The shooting at Fort Hood earlier this month reignited an important national conversation concerning the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among military veterans — particularly those who have seen firsthand the true nature of combat.
For the tens of thousands of current and former service members who have turned to Whisper to find like-minded individuals with similar experiences with whom to commiserate, that conversation didn't require reignition.
Whisper protects its users' anonymity by never requesting any type of personally identifiable information, meaning that users' identities remain entirely unknown — and unknowable — to other users.
That anonymity provides vets with the sense of security they need to have a frank and open dialog about taboo subject matters such as guilt, emotional conflict, and the internal war that remains long after the external battles have ended.
The chart below illustrates the relative number of times the term "PTSD" has been mentioned by users stationed at the top five largest military bases in the United States. Note that despite being the third largest base, Fort Hood is first in total number of PTSD-related Whispers:
This chart is clearly telling, but charts can only tell us so much. To truly understand the trouble with PTSD, it's necessary to talk about it with someone who truly understands: veterans with PTSD.
Using Whisper's anonymous messaging platform, I reached out to several current and former service members who had been using Whisper to discuss their ongoing struggles with PTSD, its symptoms, and its life-altering side effects. Following are some of the invaluable lessons they taught us. Whisper obtained consent from all users mentioned below to share their stories publicly.
"It could be something as simple as a movie or a sudden loud noise," noted user John Doe [real username redacted], a marine based out of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
John Doe served nine months in Afghanistan and saw his best friend die in his arms after being shot in the neck 250 miles from the nearest medical facility.
"Or," he continued, "since I live near a military base, they do training from time to time and during that training they do some bombing and that also triggers flashbacks."
"You are hardwired to survive, to keep the guy next to you alive," said "Wandering Warrior," a veteran of two tours — Iraq and Afghanistan — who still serves today. "It doesn't matter who he is or if you hate him. You know that he will die for you and you'd die to get him back to his newborn son. When you care about another human being like that so intensely for a period of time and experience the things that war is made of, you come home and life is foreign."
"Most people I know with PTSD look normal and act normal," he continued. "They have regular jobs and careers. It's when you go home and lay alone at night that it hits you."
"At first I was fine," he insists. "Then the honeymoon period wore off. Then it's the small things. Petty things irritate you; people whining about small, daily crud at the office. You want to ignore them or tell them to take it somewhere else. You don't have time for it; you've been in second-to-second life-and-death situations. The bigger things matter."
User FUTW — a Seabee in the Navy's construction battalion who was deployed for two years — also thought he was fine.
He was flagged by "big Navy" as a potential PTSD case due to a traumatic experience during his service and was referred to vet centers, but concern over jeopardizing his job kept him away.
"I ignored the symptoms," he said. "Or at least I thought I had ignored them."
"[I]t was an extremely angry and verbally violent outburst on a stranger," he said, that finally convinced him he had a problem that wasn't going to resolve itself.
"The problem is for me I feel as if I'm still overseas with a bunch of military men being antagonized by the enemy who wants me dead," he explained. "And I can't decipher between that and a civilian trying to act 'tough.'"
"I feel as if I need to put the threat down before they do the same to me," he said.
When asked to explain what he means by "put the threat down," FUTW didn't mince words: "I mean kill that person. I don't feel I could stop myself in a fight."
When FUTW finally sought help last June, he was abruptly turned away from Veterans Affairs and told to make an appointment. Rather than wait three months for his turn, he decided to visit the emergency room, where he was diagnosed with depression in lieu of PTSD because, in his words, "during that period they didn't want to diagnose PTSD."
He was handed a month's supply of medicine, which he was quickly forced to stop taking. "They told me if I stayed on mood elevators I would get kicked out, so I stopped," he said. "And that's when things really fell apart."
FUTW began to "self-medicate" with alcohol and became increasing isolated. After spiraling downward for six months and flunking out of classes he had been attending, he was eventually able to "get back to the VA," but said the process remains "much too slow."
"The backlog for disability claims once you put one in [is] at least a year after a very long bureaucratic process," he said.
And finding work that pays well and accommodates a veteran with PTSD is its own challenge.
"I do feel like there is a lack of jobs for vets," said John Doe. "I feel like it is very hard for a company or corporation to understand the kind of treatments that a vet with PTSD is to receive. They would rather not deal with it because of the time off that employee [would have] to have off compared to a normal civilian, because in reality it would cost them money."
Civilians simply can't understand what a vet with PTSD is going through, he said, which leads to grave misconceptions on the part of the general public.
"The average civilian believes that we are all just a bunch of gun-hugging nutcases that are likely to go shoot up a school or a mall and enjoy killing people, which couldn't be farther from the truth," he said. "In reality, we just want to be a normal, everyday member of society."
"Just give us a fair shake and don't treat us with pity or like a charity case," added Wandering Warrior. "The average veteran wants to put in honest work for what they want and have. Sometimes we just need the chance."
"They need to understand that they never will understand," said "good times," another Camp Lejeune marine with two tours to his name, about the public. "The only person that knows what we have done were the guys next to me… And those guys don't want to talk about it either. The hardest part is accepting to live with it all."
Anonymous apps like Whisper help vets by offering them a safe environment to open up and share their feelings with those who are similarly burdened, said the vets who spoke with BuzzFeed.
"I haven't met one vet who doesn't get PTSD," noted FUTW. "When you explain the events to civilians they can't seem to understand how earth-shattering it all is. Most say things like, 'Oh it was like Call of Duty.""
Ultimately, the best anyone can do for a vet with PTSD is listen, provide support, improve conditions and benefits, and get the story straight.
"I'm honestly surprised I'm not another veteran suicide stat," said Wandering Warrior. "More guys are dying by suicide than combat. Do a story on that."