A long way from shell shock

Sunday May 6, 2012


When I was a freshman at Massachusetts State College in Amherst, I would quite often hitchhike home to Pittsfield on a Friday and then hitchhike back on Sunday afternoon. Things were different in 1940 and getting rides was easy enough. Sometimes a woman driving alone would stop to pick you up.

Both going and coming we would have to drive past the Veterans' Hospital in Leeds and quite often in fair weather there would be men sitting on the park benches that were scattered over the green lushness. There was never more than one man on a bench and they would just be sitting there, a few of them smoking cigarettes but most of them not.

I never thought about it much until I was let off in that area a couple of times and had several minutes to contemplate the men sitting a short distance away. There was something about them that bothered me but I couldn't figure it out. I tried waving a couple of times but nobody ever waved back.

One day I met this woman from Northampton and asked her about the men.

"Oh, you mean at Dippy," she laughed.

I asked her what the name meant and she said that everybody called it that because the men were shell-shocked soldiers from World War I and the place was a mental hospital. I had never heard the term shell-shocked before, but a professor explained it to me when I asked. This was an era when American sensitivity to racism or slander was at a minimum. I used the term Dippy once in conversation, but it didn't sound right so I never used it again.

All this was brought to mind by an announcement by the Department of Veteran Affairs that it will hire 1,900 psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, clinicians and office staff to augment, which comes to a 10 percent addition to its present force.

The condition was called shell-shock in World War I because medical experts in those days believed that it came from soldiers being too near an artillery explosion, thus damaging their nervous system. In World War II it was called battle fatigue because anyone could get it while engaging in close combat, under persistent shell fire or bombing or just not being a person who can handle the perpetual stress.

Ever since the Vietnam War it has become known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. It has been notable in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars because so many veterans of these engagements have committed suicide or had their civilian lives turned upside down. Some of this has been attributed to the number of soldiers who have had their brains shaken by the explosions of mines on highways that resulted in mayhem to the tank or truck and the personnel trapped inside.

The stories of these men and women are heart rending and the traumas their families have endured are horrific when you merely read about them. There are also the tensions that must be endured when a soldier is sent into a combat area where his life is endangered three or four or five times.

Now the picture is getting clearer because of a young Marine who died in a drunken automobile accident. An au topsy revealed that the man's brain had been damaged by a disease named chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that has been found in football players and boxers who are prone to suffer repeated blows to the head. This can destroy cells that govern our regular lives and their impairment can account for some of the behavior of returning veterans. It is somewhat similar to shell-shock or battle fatigue, but it has physical aspects attached to it rather than mental.

The ominous part of this is that CTE usually develops during middle age, years after the battering has been endured. We are seeing it in former athletes who were subjected to head battering and concussions. Professional sports have done little to remedy the situation but the military is going all out. Meanwhile, there are all those veterans living under a cloud.

Milton Bass is a regular Eagle


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