PTSD not “woundy” enough to earn Purple Heart

Purple Heart

Purple Heart

I was angered when I read this article on the New York Times web site about the Pentagon refusing to award the Purple Heart to sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This angers me for a lot of reasons.

First, some background. The Purple Heart is a U.S. military medal given to soldiers wounded or killed in war. According to the NYT article, the medal “entitles veterans to enhanced benefits, including exemptions from co-payments, and gives them higher priority in scheduling appointments.”

The Pentagon’s reasoning for their decision is that PTSD is not a “physical wound.”

As someone whose life has been affected by brain injury, I find it profane that brain injury is not “woundy” enough for the Pentagon. Apparently according to them the body is more important than the brain. But without the brain our bodies are useless. That’s why if you are diagnosed as brain dead, you are clinically dead.

Secondly, the brain is part of the body! It lives up there in our head. It’s attached to the rest of us. Moreover, it runs the rest of us!

Thirdly, post-traumatic stress disorder is a physical wound. I don’t know how the Pentagon defines “physical” or “wound” (as the Bush administration’s dance around “torture” has taught us, definitions matter), but the brain actually, physically changes as a result of PTSD. I’ll explain.

The hippocampus is a part of our brain that deals with inhibition, spatiality, and memory. Damage to the hippocampus can cause the loss of ability to inhibit emotional responses—think fight-or-flight (inhibition); the loss of ability to navigate where you’re going, know how you got where you are, or recall where you’ve been (spatiality); and the loss of ability to form new memories and recall past memories—anterograde and retrograde amnesia, respectively (memory).

Purple Brain

Purple Brain

Post-traumatic stress disorder causes changes in our brain’s biochemistry and morphology. It causes our brains to over-produce some chemicals and under-produce others, leading to an imbalance and an inability to restore homeostasis (a stable condition). This influx of toxic chemicals literally causes our hippocampi to shrink.

If that’s not physical, I don’t know what is.

I wonder if the Pentagon would refuse to award Purple Hearts to soldiers returning from war whose heads, or legs, or hearts, or penises shrank 20%.

The Pentagon said that sufferers of PTSD are not eligible for the medal because their condition was not intentionally caused by enemy action.

I have an idea! This problem can be solved, for soldiers returning from Iraq at any rate. Our neighbours to the south need simply prosecute Bush et al. for war crimes and/or classify them as “enemies of state.” Then soldiers could argue that their PTSD was “intentionally caused by enemy action”—Bush and his cronies sending them to an illegal pre-emptive war in the first place. Purple Hearts will abound.


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