2012-03-21 08:00:00

In Mexico’s War on Drugs, Veterans Struggle With PTSD

Mérida, Mexico – For almost a century, Mexico enjoyed the rare privilege of not having waged war. Now, almost six years into the “War on Drugs,” the country’s military is confronting an issue increasingly familiar to veterans and their families in the United States: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Mexico’s Constitution prohibits its armed forces from leaving Mexican territory without a declaration of war, relegating service members to humanitarian relief efforts. These include being among the first to arrive with food and medical supplies to Haiti following that nation’s devastating earthquake in 2010, and routine aid missions in neighboring Central American countries during natural disasters.

The “War on Drugs” has changed all that, however, and for the first time since World War II, Mexican soldiers are living through war-conditions at home, carrying with them the trauma of their experience.

“It’s not possible to engage in combat, and see war atrocities, and not be affected,” says Dr. Roberto Gómez, an expert on mental health issues. “Mexican soldiers are exposed to the same trauma as if they were in war.”

The emergence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is new for Mexico’s military, which has deployed some 50,000 soldiers across the country to battle powerful drug-trafficking cartels. Their tasks range from patrolling streets and investigating crimes to gathering intelligence.

It is an under-reported, but fast-growing phenomenon, one that is both an unforeseen consequence of the “War on Drugs” that since 2006 has claimed more than 47,000 lives, and one for which the Mexican military is desperately unprepared to handle.

Mexican military hospitals are designed to treat physical injuries, not psychological conditions that require long-term care.

There are no statistics on the number of cognitively impaired soldiers in Mexico’s armed forces, but anecdotal evidence suggests that psychologically impaired soldiers are removed from the general population and given anti-depressants or similar sedatives to calm them down. Then they are honorably discharged – the hope being that Mexico’s medical system, known as IMSS (Mexican Institute of Social Security, the national health care program), will take care of them.

“This is an unreasonable expectation,” says Gómez. “The national health care program is not designed to treat young men in their thirties who have experienced trauma leading to PTSD. Oftentimes they are confused, unable to sleep, have recurring nightmares, unwittingly provoke fights and are prone to violent outbursts.”

Families of military personnel who have been discharged report difficulty in assisting their loved ones, many of whom are turning to alcohol and need assistance in the most basic tasks, from dressing themselves, to watching television without having an episode when a program airs that contains violence or explosions.

The emergence of a class of such former soldiers -- who upon returning to civilian life encounter hostility from those around them and are often accused of engaging in belligerent behavior -- is proving problematic for Mexican society at large.

Families, meanwhile, are often reluctant to make demands on the military to provide continuing health care for soldiers suffering from PTSD, and the national health care system itself is only now coming to terms with the needs of these patients.

Taking a page from history, however, Mexicans have begun to broach the subject in an indirect way: through theatre.

Not unlike the U.S., where the reading of Sophocles’ “Ajax” -- which tells the story of a veteran who, upon returning from war, is overcome by depression and kills his commanding officer -- has helped American Marines deal with the consequences of PTSD, Mexicans are turning to drama to give a voice to the sudden emergence of the illness.

“We are dealing with a disorder that is becoming increasingly common in society and by those who have been victims of abduction, rape, or have experienced war or violence,” says Brazilian actress Giselle Jorgetti, who stars in the play “Em Tempo de Paz,” which explores PTSD during peacetime and is now being performed on stage in Mexico.

“The intention,” she explains, “is to bring the issue out into the public because it is a disorder that does not manifest immediately and may occur even years after having lived through a certain situation.”

For American service members, many of them struggling to cope with the aftereffects of one or more deployments to Afghanistan or Iraq, dramatizing internal wounds like PTSD has proven to be an effective tool.

“I know it's a bit odd to have Greek plays read to a conference of military people,” said David Strathairn, best known for his Oscar-nominated role in "Good Night, Good Luck,” during a 2008 performance of Sophocles’ tragedy, in which he played the part of Philoctetes. “But you read these plays and you understand they are the first investigations into the condition of war in Western civilization.”

A similar investigation is now underway in Mexico.

“When someone hears a noise and is startled, or smells an odor that reminds them of a situation they lived through, then that person behaves as if they were reliving that moment,” Jorgetti told reporters. “The protagonist in the play is a person who is increasingly isolated [because of his PTSD].”

For the thousands of Mexican soldiers returning home after their tours of duty, such isolation and the memories of an increasingly violent and seemingly endless war hover just beneath the surface.

And as families await the safe return of husbands, fathers, sons, brothers and uncles – in scenes similar to those played out across the Unites States – there remains the open-ended question of their mental and emotional health, and the ability of Mexico’s military to address such challenges.

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