Combat Stress vs. PTSD, You Decide


Combat Stress vs. PTSD, You Decide


by: Barbie Perkins-Cooper


Listening to the news about SGT. John Russell and the murder of five soldiers in Iraq on May 11, compelled me to write this story, especially when I heard the term, “Combat Stress.” At first, I could not understand how SGT. John Russell could murder five soldiers, but the more I researched Combat Stress, the more I understand the similarities to PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is a condition I know much about, since I am the proud wife of a Vietnam Veteran.



Combat Stress vs. PTSD, You Decide


by: Barbie Perkins-Cooper

Listening to the news about SGT. John Russell and the murder of five soldiers in Iraq on May 11, compelled me to write this story, especially when I heard the term, “Combat Stress.” At first, I could not understand how SGT. John Russell could murder five soldiers, but the more I researched Combat Stress, the more I understand the similarities to PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is a condition I know much about, since I am the proud wife of a Vietnam Veteran. 

 SGT. Russell was reportedly on his third tour of duty in a combat zone. Stripped of his weapon, Russell was scheduled to have psychological counseling. Reports are a bit vague, but the story goes that while he was ‘escorted back to his unit, he took the weapon of his escort, went back to the clinic, and opened fire.’

 Russell was scheduled to return home within a few weeks. He had much on his mind including the financial stress of deployment, and the adjustment to life back home. Apparently, the stress in a war zone, combined with the stress of returning to a normal life was too much and Russell reached his breaking point. SGT. Russell needed help, compassion and understanding. Now, five lives are gone and SGT. Russell will have to live with these tragedies for the remainder of his life. It is a tragedy that he reacted by taking the lives of five soldiers. What provoked SGT. Russell to react in such a way. The term mentioned in the media is combat stress.

 According to, Combat Stress is ‘different from PTSD.’ Combat stress is considered normal since there is an adjustment period when returning home from combat. The signs of Combat Stress include:
   • Reliving the events
   • Nightmares
   • Guilt
   • Inability to sleep
   • Lack of concentration
   • Irritability
   • Withdrawal
   • Fear
   • Depression

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD] is described as an ‘emotional illness’ and it was not recognized as PTSD until the 1980’s when the American Psychiatric Association recognized it as such, according to the website, PTSD leaves no visible scars, only the emotional scars that will remain forever inside the mind of the war veteran. For the Veterans Administration the term “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" was not recognized until 1980 with the Third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Among the symptoms of PTSD:

   • A reaction to a catastrophic event – intense fear
   • Nightmares
   • Flashbacks
   • Irritability
   • Guilt
   • Inability to sleep
   • Inability to concentrate
   • Depression

Sound familiar? The definition of combat stress and PTSD are so similar. As a writer, I’ve written several stories about PTSD since I have observed it with my husband, after Vietnam. The distance, inability to socialize with others, avoidance of situations where firecrackers, crowds, or sudden noises may occur are only a few of the symptoms I have observed. The list continues, and now that I am hearing the term ‘combat stress’ – defining soldiers who have served several tours of duty in a combat zone, I am curious and just a bit annoyed. My question to the professionals with the VA is a simple, heartfelt question – do these people who diagnose combat stress not understand – PTSD and Combat Stress are one and the same? How can we as citizens of a free country expect soldiers to return to a warzone repeatedly serving several tours of duty without experiencing Combat Stress/PTSD?
PTSD leaves a stigma attached to it. To those who do not understand this ailment, the looks, discriminations, and lack of compassion leaves the Veteran with a lack of understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the wounds of it. While it is true, the wounds are embedded within the mind, the wounds are so obvious to those of us who love the Veteran suffering with PTSD or Combat Stress; and we strive to do all we can to make their life more productive and pleasant. Reportedly, the Army has classified PTSD as an ‘illness, not an injury,’ therefore, soldiers diagnosed with PTSD do not qualify for a Purple Heart. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates would like the Defense Department to reconsider and award Purple Hearts to combat veterans who suffer with PTSD, according to a statement quoted in May 2008, published by the American Forces Press Service.

As a young newlywed, I kissed my husband bye, never knowing if we would have a future. One year and five days later, he returned. I embraced him at the Atlanta Airport, blissful that he was home. Little did I know, the kind, gentle man I fell in love with remained trapped emotionally in a warzone. Full of anticipation of our future, I noticed his fitful sleep, anxiety, and quick temper. Over the years, I have watched my husband drop to the ground when sudden noises trigger his fears. On one occasion he was driving. A box was in the middle of the road. Quickly, my husband squealed the car to a stop, made a U-turn and we rushed away. The look in his eyes said it all and I watched him, reassuring him that it was OK. I have held him during nights of fitful flashbacks, comforting him while reassuring him that he is safe. I have fought to remove his hands from my neck during flashbacks when he shouts words in a foreign language only to understand later he was telling his unit, “Charlie is coming.” I have experienced cursing, shouting matches, intense rage, jealousy, irritability, guilt and indescribable fear. These symptoms of PTSD are frightening.

The VA is quick to deny that he suffers from an extreme case of PTSD. He was diagnosed in Salem, VA, during six weeks of hospitalization for the condition. The doctors in Salem were in agreement that he should be 100% disabled due to the diagnosis. The VA disagrees, reminding my husband that it does not help his case that he is (and I quote) ‘still with his first wife.’ What am I to do? Leave him and watch him deteriorate to a shell of a man because of his experience and contribution to a warzone? No one can understand the heartbreak and rage of PTSD, except the Veteran, or a family member when the veteran responds with, “It don’t mean nothing.”

My husband still battles with the VA. He is only one of the 600,000+ claims for PTSD on file. Only 100,000 of those claims have been approved. My husband’s file has been on a ‘desk in Washington since March 2008,’ after another appeal process. The question is why? Why does it take our government such a long, stressful time to process and approve what the Veteran deserves? Could it be these officials are procrastinating – in hopes time will pass and the Veteran will simply ‘fade away?’

Another Veteran interviewed for this story shares his complaints with the VA and his battle with PTSD. Diagnosed with 80% disability, he describes how willing he was to talk about his experience with someone, only ‘no one would listen.’ This created many problems for him, including relationships, anger, rage and so much more. In 1980, he sought help and received acceptance, thus helping him deal with some of the emotional and social problems he was experiencing. Later, he received counseling with the VA, once with a psychiatrist who prescribed drugs.

Another Veteran interviewed for this story describes scenarios of Iraq, his experience with PTSD and the Army. Injured in Iraq, he went before a medical evaluation board, receiving the diagnosis of PTSD (combat related, described as chronic and severe). The medical board refused to ‘recognize PTSD at this board, even though two doctors rated him at a GAF of 50-45.’ He returned to the states in August 2004, and he is still battling with the VA for benefits.

These scenarios could continue and it is a shame that the VA forces the Veteran to continue an emotional war over and over again. In February 2009, I went with my husband for a medical complaint of severe headaches at Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, SC. The doctor was dressed in flip flops, raggedy jeans, a lab coat, and she was having a bad hair day. I was astonished over her attire and demeanor. Maybe Saturday was a more relaxed dress down day and that was why she was so clumsily thrown together. She glanced on the computer screen, noted a few things, and told my husband since he was having headaches, she would prescribe something for the pain. Furious, I spoke up, reminding her that my husband was a) Diabetic, b) a heart patient, and c) he was diagnosed with TIA in December 2007. I wanted to make certain his headache was not leading to a stroke. Her reply, “Oh. I didn’t know.”

“Maybe you should review his medical history, instead of giving more drugs. It appears the VA has a drug for everything,” I spat.

“Pretty much,” she added.

Her condescending manner ruffled my feathers.

This is only one scenario of the drugs and care given by the VA. On every occasion I have visited the VA hospital I have observed a lack of taking personal time with patients and an over willingness to prescribe drugs. My husband’s dresser is filled with a collection of drugs for his conditions, reminding me of a pharmacy shelf, instead of a bedroom dresser.

Could it be that the VA is overwhelmed with complaints, files, and work because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Or, is it simply a lack of care and denial. Over the years of marriage to a Vietnam Veteran, I’ve learned, “It don’t mean nothing,” certainly means something. While it is true that the Vietnam Veteran was trained to be secretive and to not talk about the war, it is time to allow the Veterans of all wars to speak out and to be heard.

Furious over the inability for the VA to listen to my husband, I have made it my mission to learn all that I can to stir the pot so our government will take a stand to service our military Veterans. Fortunately, I have connected with an internet group doing the same. The mission of Veterans-for-Change is a simple one and it should be shared with all. According to Jim Davis, the founder of Veterans-for-Change, the mission for Veterans-for-Change is, “To wake up Congress and the President to meet the needs and fulfill the promises made to care for and treat Veterans and their spouses and children for life. To provide the best medical facilities in the world, top of the line medical equipment, the best medical staff available, and to honor all the claims filed so that veterans are no longer denied the benefits and medical care so desperately needed. Our mission is to prevent more veterans from dying needlessly, before their time.”

We, the American public, must listen to the Veterans and their stories. We, the American public, and the military, need to assist, care, and service the veterans returning from war, not simply welcome them home for a few weeks, or a few months, only to send them back into the horrors of war again. Yes, a soldier dedicates himself, or herself, to the training and dedication of military duty; however, they are human beings. How can we possibly expect them to return to a normal life when we have trained them to kill, or be killed? They are human beings, not wild animals.

SGT. John Russell, along with all of the Veterans of War needed our help, compassion, and understanding. Such a pity that we failed him, and many others. Combat Stress and PTSD are one and the same and should be treated as such. SGT. Russell’s story is not the first story about a soldier who overreacted in a rage. Nor will his story be the last. We as Americans must take a stand to service and understand our soldiers, not simply remove their weapons, dust them off and refer them to another source of treatment, or the VA. We must learn to listen and stop the habit of prescribing drugs for every ailment. Veterans are not pin cushions or guinea pigs. We promised our Veterans benefits, freedom, and a better life, not simply prescribed drugs by doctors who react by overwriting prescriptions, instead of listening to their emotional ailments. Is this the way the VA strives to help our Veterans? Just simply prescribing a drug in hopes the Veteran will feel better in the morning? Maybe it is time that the Veterans Administration educate themselves and truly define Combat Stress and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as one and the same and pay attention to the needs of our Veterans. It is time to help our wounded warriors, including those who suffer with PTSD and the emotional scars. Mr. President, Congress, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, the Defense Department and the Veterans Administration, are you listening? The choice is yours. You decide.

Barbie Perkins-Cooper is an awarding winning writer who loves the journey and exploration of travel and health. She is the proud wife of a Vietnam Veteran and works full-time as an editorial photojournalist. She has published numerous articles and photographs for regional, health and beauty and travel publications including the Travel Channel and Buick Magazine. She volunteers as a PR rep for non-profit organizations, including Veterans-for-Change, and she is the editor of Mail Call for Glenn L. Jeffers VFW. Barbie resides in Charleston, South Carolina with her husband, Phil and three precious pups. She is the author of Condition of Limbo and Career Diary of a Photographer. Visit her website

Military Veterans PTSD Reference Manual,
Psychiatric Disorders, 
The History of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),
Combat Stress,
Gates, Purple Heart for PTSD, “Needs to be Looked At,” May 5, 2008, American Forces Press Service.


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Jim Davis is the son of USMC MGySgt. Lesley Davis (Ret.) who passed away on April 24, 2006, from ALS caused by Agent Orange. His dad’s mission before he passed on was to ensure all veterans, spouses, children, and widows all received the benefits, medical care and attention, and proper facilities from the VA. Because of the promise made to his dad to carry on the mission, in May 2006 Davis began as a one-man show sending out 535 letters every single week to all members of Congress requesting and politely demanding the fulfill their promises made over the past decades to care for life those who wore the uniform and their families. Veterans-For-Change was born in August 2006 with a very small membership of 25 people composed of veterans, spouses, widows, family members, and friends and to date continues to grow.