An Illustrator’s Journey In and Out of “Shell Shock”

An Illustrator’s Journey In and Out of “Shell Shock”

WW II Veteran Suffers But Recovers from PTSD

George Withers had a whimsical touch in his art that perfectly illustrated the mood in America before and after WWII. Smiles he put on the faces of his subject, even when they were in some unlikely settings, captured George’s glass half-full view of life. Those smiles faded after he returned home from the war. They called PTSD “shell-shock” back then. Whatever it was, it almost robbed him and his family of a fulfilling life together.

With the help of his strong wife Virginia who kept the family together while he was in the hospital for “shell shock”, George broke free from his depression. More that than, he found a new happiness in his illustrations during the late 40s and into the 50s. His happy-go-lucky spirit was reflected in his illustrated stories for many artists including J.D. Salinger for The Saturday Evening Post and Robert Ruark for Colliers Magazine. George Withers leaves behind a legacy of moving illustrations that are a snapshot of the American spirit during those years.

Early Life Moves from Kansas to The Big Apple

Born in Wichita, Kansas on December 20, 1911. Withers graduated with a B.A. in Art from Kansas University. He attended the Art Students League in New York on an art scholarship and studied under George Bridgeman. Growing up in the midwest during the 1930s, George was a big, strong kid – a football player – who somehow found his gift for illustration and used it. Not long after graduating art school, he landed work in Philadelphia as a commercial artist at an ad agency. Illustrating ads for many big brands of the day, he would log almost 500 illustrations alone for 1950s giant Redbook magazine. George was good and success followed him.

Honing his craft and style, he moved to Manhattan. There, he discovered greater success, which included meeting an Irish-American beauty named Virginia who worked there, too. She loved jazz, dancing and eventually George. They married in 1942 and before George went off to war, their son Brian was born.

With George off to war, Virginia would write him about the Manhattan black-outs and how his son Brian was growing. To make ends meet, she still worked at the agency and rented out a room. Having lost both of her parents at a young age, Virginia was a survivor and a practical woman. Those skills would come in handy after her husband returned from the war.

George came home to his familiar Long Island home, but he wasn’t the same. To most in their circle of artist’s friends, life was back to normal. But the smiles weren’t there for George or Virginia. He “got sick” and was admitted into an army hospital in 1946. ??

With her family in emotional and financial trouble, Virginia dug in her Irish-America heels and landed a full-time job at Arthur Murray while dad was hospitalized. She would keep that job and the family together until George worked through his depression and shell-shock.

George Wither’s Wartime Illustrations

Painting Hellish War Images Part of His Daily Duties

The work George Withers painted in World War II was twofold in nature.

On the one hand he was a war artist, working for the Army. He was stationed at ETO Headquarters in Paris, working under Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. The assignments were expansive. There were stories about the Holocaust and its horrors, emaciated people ripped from their families only to die at the hands of fanatic Nazis.

 

Then there were battle images that needed to be painted, along with war-torn landscapes, displaced people and naval battles in the Atlantic and the Pacific. A multitude of military pamphlets and brochures had to be illustrated. And on and on. There was work to be accomplished each day, Monday to Friday, 8 to 5.

But in his free time and on weekends Withers kept drawing and painting, from the moment he entered the Army until the day he returned to New York in early 1946.

GIs took the lindy, the jitterbug, and Big Band music to France, and the Parisians loved it. Ike was in town. At various times DeGaulle, Churchill, and Eden joined him.

Then the war was over. There were nightclubs, jazz joints, and the Cirque de Paris to attend.

The French displayed a wonderful spirit, and so did the Americans. The Nazis were no more, and there was life to celebrate.

A walk in the Bois de Bologne, (which Withers found to be very similar to New York’s Central Park), a boat ride, and Parisians and GIs alike sunning themselves in the park. The images my dad sent home exude an unquestionable freedom. They are the precursors for actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean, whose performances build on the bravado established by American GIs a few years before.

The paintings and drawings my dad sent home were artistic in nature. They weren’t produced for an art director. As a body of work they represent the only time that Dad was truly an artist. He experimented with styles, becoming quite modern in some of the paintings.

He also illustrated many of the letters he sent to his wife.

As an American with a family at home, he couldn’t wait to return. In one letter he said, “When I get to Penn Station I’ll grab the first subway car to our apartment. If the train’s not there I’ll just run home as fast as I can.”

Thanks to Brian Withers who wrote the above for the Chicago Tribune, find it here.

ABOUT ONCE A SOLDIER

Our Veterans are killing themselves in record numbers mostly due to PTSD. An overmatched VA can’t take care of them or their families. We will.

Soldier suicide leaves Veteran families with thousands of dollars of bills unpaid, mostly bank loans.

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PTSD Brain Scans Fall Short for Diagnosis

PTSD Brain Scans Fall Short for Diagnosis

What Do Brain Scans Tell Us About PTSD?

Although researchers do not use brain scans to diagnose PTSD in the clinic, they use them to understand what happens in the PTSD brain.

There is abundant evidence for changes in the structure and function of different areas of brain involved in fear response and anxiety, regulation of emotions, cognitive processing and memory.

For example, there is consistent evidence for reduced volume in the brain region called the hippocampus, which is involved in memory and context processing. This leads to difficulties differentiating cues that resemble trauma, such as the slamming of a door, from the trauma cue itself, such as a gunshot.

What are brain scans?

A brain scan is a general term that covers a diverse group of methods for imaging the brain. In psychiatric clinical practice, brain scans are mostly used to rule out visible brain lesions that may be causing psychiatric symptoms.

However, in research we use them to learn about the pathologies of the brain in mental illness. A common method is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that allows us to look at the changes in the volume and structure of different areas of the brain, and integrity of the pathways connecting them.

Then there is functional MRI (fMRI). This method examines blood flow in different areas of the brain as a measure of their dynamic function, mostly in response to a task or event, such as thinking about trauma or viewing of a trauma-related image. I use fMRI in my research to look at the brain circuitry involved in how people can be instructed to learn fear and safety. Positron emission tomography, or PET, and single photon emission CT, or SPECT, are also used in looking at brain function.

At the current stage of the technology and research, psychiatrists, psychologists and neuroscientists only use these methods for researching the brain changes in mental illness, and not for making diagnoses.

In other words, researchers have to combine data from tens of people with a mental illness to determine how, on average, different areas of their brain may differ in volume or function from others. 

 

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How do we diagnose PTSD?

Like most other psychiatric conditions, PTSD is a clinical diagnosis. That means psychiatrists diagnose PTSD by the symptoms presented by the patient. Clinicians look for a constellation of symptoms for a diagnosis:

    • history of exposure to trauma
    • intrusive symptoms such as frequent flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive memories
    • avoiding any reminder of trauma (for example, a veteran avoiding watching the movie “Saving Private Ryan”) and its memories
    • hyperarousal, or being overly vigilant, having sleep disturbances, being easily startled negative thoughts or feelings
      significant distress or dysfunction.

When enough number of the above criteria is met, a clinician makes a diagnosis of PTSD.

Clinicians and researchers use the above criteria for consistency in research. They want to be sure that what they call PTSD across different studies passes the threshold of a certain severity and diversity of symptoms.

However, effects of trauma may not reach the “diagnostic threshold” forPTSD, but can still be very stressing. A traumatized person who has frequent nightmares and flashbacks and avoids leaving their house out of fear, is seriously stressed even though they may not meet the required number of “negative symptoms” per the diagnostic manual. From a clinical perspective, we still address their symptoms and treat them. In other words, what matters in clinical practice is helping with the symptoms that are distressing and cause dysfunction.

Population of U.S. Suffering PTSD

PTSD is common, affecting 8% of the U.S. population, up to 30% of the combat exposed veterans, and 30%-80% of refugees and victims of torture.

This Once a Soldier blog/advocacy post was reprinted in part with permission from and can be found here. 

3 Reasons for Soldier Suicides in VA Parking Lots

3 Reasons for Soldier Suicides in VA Parking Lots

Solider suicide isn’t what you think. The overwhelming majority – 14 out of 22 – are not committed by young kids who lose their nerve in battle. Or by an active duty lifer who just can’t deal one more day. These tragic events do happen every day, and that’s a real shame, but what soldier suicide really looks like is a white man, color doesn’t matter here, over the age of 50 who can’t stand the PTSD anymore, the VA visits that go nowhere, and a thousand other reasons I have no insight into. But what I do know now is that these suicides are happening in the parking lot of their VA and still no great leap forward. Mission not yet accomplished.

Once a Soldier knows that the Veterans Administration can’t keep up with the need. We are not here to fix or even understand what the problems or offer a solution. We are here because like so many others, we just can’t escape the hard reality of veteran soldier suicide. Our mission is to aid their families, but we now realize that that is just a small part of a bigger whole. We remain happy in our mission, but we have to face the facts of veteran soldier suicide.

In short, stop soldier suicide and stop doing it in the VA parking lot. It’s not working and it’s too sad to continue. That’s not an order, that’s a plea. I have no solution and can only ask. Up until today, I had no knowledge of these types of soldier suicide. Sad to say, the reasons that are listed as to why in one of the following stories actually makes sense. Twisted and sorrowful, but very practical.

Here’s a comment we received that prompted our discovery process into the VA suicides and that offers an insider’s view of the situation. I’ve edited it very slightly to better highlight what I think the author’s points are:

U** R****** on February 4, 2018 at 2:55 pm 

Seen as an inside observer of the medical community and also as a VA patient.

1. Parking lot suicides are done for two reasons. 

Veterans do not want their loved ones to find their bodies and know the VA will dispose of them. The other reason is that it is the final FU to a government which is so full of bureaucracy it has rendered itself useless. However, in all fairness, this trend has extended itself to the civilian sector as well for quite some time where medical care is a form of Russian Roulette. Some are lucky to escape without harm, others end up damaged or dead. The word is collateral damage in medical care.

2. Too Much Papework

Dropping the ball in delivering medical care to veterans and civilians is becoming the norm. Health care workers are undulated (sic) with so much paper work for documentation and rules they have to follow as guidelines for the delivery of each aspect of care, they are utilizing the time they used to spend of patient care to document each and every move they make. If a time and motion study was implemented it would amaze people to know that more then (sic) 90 per cent of their time is spend documenting and covering their asses. If you are a VA patient, the time you spend with your provide (sic) is less than a few minutes because the rest of what they provide is looking at the computer screen, charting.

3. Profits over People

The patient has been considered the “consumer” in the medical field for over 20 years, whereby in civilian sectors they are called consumers. The word alone indicates that the patient has been placed on the Back 40, because the definition of consumer is purchaser, buyer, customer, shopper and patron. This enforces everything we read and know about medical care, it is a profit making organization and nothing more. The VA is blatant about their desire to make profit at the cost of the veterans who rely on their care. There are more and more job descriptions placed on each healthcare worker, and when there is a hiring freeze, they delegate the empty slots between the health care workers left, to carry the load, which frustrates and stresses them out because of work overload. The VA figures their health care providers and workers can function doing the workload of those they did not replace. The workers who are left trying their best to do their jobs, end up leaving, or are so overworked, the ball in medical care is dropped. The bottom line: profit.

Inasmuch as the VA is trying to curtail the numbers of suicides of their veterans, the task is equivalent to the war on drugs. A waste of time and money because the war on drugs was lost a long time ago and cost the tax payers more money than the fight was worth. One can not prevent intentional suicide. Impossible. Each case is different and each person is different. What goes through the human mind when the person reaches the final stage of ending his/her life can not be controlled.

Thank you for your time,

UR

(URs name is edited for privacy reasons. Although he posted this comment, I don’t want to use it as his content is being repurposed.)

Here’s more insight and stories from these VA parking lot suicides.

63-year-old Paul Shuping was found in the parking lot by Durham VA police. A six-year Navy vet, Mr. Shuping’s act was discovered six days after it was committed. Offered partial benefits, he was denied full benefits due to a paperwork error. On top of his PTSD and depression, that was the final straw. Read the rest of the news story here.

A 76-year-old veteran committed suicide on Sunday, August 23,2016, in the parking lot of the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Long Island, New York. Mr. Peter A. Kaisen “went to the E.R. and was denied service,” one of the people, who currently works at the hospital, said. “And then he went to his car and shot himself.” The rest of that New York Times article is here. 

Mr. Kaisen’s was a big story that was heard around the country because at the time, it was considered shocking. “At the time” means as recent as a year and a half ago.

One last one:

Police say the 53-year-old veteran, Thomas Murphy, drove to the Phoenix VA regional office with a goodbye note and gun. Interestingly, a whistleblower at the VA, Brandon Coleman, has been put on leave, as of May 11, 2015, for trying to shed some light on the problems of at-risk vets. That news story is here.

Three reasons why vets are killing themselves in the VA parking lot and three stories of veteran soldier suicides that drive home the point. Also, they were all older white men who picked up a gun to solve the problems of PTSD, an overwhelmed VA system, and not enough benefits. There’s probably not an official tally of how many vets have killed themselves at a VA parking lot. There doesn’t need to be. One is enough to send the message. All of these and the message is clear: the message isn’t getting through.

FU PTSD

FU PTSD

FU PTSD

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is high on our list of things to give the finger to. PTSD is a new name for an old condition: a traumatic, life-threatening event triggers this anxiety disorder. Through the years it has taken on different names, but no matter what you call it, PTSD, shell-shocked, it’s a horror of war that we’ve had since the beginning. And since there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of wars or soldiers heading off to them, we thought we do what we can to vent our hated of PTSD.

From WebMD.com, we share with you their information for top-level information and understanding about this mental health disorder. While PTSD and it’s ill effected have been highlighted by the current military actions, it can be caused by other non-combat related events. The terrorist attacks in Las Vegas, Charlottesville and in Europe can inflict PTSD on those who were there or were otherwise severely impacted by the horrific events.

To give us a better idea of what it’s like to live with this condition, we found a great post on The Mighty where they asked people with it what it feels like. Here’s what they shared:

1. “It’s constantly looking over your shoulder and having difficulty trusting people… It’s not just something you can walk away from.” — Kathryn P.

2. “Triggers can come from anywhere at any time… a smell, a look/ glance, a vibe, a dream… how someone treats you. You are unable, as hard as you try, to turn it off.” — Mike T.

3. “The best description I’ve ever come across is the Walking Dead episode ‘Here’s Not Here.’ One character describes PTSD: ‘You saw it happen. That’s how this started, right? It’s all happening right in front of your eyes over and over. Your body’s here, but your mind is still there. There’s a door and you want to go through it to get away from it, so you do and it leads you right back to that moment. And you see that door again and you know it won’t work, but, hell, maybe it’ll work. So you step through that door and you’re right back in that horrible moment every time. You still feel it every time. So you just want to stop opening that door. So you just sit in it. But I assure you, one of those doors leads out, my friend.’” — Tara H.

4. “You know that feeling you get when someone jumps out and scares you and you are on high alert for a few minutes? That alertness never goes away for me.” — Holly M.

5. “It’s like you’re tidying your house before a dinner party. But there’s this one item that’s just out of place. The doorbell rings. It’s your guests. You just shove that item into the closet and tell yourself you’ll deal with it later. You start to do this every time. Filling the closest more and more. Saying to yourself that you’ll deal with it later. The closet becomes so full that it starts to creak. That’s your bodies way of saying ‘Hey! You got a lot of stuff to deal with! It’s time!’ But you keep thinking it’s fine. Out of sight, out of mind. You ignore the closet. Until one day it’s too much. The closet bursts. And everything comes flying out in weird and wacky ways. Panic attacks. Dissociative episodes. Depression. Anxiety. Flashbacks. Intrusive thoughts. And then you’re left lying on the floor with all the items that were stuffed into the closet, splattered around you. Forced to finally accept what happened. And forced to finally deal with it. Forced to clean up the items around you and find appropriate places for each thing. And then over time, slowly, you learn what to do with each item, and how to deal with each thing, uniquely.” — Nargis D.

6. “It’s like a sideshow ‘fun house;’ you never know what’s around the corner to screw up your day. Then you walk over to the house of mirrors and realize no matter which one you look at, it will never be who you truly are.” — Tash G.

7. “My nightmares when I’m asleep bleed into my daily life. At times after just getting up I’m unable to differentiate whether I’m awake or asleep. They feel so real, I even experience the physical pain in them. Then while I am at home if someone knocks on my door I could scream and start rocking back and forth.” — Will D.

8. “It’s difficult to explain. Sometimes it’s the feeling that something bad is right behind you. Every car door that shuts at night is something bad. It’s being afraid to go to sleep because you know the nightmares are waiting. No one can be trusted. I constantly feel like someone is behind me. It’s being so hyper-vigilant every minute, it’s exhausting. Certain places or a flash of something brings it all crashing back down on you. It’s feeling like every day you’re going to die, and sometimes wishing for death just to get away from the memories.” — Jennifer T.

9. “You’re constantly on guard. You can never rest without thinking about something. I get panicked at the slightest thing that wouldn’t bother anyone like loud bangs or someone’s footsteps, or someone calling my name and I don’t know where it’s coming from.” — Ross R.

10. “It’s like being trapped in a time capsule. Your surroundings change, but you’re forever in the state of your trauma — flashes of memories through all five senses, body memories, nightmares — it consumes your entire being and never by choice!” — Corey L.

11. “Imagine walking down the yellow stripe in the middle of a crowded street: it’s happy and sunny and everyone is doing everything great — but if you lose your balance or get pushed to the left side, it’s dark and scary. Few people know the left side.” — Brynn L.

12. “PTSD is a bunch of nightmares during the day. I lose grips on where I am, and I get lost in the memory. It’s like I’m not even where I actually am. It feels so real, and next thing I wake up and do not know how I got to where I am now.” — Nicole V.

13. “It’s like when you watch a scary movie and you’re on edge the entire time… except that’s how you live, all day, every day. You’re literally afraid of everything.” — Kate M.

14. “It’s like living in a slideshow instead of a video. Everything is choppy and confusing. There’s doubt, chaos and terror night and day.” — Adele E.

15. “I always compare it to the episode of ‘Spongebob’ when he was trying to remember his name and inside of his head people were looking through all the filing cabinets, but couldn’t find it so they started burning everything up and completely destroyed the memory bank… it’s like certain things trigger an episode whether it’s a smell or even a certain color. It causes me to panic.” — Shonte R.

They’re all sad and painful, but I have to say that #15 really sends it home for me. Here’s more from that same page:

16. “It’s like being hit by a car and you never see the car coming! It knocks you down, and when you try to get up another car hits you again.” — Minister W.

17. “It’s like a rubber band in that you can stretch so far out of your comfort zone, but once you’ve been triggered you fly back right to where you started.” — Rachel M.

18. “It’s like being afraid of the monster under your bed that no one else really believes is there. It can creep up on u at any moment, and the smallest of things can trigger it.” — Destiny B.

19. “Having PTSD for me is like being set apart from everyone else, finding fault with everyone you meet and walking a constant tightrope between fight or flight. The overwhelming feeling of guilt is hard to live with, and no one can convince you otherwise. It’s truly terrible. But there is always hope and always a light that never goes out so hang on in there.” — Jon A.

After living with this for so long, you can guess that this is where soldier suicide comes from. At Once a Soldier, our mission sidesteps PTSD and gets to the survivors of those families of soldier suicide. Still, we know we can’t pretend the source cause of all this sadness doesn’t exist. Truthfully, it’s not the condition that we hate, but the war we send our troops to that are without end.

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