They fight the same battles with similar weapons and training. But when it comes to aftershock, British and U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan report very different experiences. Soldiers in the United States experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at a rate of 30 percent. Brits: 4 percent.
In part, the numbers can be explained by cultural difference. “I think it’s something totally about the medicalization of distress,” says Neil Greenberg, the British coauthor of a study published this year by the U.K.’s Royal Society of Medicine and reported in Miller-McCune (July-Aug., 2011). “In the U.K., our national approach towards psychological distress is ‘Crack on with it if you can.’ ” The study found that British combat vets tend to drink more and report a higher incidence of milder diagnoses, like depression.
Another explanation is the stark difference between how the two governments deploy their troops. U.K. rules prohibit soldiers from spending more than 13 months in combat during a three-year period, and average tours of duty are six months—half the length of American soldiers’.
Even more important are programs that send U.K. soldiers for a few days of “third location decompression” on the island of Cyprus before returning them to their home communities. “One to four days of R&R on a Mediterranean island with members of the same fighting unit apparently helps veterans come home with an easier mind,” reports Miller-McCune.
The U.S. Marine Corps has recently launched its own decompression program—a tour of duty on a surfboard. “Ocean therapy,” as it’s called, is designed to assist PTSD sufferers. “There’s nothing like surfing to touch the mind, the body, and the spirit all at the same time,” the program director told Miller-McCune (July 20, 2011).