Baseball stadiums are some of the few places where Navy Cmdr. Steven Dundas feels safe, where his mind is not anxiously inching toward the past and latching onto memories of children with missing body parts and the stench of burning swamp fires.
The crack of the bat and the whiz of the ball during a minor league Norfolk Tides game at Harbor Park pulls him into the present and reminds him that he is no longer working at a trauma hospital in a war zone. Cmdr. Dundas, a 54-year-old chaplain for the Joint Forces Staff College, is one of a growing number of military officers struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I came home feeling completely isolated. I didn’t fit in society,” said Cmdr. Dundas, who served in the military for more than 25 years before he was afflicted with PTSD in 2008 while deployed in Iraq. “Other chaplains and clergy did very little for me. I felt even cut off from God and for about two years, until about December 2009, I was pretty much an agnostic, just hoping that God was still around.”
The Defense Department has reported an uptick in the number of military officers who, like Cmdr. Dundas, are seeking help to cope with the disorder, borne out of war zone trauma and characterized by bouts of anxiety and paranoia. It is often accompanied by night terrors and irrational behavior and has spawned violent behavior and suicides.
The U.S. military has been criticized for being slow to acknowledge and respond to the disorder — and to the complaints of military personnel and their families who said returning troops were suffering long-term psychological damage from their battlefield experiences.
The term “post-traumatic stress disorder” didn’t exist 40 years ago, and statistics tracking diagnoses of the disorder were not kept until recently.
Figures compiled by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service say diagnoses of the disorder among active-duty personnel across all branches of the U.S. military have increased from about 5,700 10 years ago to more than 15,000 last year.
The number of people seeking treatment has increased by more than 20 percent since fiscal 2010, said Army Lt. Col. Cathy Wilkinson, a Pentagon spokeswoman. It remains to be seen whether that growth is related to an increase in stress among military members or merely a rough gauge of those who are willing to step forward and seek help for the disorder.
One reason PTSD sufferers might be reluctant to come forward is the negative connotation associated with the disorder, which often attracts national attention after violent incidents involving veterans or active-duty officers.
This month, military veteran Jason Faber, 34, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, was arrested after the fatal shooting of a neighbor and injuries of two other people in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Also this month, Ivan Lopez, an active-duty Army National Guard member who was part of a logistics and support unit at Fort Hood, Texas, gunned down three people before killing himself. Mr. Lopez, an Iraq veteran, had been suffering from depression and anxiety. He reportedly was taking medication while undergoing a process to determine whether he had post-traumatic stress disorder.
Cmdr. Dundas said most military officers, specifically senior officers such as himself, also tend to hide their condition in part because they fear it might make them seem weak — a perception that could cost them promotions.
“A lot of people are afraid of the stigma, of going to get mental health, because they’re afraid that it will impact their careers,” he said. “And I don’t blame them in that. Because it might.”
Cmdr. Dundas said he has known senior officers who were “too proud to get help” and ended up either committing suicide, being admitted to mental wards or losing their commands because of alcohol problems cultivated as a coping mechanism. The fear, he said, trumped their personal welfare.
The Defense Department says it is working to change that and has come a long way to reach out to suffering soldiers.
“We have undertaken a broad-based campaign encouraging service members to seek mental health treatment when signs or symptoms occur, help service members and their families to identify those signs and symptoms, and to destigmatize mental health care overall,” Col. Wilkinson said.
But challenges persist.
A 37-year-old Army reservist, who spoke to The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity because he remains uncomfortable publicly discussing his condition, said he served in Iraq and came back physically wounded. But he said he didn’t realize the magnitude of his psychological injuries.
The master sergeant said he has fallen on hard times and is now homeless. His family and friends have tried to care for him, but he said he “would rather walk the streets homeless” than to be a burden on his loved ones.
He said his afflictions have prompted thoughts of suicide.
“I have access to guns and I have considered killing myself because I was in so much pain,” he said.
Jan Kemp, the national mental health director for suicide prevention for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said the agency has a crisis hotline that veterans and active-duty officers can call whenever they need to talk to someone. Crisis hotline staff members are mental health professionals and veterans who have experienced some degree of post-traumatic stress, she said.
After active-duty officers receive assistance through the hotline, they are referred to a Defense Department mental health care provider, Ms. Kemp said.
Peer support is also available to people seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder, Ms. Kemp said.
“There are lots of options for people,” she said. “It takes a little digging and a little conversation to get the right person to the right option.”
Mobile applications, such as the PTSD Coach, are designed to help those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder track and understand their symptoms, she said.
Cmdr. Dundas said he did not find God again until Christmas Eve 2009, after giving last rites to a retired Navy medical doctor who died in a hospital emergency room.
Years later, he still struggles with chronic insomnia. He continues to have night terrors and suffer from anxiety attacks whenever his car is stuck in traffic. But he continues to work through his disorder and help those around him cope with their symptoms.
“I think that the military is really trying to do those institutional and cultural things to help,” Cmdr. Dundas said. “Whether it’s giving chaplains or embedding counselors with units trying to increase the amount of mental health providers trying to reduce the stigma and saying that it’s OK to get help.”