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Soldiers' families secondary victims of wartime stress

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POSTED: June 13, 2007 5:02 a.m.
At least 20 percent of the soldiers involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom will return home suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to recent statistics.
But while much attention has been given to the plight of soldiers battling PTSD, the affects of these soldiers’ behavior on family members has not received the same amount of interest — something University of South Carolina doctoral student Jody Herzog is hoping to change.
The Fraser Counseling Center clinical director is currently working on a doctoral thesis that examines the residual influence of PTSD, known as secondary trauma, in families of combat veterans.
“Most of the soldiers being deployed will do fine, but there will be a minority of soldiers that have a hard time and their families will too,” Herzog said. “I’m looking to study the psychological distress that these children and spouses experience from being exposed to a soldier with post traumatic stress.”
The counselor has worked with military families since 1998 and said he has recognized “increased levels of anxiety, depression and behavioral problems in children” as members of the 3rd Infantry Division have deployed and redeployed over the last four years.
“Post traumatic stress is marked by withdrawal, isolation,” Herzog said. “If you have a parent who’s withdrawn and isolated or that has some depressive features, that’s going to affect their interaction with that parent.”
He noted in most cases, spouse secondary trauma is “a mediating variable” in the mental state of children experiencing stress.
“If the spouse is doing okay, then the children will do better,” he said. “But if the spouse is having trouble in their relationship with their soldier who is PTSD positive, then the children are going to have a more difficult time.”
To expand on these preliminary findings, Herzog will survey and follow the progress of family members of a National Guard Unit over the next few months, but anticipates expanding his study.
“I’ll be done in six to nine months, but I hope to make this a multi-year project,” he said. “This is really my calling. This is what I’ll be doing research on and therapy with for a while.”
When asked why he was passionate about secondary trauma, the counselor said he realizes “this is a critical time” for military families and there is a need for updated research in the field.
“Most of the studies today have been with Vietnam veterans 10 or 15 years after they experienced combat,” Herzog said. “So it’s timely in two ways: this is an issue military families are facing right now and it’s also concerning soldiers who are facing combat in the recent past instead of 10 to 15 years later.”
 

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