IPTSD: The Monster Hiding in your Child’s Closet? Part II

Army Brat’s War: A story about Peace, Love, War and Intergenerational PTSD, is my in-progress autobiographical novel.  The story is based on my experiences growing up in an army town during the 60’s and 70’s, and the turbulent relationship with my father, a Korea War Veteran who suffered from PTSD.

Part II

While many of the army brats I grew up with seemed to have functional families, most of  the ones I associated with had parents who were divorced or separated, or had fathers who were otherwise MIA after returning from war.

I recall several other army brats who, like myself, engaged in self destructive behavior and even self-injury.  One of the characters in my book,  Valencia Diaz,  the fictional daughter of a Master Sergeant, is based on several female army brat friends who participated in what we called, “the punk test” when we were in Junior High.  This test or “dare” involved rubbing a pencil eraser back and forth across the lower arm as many times as one could.  I describe how Valencia had the girls record with a hundred-something strokes.  Although civilian kids also partook in the punk test,  they didn’t seem to do it with the same fervor as the army brats.

In my prologue I describe how my father confronted me with a shotgun during a violent altercation when I was a teen in 1974.  I was later arrested at Irwin Army Hospital and spent about a month in jail before being transported to a diagnostic center for evaluation.  I  don’t recall the court proceedings very well because I was in such a poor emotional state, but I believe it was the threat of being committed to a state institution that I accepted a plea and agreed to be sent to a residential adolescent treatment facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  This facility was unique in that it was exclusively for the troubled teens of military veterans, and funded in part by CHAMPUS, the Civilian Health and Medical Program for the Uniformed Services.  CHAMPUS was like the insurance company for retired military personnel and their families at the time, equivalent to what is now called, TRICARE.

In my book I refer to the facility as, Ruben Family Services, which has both a boys and girls residence located a couple of miles apart.  The residents (all army brats) attend weekly coed group therapy sessions and also attend public schools .

I describe meeting my therapist,  who picks me up at the airport,  and drives me to the boys house where he shows me around.  On the way upstairs to see my room I am assaulted by a horrible odor.  My problems seem minuscule when my therapist  explains that one of the residents, a thirteen year old, was abandoned by his parents as an infant and is still being toilet trained.  The source of the odor is a hamper in the bathroom that contains his soiled underwear which the live-in house keeper (a middle-aged woman) often forgets to launder.

I attended my first group therapy session high, after smoking a couple of joints with my roommates, who were also from the Fort Riley area.   I recall a couple of pretty girls from the Fort Sill-Lawton, Oklahoma, area who were at the session and were upset because they’d been placed on restriction after running away to a music festival in Missouri the previous weekend.  If I recall correctly the director of the facility had to hire a private detective to track them down.

What I recall most about that first group therapy session was a girl I call, Naomi.  She looked so much older than the other girls that I thought she was a counselor until she started sharing her story.  I believe she said she grew up in Fort Hood and had run away from home at a young age with her pimp, who was an ex soldier.  She described how he had taken her to various army towns to “work” and how she’d even danced in a club.   Her face was disfigured from when her pimp had beaten her and she had scars on her arms from IV drug use and numerous suicide attempts.  I’m certain she was sedated because she spoke in monotone and kept starring into space like some kind of zombie.

While at this facility I bonded even more with my fellow army brats.  I  would even become  a role model of sorts, intervening with troubled residents, modeling for the facility’s brochure, and even assisting my therapist when he conducted workshops at Tulsa University. However, I would eventually become a major liability to the director.

During my last night at the facility an event took place that was so tragic, I would spend years trying to sort it out.

 Intergenerational PTSD

Before I discuss Intergenerational PTSD, I think it’s appropriate to review what is known about conventional Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “PTSD is an anxiety disorder that some people get after seeing or living through a dangerous event.”

The National Library of Medicine’s website states that the cause of PTSD is unknown, but psychological, genetic, physical, and social factors are involved.  They further state that  PTSD changes the body’s response to stress and affects the stress hormones and chemicals that carry information between the nerves (neurotransmitters).

Although there have long been descriptions like, “battle fatigue” and “shell shock” to describe anxiety related to combat, the term PTSD didn’t enter mainstream vocabulary until 1980, when the American Psychiatric Association added it to the third edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III).  The manual is used to diagnose psychiatric disorders and is currently in its fourth edition.

I didn’t hear about Intergenerational PTSD until around 2008, when I was conducting  research for my book and came across several references to it on the internet.  The theory of Intergenerational PTSD, or IPTSD as I have come to call it,  is rooted in epigenetics which involves the study of heritable changes in gene expression.  This theory suggests that PTSD has a genetic origin and that it can therefore be transmitted from parent to offspring.

PTSD can also be acquired secondarily, through the family environment.  A 1999 Australian study concluded that a familial  environment where one or more members had PTSD significantly impacted the likelihood that others within that environment would develop symptoms.  (Westerink & Giarratano, 1999)

One of the most compelling arguments I’ve read supporting the intergenerational transference of PTSD is by Ken O’Brien, who cites several researchers, (Yehuda, et al) who have studied cortisol levels in PTSD sufferers and their children and have likely discovered bio-markers that support the argument that PTSD is genetically based and therefore heritable.

O’Brien also cites a study conducted in 2000 by the Australian Institute of Heath and Welfare. This  study centered on the suicide rates of the children of Vietnam Veterans who were determined to be more than three times likely to suicide compared to the general Australian population.  The study also found that deaths from illness and accident were also higher than expected.

Regardless of whether PTSD is acquired genetically or through environment, it’s familial impact is almost undeniable, yet we hear little about children with parents suffering from the disorder.  I hope to change that.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that more than 2 million US service members have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.   Unfortunately I  don’t know the number of children that these service personnel have, or are projected to have in the future, but I think it should be of major concern since those children could susceptible to the secondary and intergenerational effects of PTSD.

My question to my readers is whether the government should be obligated to provide mental health benefits to the adult children of veterans suffering from PTSD?

Tom Ballard
August 28, 2012



O’Brien, K, The Intergenerational Transference of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder amongst Children and Grandchildren of Vietnam Veterans in Australia:  An argument for a genetic origin.  Review of current literature. 

Westerlink J & Giarratano, L (1999). The impact of post traumatic stress disorder on partners and children of Australian Vietnam Veterans. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. 33(6)-841-7.

Yehuda R, Bierer L. SchmeidlerJ, Aferiat D, Breslau I, & Dolan S. (2000) Low cortisol and risk for PTSD in adult offspring of holocaust survivors.  American Journal of Psychiatry. 157, 1252-9.

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