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Star Trek the Next Generation: Captain Jean-Luc Picard Deals with PTSD

Counselor Deanna Troi: Interesting.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Counselor…
Counselor Deanna Troi: I just find it interesting. Captain Jean-Luc Picard, the man who couldn’t be pried out of his seat for a vacation for three years!
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: It’s Earth. It’s home. Do I need another reason?
Counselor Deanna Troi: I don’t know, what do you think?
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Your help has been invaluable during my recovery, but…look, I’m, uh…I’m better! The injuries are healing.
Counselor Deanna Troi: Those you can see in the mirror.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The nightmares have ended. All I need now is a little time to myself.
Counselor Deanna Troi: I agree. In fact, I’m delighted you’re going. It’s just that…the choice of where you’re going could stand some scrutiny.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: If you wish to believe my going home is a direct result of being held captive by the Borg, be my guest.
Counselor Deanna Troi: Is that what you believe?
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: I hate it when you do that.
Counselor Deanna Troi: Captain, you do need time. You cannot achieve complete recovery so quickly. And it’s perfectly normal after what you’ve been through, to spend a great deal of time trying to find yourself again.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: And what better place to find oneself than on the streets of one’s home village.
Counselor Deanna Troi: Interesting.

I have always found the Star Trek TNG episode Family quite compelling.  The episode (Season 4 Episode 2) deals with Captain Jean Luc Picard’s return home following his capture and assimilation by the race known as the Borg during The Best of Both World’s Part 1 and II (Season 3 Episode 26 and Season 4 episode 1.)

The story is interesting because it deals with some of the issues that people traumatized in combat deal with as they try to find themselves again.  In the story Captain Picard, in a very typical manner of someone traumatized by combat believes that his injuries are healing.  His counselor, Deanna Troi who serves as the Ship’s “Counselor” challenges him on his belief that he has recovered and his choice of where he wants to go to find himself again.

I saw the episode when I was in Seminary not long after completing the Chaplain Officer Basic Course and then saw it again when I was going through my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency.  It was during that process, one in which I was trying to find and define what “home” was, that it really caught me.  I was Captain Picard, the brother who left home to explore and travel while serving in the military.   My brother Jeff was Picard’s brother Robert.  He is the one who stayed home and minded family business.  The parallels then got me and even more so now.  My Residency Supervisor used this to good effect during that time in dealing with the issues of home, but the post combat and PTSD part was yet to come.

Back in the days of my residency I struggled with another of issues related to being a military brat and having begun a career in the Army.  In a sense I was a nomad.  I had lived a lot of places but none were really home, even where I had spent all of junior and senior high school.  Like Picard my eyes were set on far horizons of exploration and adventure of military life.  My brother Jeff on the other hand like Picard’s brother was content at staying at home, being near our parents, getting established in the school district and taking care of his family.   We both chose our own paths and both were right for us.  I still long for adventure and exploration but have begun to settle down.

When it came to the placement of the PTSD in this picture it was after Iraq that I had a crisis in a number of areas in my life and every time I thought that I was doing better and maybe even “getting well” that there was always something that could trigger the memories, bring back the dreams and keep me from sleep.  I can say that a year and a half after my return from Iraq I am doing better in a lot of ways but still having struggles with anxiety insomnia and hyper-vigilance.  I did find out that there is one thing that does not evoke a startle reflex is a foul ball that comes back against the screen in from of me in Section 102 at the Church of Baseball Harbor Park Parish.  Last night while taking pictures right up against the screen I had several balls that hit within a couple of feet of me, one of which hit my camera and knocked it out of my hand.  Anywhere else loud noise, unexpected crashes, things flying past me sends me into a hyper-alert status.

picard familyPicard Meets His Family after Many Years and Wounds Away

When Picard goes home it is not the confident Starship Captain who returns, but a man unsure of himself and where he fits in life.  His encounter with the Borg has changed him and he contrary to assurances to Counselor Troi is still wounded.  When I returned from Iraq I wondered where I fit, I felt like I had abandoned my advisers in Al Anbar when I returned because my relief had to be sent elsewhere do to circumstances beyond my control.  I did not feel a part of my own unit as nothing was the same when I came back.  I felt weak, useless and at the end of my rope after having completed incredible tour in combat of my then 26 years in the military.  Physically I was falling apart; I had several nagging injuries from Iraq that caused chronic pain.  I was flashing back with every moment, fires burning in the Great Dismal Swamp had turned our air the color of an Iraq sand storm while the smell was like that of the ever present burn pits, both military and Iraqi.  Walking out the door one morning with my neighborhood shrouded in smoke I began to melt down.  That day we had a seminar done by a nationally known speaker dealing with trauma and combat with the associated feelings and emotions.  At the end of the day I was a wreck.  My Unit Doctor, Chris Rogan looked at me and said “Chaplain you don’t look good, are you okay?”  I said “no I’m not, I’m losing it and I’m scared.”  That was the place where I finally began to get help.  It has been about 14 months since I started and it is still a process.  We made a trip home that summer and I did not do well.  It was painful and I had great difficulty both in the travel as well as the visit.  When I hear fellow vets talking about the surreal and often painful times that they experience I can understand.  The fact is that you can be with a hundred friends and family members and be totally alone when you return home because it is something that you cannot really share and that they usually don’t understand.  Once again I have been fortunate.  My little brother actually listens to me and lets me vent when I need to.  Of course dealing with our family’s stuff this is a two way street.

not a happy camperVisiting Home and not Doing Well

In the story Picard is offered a chance to leave Starfleet and go to work on a project under the ocean on Earth.  He is sorely tempted to take it but before he can he has an encounter with his brother who challenges his decision.  They exchange words and Captain Picard feeling picked on starts a fight.  During the fight he breaks down about his experiences sobbing in his brother’s arms.  “His brother then said: So – my brother is a human being after all. This is going to be with you a long time, Jean-Luc. A long time. You’ll have to learn to live with it. You have a simple choice now. Live with it below the sea with Louis, or above the clouds with the Enterprise.”

In a sense that is something that all of us who serve after having been traumatized by the experience of wart have to deal with, the physical as well as the psychological and spiritual wounds.  For me it was the realization that I was human after all and the slow realization that this will be with me a long time.  The choice is how I choose to live my life and where I do so.

In the series and subsequent Star Trek: The Next Generation films Picard is forced to deal with his psychological wounds from the encounter with the Borg culminating in the second of those films Star Trek: First Contact. In it Starfleet Command leave Picard and the Enterprise out of the battle leading to this exchange between Picard and his First Officer which deals with the stigma associated with such an injury.

Cmdr. William Riker: Captain, why we are we out here chasing comets?
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Let’s just say Starfleet has every confidence in the Enterprise and her crew – they’re just not sure about her Captain. They believe that a man who was once captured and assimilated by the Borg should not be put in a situation where he would face them again. To do so would introduce “an unstable element to a critical situation.”
Cmdr. William Riker: That’s ridiculous. Your experience with the Borg makes you the perfect man to lead this fight.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Admiral Hayes disagrees.

The stigma associated with psychological injuries is far greater than that of physical injuries.  The unseen injuries are not as well understood and those who suffer them often are broken down by the system as they try to get help and many simply go underground and self medicate.  Last year two Army Generals opened up about their struggles with PTSD. I was fortunate to have people come alongside of me when I went down hard.  People who did not give up on me and kept faith by caring about me when I was and still get down.

See the article at: http://edition.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/03/06/generals.ptsd/

Despite this and the efforts of many in the Military to help those with PTSD and other “unseen” injuries, to include medical conditions brought on by exposure to toxins in the combat zone, there is still the stigma.  As the young officer suffering from a rare and eventually fatal pulmonary condition acquired in Iraq as well as yet untreated PTSD “I squarely wish I had lost my legs then than the lung function that I have lost!”

Captain Picard’s story of course is fictional, but it demonstrates to some degree what those who experience the psychological and spiritual wounds of war face when they “come home.”  This stuff doesn’t go away.  Here are some of the comments that I have had from readers who deal with their own or a family members PTSD.

Australian Vietnam Veteran who wrote me said:  “As an Australian Vietnam Veteran with PTSD, I find these articles fascinating. I long wondered why the world had to be such a hostile mongrel place. Then 30 years later I was diagnosed with PTSD and I can now relate to why I have the condition but the world has not changed and medication is of limited use. There are many of us who are still very isolated and have to limit our social contacts. I recently started a Vietnam Veterans group, for members of our small unit, on the web and I found men who were relieved to be part of something and someone they could relate to as they had all but withdrawn from society. Sadly a few of them refuse to take any medication for their medical conditions as they see that as prolonging their miserable existence.”

A family member of a WWII veteran said: “thank you. It’s really needed for women to read articles/memoirs like that. It’s easy to say someone has PTSD, but another to live with and love who has it. I come from a family with rich military history and this is an everyday issue. Never goes away, even after 40 – 60 years.”

A USMC Vietnam Vet that I know wrote: “It’s a bitch at times, and the sleep, or lack of will eventually come, although it will never be a fully restful sleep. The Hyper vigilance seems never to go away. Yes it could be good, but eventually it can be bad…. well do I know both.”

An Army Chaplain from Iraq noted: “I too am a chaplain who felt that he and his assistant were the best equipped to handle the horrors of war – just to find out after being home for about a year just how much I had changed. I was sitting with my daughter in my lap one weekend afternoon when she asked, “Daddy, why don’t you play and laugh with us like you use to before you went to Iraq?” It was the key event that brought everything to a point where I could get help. In the months since there have been good days and definitely bad days – however, my faith remains strong….”

I run into people like this every day in the course at work who deal with this and sometimes it spills over into my stuff.  However I am glad to know that I am not alone.  To those who have helped me since I have be back, Chris, Two Feathers, Limey, Greg, Jesse, Jeff, Elmer, my longsuffering wife the Abbess of the Abbey Normal Judy and my brother Jeff, Colonel P and Janet, the folks I work with, the people at Harbor Park, especially Ray, Charlie and the Vietnam Veterans of America who man the beer stand on the concourse behind home plate and all the others who have come alongside I am grateful.  It is my sincere wish and prayer that all veterans will have such fine people there for them when they hit the wall.

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, PTSD, star trek