In Greek mythology, Achilles was a hero of the Trojan War. He was also the central character and the greatest warrior of Homer's tragedy entitled "The Iliad". Now you’re probably wondering what this little slice of history has to do with our Wounded Warriors of today? Actually there is much that a character from Homer’s Iliad can teach us about where we currently are and what is to come regarding our modern day warriors; specifically our military weaknesses, our post-war emotions, and how this war (in my honest opinion) will greatly impact our society.
A Warrior’s Perspective on Weakness
Achilles was the son of Thetis and Peleus, and the bravest hero in the Trojan War, according to Greek mythology. When Achilles was born, his mother, Thetis, tried to make him immortal by dipping him in the River Styx. As she immersed him, she held him by one heel and forgot to dip him a second time so the heel she held could get wet too. Therefore, the place where she held him remained untouched by the magic water of the Styx and that part stayed mortal or vulnerable.
It would seem to the average observer that a small area like the heel would not be that big of a deal when it comes to making a warrior vulnerable, but as most of us know, it was a poisoned arrow that struck Achilles in the heel that led to his demise. The great “war philosophers” of history have constantly proclaimed that in order to defeat an opponent, you must focus your strengths against your enemy’s weakness. In the case of Achilles, it was his heel that led to his downfall. Through today’s post, I believe I have found our weakness, or our Achilles heel. When it comes to today’s armed conflict, I would submit to you that our weakness is in our eyes.
Yes, our eyes!
Hopefully, I have you intrigued enough to continue reading so that I can explain why the organ we use to see with, could ultimately lead to an inglorious end.
Here is some additional information:
The signature wound of the war on terror comes from the explosions of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. In last week’s post, we touched briefly on the explosive force produced by these crude, yet effective weapons. In an article published in Technology Review, researchers went deep inside an IED to learn more about its destructiveness. In June of 2008 Emily Singer wrote, “to better understand what a blast does to the brain, Raul Radovitzky, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, and David F. Moore, a neurologist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center who has a doctorate in fluid dynamics, developed a software model incorporating both the physics of pressure waves and the variable properties of the brain's tissues. Through magnetic resonance imaging, Moore modeled 11 features of the head, including the skull, the cerebrospinal fluid, the brain's fluid-filled ventricles, the sinuses, the brain's layer of white matter, and even the fat layer surrounding the eyes. The researchers used that information to create a computer model of the head, which they subjected to a simulated blast, observing how energy, transferred from the air to the head, affects the different structures.
The model highlights the parts of the brain that endure the greatest stress and are thus most vulnerable to injury.” Due to the nature of different structures in our heads, it appears that the majority of the blast pressure wave enters the brain predominantly through the eyes and sinuses, and to a lesser extent through the skull, as we previously thought. Current helmet designs were engineered to stop bullets not sound waves, so it would appear our enemies are exploiting this weakness. Especially, as we prosecute the war with a counter-insurgency strategy. We must gain the trust of the people of Afghanistan, so that they might point out who the Taliban fighters are. Can you imagine trying to do that with a helmet that protected the face? It would be menacing, to say the least. Instead we choose to display our humanity, but it comes at a price…and our enemies are cashing in!
Windows to the Soul
Much of today’s medical focus and media attention is being devoted to post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. I think it’s great that more vets are stepping up and sharing their emotional stories and I am also encouraged to hear that more warriors are sharing their successes in recovery. What I caution against, however; is not losing sight of the exposure to IEDs, as many times we believe that there is no injury if we can’t see it? The two conditions (TBI and PTSD) can sometimes mask each other. Their symptoms, which include: depression, memory and attention deficit, sleep problems, and emotional disturbances can sometimes aggravate each other.
As a matter of fact, a 1998 study of veterans with PTSD found that those exposed to blasts were more likely to have lingering attention deficits and abnormal brain activity that persisted long after the injury. Additionally, a study published January 2008 in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 44 percent of soldiers who had lost consciousness on the battlefield met criteria for PTSD, compared with 16 percent of those in the same brigades who suffered other injuries. Again, it will be our eyes that deceive us, as it will be easy to miss the damaging effects of multiple explosions because we cannot see the effects without special equipment. Coupled with the fact that, like Achilles, our warriors are taught to “suck it up” and “drive on.” This false sense of invincibility clouds our vision of our own well-being. We learned this in an earlier post that our warriors present with more cases of PTSD anywhere from 3-6 months after they have deployed back to the states. Again, our eyes will fail us and more of our warriors will fall from this weakness if left untreated.
Vision of the Future
If history has a way of repeating itself, then we can expect the following scenario, just based on history repeating itself:
By the year 2020, 1 in 5 incarcerated people in this country will be a veteran of the war on terror. Conservatively, one out of every four homeless men who is sleeping in a doorway, alley, or box in our cities and rural communities has put on a uniform and served this country. This group will be older, better educated, and have higher levels of chronic diseases like cancer, HIV/AIDS, and heart disease. They will have a greater disposition to alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and mental illness.
To separate this group from the rest of history, 5% of the population will be female. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 131,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. The VA also estimates that approximately twice that many experience homelessness over the course of a year. I contend that in this reality as well, our eyes will turn on us. We will simply look the other way and try to ignore the tattered clothes and outreaching hands of our brothers and sisters that have become homeless...
...and that, my friends, will be the greatest tragedy of all!
We usually think of Achilles as a hero, but look further and you might find a different meaning. Achilles' name can be translated as a combination of two words: ἄχος (akhos) "grief" and λαός (Laos) "a people, tribe, nation, etc." In other words, Achilles is an embodiment of the grief of the people. With the above mentioned images, I contend we do not need another Achilles. There is, thankfully; a part for all of us to play. Warriors, report your IED exposure and symptoms. Care givers, go the extra mile to find the unseen damage. Everyone else, there is a way for you to be involved.
Open your eyes and find it!