Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) happens to soldiers including Major Generals like John Cantwell. It also happens to people who aren’t soldiers and suggests a damaging psychological dynamic that’s relevant to us all.
Now retired, Cantwell served in the 1991 Gulf war, then again in Iraq following the 2003 invasion, then finally as commander of Aussie troops in Afghanistan.
His story includes a litany of horrors. He helped kill of thousands of Iraqi soldiers by burying them alive. He speaks of being haunted by the image of an Iraqi soldier’s dead arm reaching out of the sand. He’s faced the tragic enormity of farewelling ten young Australians who died on his watch in Afghanistan.
Symptoms Cantwell described include “a constant sense of agitation, short temper, outbursts of anger, emotional outbursts, jumping at loud noises. Being afraid to go to public places and looking for the exits in case something bad happened”. I would add to that list a debilitating and exponentiating emotional exhaustion that diminishes the sufferers’ resilience.
PTSD is an extreme input of stress, but follows the same dynamic as more ordinary stress and as such is important for us all to understand.
Stress is as real as a punch in the face. You get it by being frightened but you can also get it by seeing someone else doing badly.
Hiding the pain from yourself and from others empowers stress to accumulate within you, growing like lantana. Without active effort this weed can take over your entire garden until you’re lost in a field of thorns where nothing else can grow.
Stress and its accumulation can be nipped in the bud. Don’t stick your head in the sand, it’s deadly. Instead face each fear as it confronts you. As you feel the fear, it’s finishing.
John Cantwell is a very impressive man with the love, courage and heart to finally face this enemy within. He’s a leader worth following.