Germany awakens to treating wounded minds of Afghan vets

In Germany, one of the worlds most developed countries, the German army is trying to help hundreds of suspected, but unreported cases, of metal trauma among soldiers who served in combat.

Fighting in a war zone is never easy, but at least when a soldier returns home they can expect to be looked after by the country they fought for, but this is sometimes not the case.
These men were once soldiers.

Andreas Timmerman served Germany for twenty-four years, rising to a Lieutenant Colonel in Afghanistan.

“I was fighting against the Taliban for about five hours one night. I had suicide attacks, I had attacks with hand grenades, all the things that are normal for a soldier in war, and I did my job,” states the off-duty Lieutenant Colonel.

But even with his experience, the stress of things he had seen began to eat away at him, until one day a doctor told him he is no longer a soldier.

The doctor said “You have to go. You have to be aware that in spite of your own willingness to do this job, that your are not able to do it; you are ill,” Andreas Timmerman remembers.

In armies the world over Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is thought to affect between five and ten percent of soldiers.

The German army, the Bundeswehr, has only recently woken up to the damage it does.

Off-duty Lieutenant Colonel Andreas Timmerman says he and many others were ignored.

“That's not fair that we are not treating the soldiers who were serving their country, who risk their lives and came back to Germany and are very seriously wounded or ill and there is no help from the state and from the army for these guys,” says Timmerman.

Bundeswehr officials say they are trying to find out how many unreported cases of PTSD there are among former soldiers.

Dr. Ulrike Schmidt, senior physician and research group leader at Max Plank Institute of Psychiatry and her team, are working to try and discover the molecular basis of such stress in the brain. She also treats soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, trying to slowly face the flashbacks that prevent them living normal lives.

But she says the treatment is sometimes frighteningly intense.

“There is somebody sitting in front of you who, in that pretty moment, is experiencing all the horror and exhaustion that he experienced during the war and you need a lot of empathy to help people, but you have to try to control the empathy as well, because otherwise it will overwhelm you as a therapist,” says Schmidt.

In Germany, its not just soldiers who are stressed by the war. Criticism of involvement in Afghanistan is widespread, with polls recording at least 70% of Germans oppose it.

And history weighs heavily on the debate.

“Germany began the First World War and the Second World War, too, and till the 1990s it was the opinion in the majority of the German people, the western part of Germany, that never again should the German army attack other countries,” claims Lili Schlumberger-Dogu of the Munich Party of the Left.

While the political debates rage on, the battle with traumatic stress is being fought in laboratories and psychiatric wards.

With attention now focused by the army, it is hoped there may be treatments for former soldiers who have suffered without help.

The Bundeswehr says, this year alone, some 500 soldiers have come home from Afghanistan with psychological wounds. Healing them will require a lot of time and patience, and a lot of work in labs. But as far as Germans' attitude to their country's presence in Afghanistan goes, time and patience are in short supply.