of traumatic experiences. So my perspective despite the pain it has caused me in the past (I certainly no longer use alcohol to get through a project) is a useful to provide a better understanding of war as a source of emotional trauma. It has led me to look to different sources and to follow the lives of soldiers after the wars were over. It has become apparent that many suffered from the same sort of odd illnesses suffered by then men in my Master’s thesis. This work will be a significant contribution to the field of history. This realization could not have occurred if I had not conducted by research at the time that I was most impaired by PTSD. It may have delayed my Thesis, but it has helped me uncover something much more important about how war has affected the lives of American veterans from the very beginning of U.S. history. For others struggling with invisible illnesses you are not the first ones, and your generation is not weaker than the preceding veterans. Your impairments are significant and challenging, but they can also become a source of strength and an incredibly valuable perspective.

Joseph Miller  in 2003 commissioned as an Infantry officer and assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. Deployed three times to Iraq in support of national elections and as an Iraqi Army adviser during the 2007 surge. During his second rotation he was injured by an IED. His awards include the Bronze Star Medal, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Iraqi Campaign medal with three service stars, Senior Parachutist Badge, and Ranger Tab. Recently named 2011 Army ROTC Instructor of the Year and is completing his Master’s degree in Canadian/American History at the University of Maine.


  1. Joe,

    This is a great way to connect with others in your shared struggle and to connect men and women coming home with PTSD now to those who have served in the past. I hope it helps open people's eyes to that struggle.

  2. I've also given up on trying educate my family and friends on living with PTSD. They do not want to understand and I'm tired of being told to let it go. This disconnection at home was one reason I sought to express myself at PASP.

    When I was in college my constant companion were my note cards. I carried them with me everywhere and every chance would learn key words from the reading and lecture notes. The key words would trigger the reading and notes. What helped me the most was writing, if I could write about it the memory retention was higher.

    It's only been recently that I have considered myself to have experienced posttraumatic growth. At first I wanted to have a negative reaction to the idea. But when I considered where my life has taken me to where I am today. I see the difference in suffering and pain now and then. Today I accept my pain and suffering as my own and that lessens the impact it has on myself and others.

    I don't remember most of my war experiences other than what I've written recently. Bits and pieces come to me when I'm editing the work. The writing and editing of my combat narratives use to trigger me more than it does now. The first two years home I would have dissociative fugues where I would loose my complete memory of everything. The surroundings only familiar. Or break down and cry for an hour at the local grocery store. It's still hard to go into a large grocery.

    I want to thank you for sharing your story and engaging readers with your work and life. It's an honor to have you aboard!

  3. Thanks for I am grateful for the opportunity

  4. Thank You! I am a wife of a vet from Gulf War w/ severe PTSD. He has just begun to climb out and work through it. Reading stories like yours helps me to understand what is inside of him.
    I know what you write will help others too. Yes, your contribution is great and will bring awareness to all who read your material. Thank You

  5. Thanks,

    I am overwhelmed by all of the compliments I have gotten. I am so grateful for this opportunity to share my story.

  6. Thank you for your efforts to write a more complete history of the soldier's experience. As an MSW and w/ a BA in history, I think your contribution will be of vital importance. Writing is an excellent way to make sure what you know is not lost because others find it hard to listen to. I am thinking of how vital the "slave narratives" have been to our understanding of the problems of race in this country. These were also traumatic stories.

    Keep writing! What you know needs to be recorded. I hope it will be made available to a wider audience than just your graduate committee.

  7. Stacey,

    I could not agree more with what you have said. I am a fan of Dianne Miller Sommerville's work on Rape in the South and on Confederate suicides following the Civil War. I have had to become a gender scholar because when Shell Shock recognized as a neurotic condition veterans were feminized in the way that hysteria was previously associated with the female reproductive system. Thanks for your kind words and if you want to read some of my history stuff check out my posts on our department blog. Please share them with friends because we are still building our audience.

    Thanks again,


  8. Dear Joe,
    I am trying to learn from my veteran these very things. I can not ask him, he can not verbalize these losses. So I am very glad you posted. I had hoped in time he may still do his PHD, but I think he is embarrassed to admit he will need help to learn how to manage life after tbi's. Only time will tell, he had started several novels, but has stopped writing. I think the re-writing process is as you said difficult for many of the reasons you alluded to. thank you

  9. Thanks, but that all took years and as much luck as anything else. More than anything else I have an amazing adviser and incredibly supportive partner. I am actually in the middle of a terrible week. On those weeks I usually can't handle writing about trauma. I tend to grind out reading, busy work and what I call scutt writing. I write book summaries, footnote papers, fact check, or write pieces on tactics or general military history. When I get out of rough patches it is easier for me pick up where I left off. I come out of it still in good practice. Sometimes on the other hand I need to write to process some things in my life and I focus on posts here. No matter what I write something everyday so when I do have better days I can be as productive as possible. I find that as long as I manage my low points as effectively as possible then I am so grateful when I return to my work with all of my busy work knocked out it is a lot less stressful.


Please share your comments, stories and information. Thank you. ~ Scott Lee