Judge, Bioethicist Barry Schaller Explores PTSD Epidemic

By interviewing local veterans and threading their stories into his own research, Guilford author Barry Schaller uses his expertise as a judge and bioethicist to paint a picture-and offer solutions-addressing the rising toll post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is taking on veterans and society.
By interviewing local veterans and threading their stories into his own research, Guilford author Barry Schaller uses his expertise as a judge and bioethicist to paint a picture-and offer solutions-addressing the rising toll post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is taking on veterans and society. Photo by Pam Johnson/The Guilford Courier Buy Photo

With his new book, Veterans on Trial: The Coming Court Battles over PTSD, judge and bioethicist Barry Schaller foresees a rise in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)-based court cases and predicts today's wars will be "breeding grounds" for a national PTSD epidemic.

Soldiers "are forced to do things that are criminal in society, then they're basically returned to society. What society's problems are end up in court. That has happened with all of these psychiatric problems. It's a terrible cost to human beings and society," says Barry.

Barry and his wife Carol enjoy their Guilford residency and have also resided on the shoreline in Branford and Madison during his judicial career. Currently a Guilford resident, on Sept. 15, Barry will meet the public and sign copies of Veterans on Trial at Guilford's Breakwater Books.

Barry retired from the Connecticut Supreme Court in 2008, but continues his judicial service on the Connecticut Appellate Court. A clinical visiting lecturer at his law school alma mater, Yale Law School, Barry has also authored other books, including A Vision of American Law (1997) and Understanding Bioethics and the Law (2008).

Barry's fascination with military history came into play as he wrote Veterans on Trial, in which he discusses PTSD's origins and marks its place in today's world.

"I looked into the history of psychiatric injuries in the military, and the impacts of them as we read in the news today. I talk about what its impact has been and what its impact will be."

PTSD first became a recognized psychiatric disorder during the Vietnam era. Barry's research includes many interviews with local vets, from those serving in the Korean War through to today's actions.

"I talked to veterans who did develop PTSD. We talked about their experiences-they're often shunned and definitely discouraged. Their stories run through the book, illustrating the different things I'm discussing."

Barry says military and government PTSD support systems are lacking. He's found a growing number of PTSD-based court cases involving divorce, job loss, homelessness, substance abuse, suicide, and crimes ranging up to murder.

"The baseline is rising for veterans' involvement in criminal activity and other problems in society. Veterans should be better off than others, because of the discipline that's been instilled in them. They should be the models in our society-not only merely employable and functional because of their training, but leaders as citizens. Nobody has talked about the rising baseline, but that seems perfectly obvious to me."

Part of the problem has to do with "promises made but not fulfilled," says Barry.

"These veterans are told they will receive the training and vocation that will lead to life's successes. In many cases, that doesn't materialize at all, and that leads many to depression and even suicide," he says. "There's something wrong with the recruiting process."

Barry suggests a paradigm shift in the military chain of command's view of the importance of each recruit's mental health, making leaders accountable by tying it to their pay and measured job performance. He also sees a serious lapse in the military's regard for its female recruits.

"To put women in the military and to deliberately isolate them in a unit puts them in a very vulnerable situation," he says. "There needs to be more female officers, which will help with accountability."

Political leaders need to be more accountable, too.

"They should be weighing the psychological injuries in advance. Decisions to enter into wars are being made without regard to what's going to happen."

He adds U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta does recognize the military's growth of psychiatric problems in many areas.

"He's been very candid about military sexual trauma instances. He's been saying the cases in the military are many times greater than what has been reported. He's also been very forthcoming about the military's suicide problem," says Barry, noting the rate of suicide exceeds combat deaths.

Barry spent five years working on Veterans on Trial. Because PTSD is a burgeoning problem, his research continues.

"I feel like I've just scratched the surface," says Barry. "I'm still interested in this topic. I'm going to write more on it."

Barry Schaller will sign copies of his book, Veterans on Trial: The Coming Court Battles over PTSD (2012, Potomac Books, $29.95) at Breakwater Books, 81 Whitfield Street, Guilford, on Saturday, Sept. 15 from 10 a.m. to noon. The book is available at Breakwater Books and through Amazon.com (hardcover and Kindle edition).

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