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PTSD label hurts struggling veterans

The first person to diagnose me with post-traumatic stress disorder was the person who knew me best, my Mom. This happened eight years after combat when I was working for the Postal Service. She insisted that my fits of anger and rage were symptoms, and that the war had changed my personality. I denied anything was wrong with me and told my mother to shut up about it because I needed the job. Today, safely retired, I'm able to admit she was right. But something about that "official" diagnosis still troubles me.

Let's say we're driving through an intersection under a green light. Suddenly we're T-boned. Our air bags explode, safety glass shreds our faces and we're left stunned and bleeding. Weeks later, driving through that same intersection, will we relive that event? Will our palms dampen, our hearts beat out of control and our heads snap left and right trying to make sure we're safe?

Suppose we're in a combat zone, shot at and return fire. We call an air strike into that position and when we search the ruins we discover women and children -- dead, wounded and mutilated, missing arms, legs and heads. Will the sight make us sick? Will we cry often, haunted by guilt?

Our behavior following these situations, or "triggering events," is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. However, aren't our responses to situations like these both normal and common? Why are they labeled a "disorder"?

When we seek treatment for PTSD, why must we suffer the stigma of mental illness? As soldiers, if we remain in the military, our futures are truncated. We're ostracized and looked down upon as weak by our command structure and our fellow soldiers. We'll never be promoted. If we get out of the military and seek help, companies are reluctant to hire us. A June 2010 study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management reported that 46 percent of companies listed "PTSD or other mental health issues" as a challenge to hiring. The label hurts.

So we suffer if we seek help, and we suffer even more if we don't. Suicide rates for veterans are the highest ever. Many veterans self-medicate using alcohol and powerful prescription drugs to mask our symptoms.

Others, like myself, were able to restrain from violence and verbal abuse at work because we desperately needed the job. But when we came home, our misdirected and inappropriate anger was unleashed against our wives and children, ruining our marriages and destroying our relationships with children and grandchildren.

Ironically, we who suffer from post-traumatic stress are labeled and discriminated against by a desensitized society in a country that idolizes violence in our news, sports and weather as well as our movies, video games and wars. We live in a country ruled by sales and fueled by marketing that magnifies our fears, physical flaws and other imperfections.

Through this mislabeling, we are made to feel ugly, unworthy and in need of repair. Unfortunately, this desire for an idealized, impossible perfection also seems to extend to mental health labels such as PTSD. We who have experienced violence are expected to miraculously continue through life and live happily ever after like nothing unusual happened. This is wrong and needs to be corrected.

Until that happens, my advice to veterans and to those of us who suffer from post-traumatic stress is to get professional help, but call it something else. Call it anger management, grief counseling, quality-of-life skills or mindful meditation. Never call it PTSD.

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Fred Tomasello Jr., who lives in Cheektowaga, is the author of "Walking Wounded: Memoir of a Combat Veteran."