Editor’s Note: Chloe Melas is a reporter for CNN, covering all things entertainment for the network across platforms.
For decades after returning home from World War II, my grandfather did not talk about his wartime experiences.
Frank Murphy flew 21 perilous missions as a navigator of a B-17 for the Eighth Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group, nicknamed “the Bloody Hundredth.” The day his plane was shot down in 1943, two of the men in his crew died, and my grandfather considered himself lucky to have parachuted out of his burning aircraft and be captured by the Nazis.
For the next 18 months, he would endure deplorable conditions as a German prisoner of war, take part in a harrowing death march in subzero temperatures and by the time US Gen. George S. Patton’s troops liberated him, he had lost over 50 pounds and was riddled with dysentery, pneumonia and lice.
Everyone could see the physical toll of war on his body, but we didn’t know about his invisible wounds.
That is until 2001, more than 50 years after returning home, when my grandfather wrote a memoir, “Luck of the Draw: My Story of the Air War in Europe,” for our family. He originally self-published the book for our family but as I got older, I felt his story needed to reach a wider audience. After several years of gathering his original materials and photographs, I partnered with St. Martin’s Press to release the book in February and it is now a New York Times bestseller.
In his book, he wrote, “I often wonder why Providence allowed me to survive when so many others did not.”
My mother and his other three children said that their dad never spoke about the war during their childhood. It wasn’t until my mom read his book that she truly knew what he had gone through.
Even my grandmother Ann, his wife of 50 years, told me that she did not even know that her soon-to-be-husband had been a prisoner of war until right before they were married.
Researching my grandfather’s time during the war, I’ve often wondered if he had post-traumatic stress disorder. I may never know whether he had PTSD or not — but in the 78 years since World War II ended, it’s so vital that the national conversation around this important topic is moving forward.
It’s had different names throughout history. After World War I, it was “shell shock”; post-World War II it was known as “combat fatigue,” and after Vietnam it was called “post-Vietnam syndrome.” In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association officially recognized it as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Post-traumatic stress disorder “is a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, series of events or set of circumstances. An individual may experience this as emotionally or physically harmful or life-threatening and may affect mental, physical, social, and/or spiritual well-being,” according to the American Psychiatric Association’s website. “Examples include natural disasters, serious accidents, terrorist acts, war/combat, rape/sexual assault, historical trauma, intimate partner violence and bullying.”
Now professionals such as psychologist Shauna Springer and psychiatrist Frank Ochberg are advocating calling it post-traumatic brain injury.
“I refer to it as an injury because I’ve seen that there’s a biological component to being exposed to trauma as well as a psychological component that has always been with us,” Springer, chief psychologist at the Stella Center, told me. “And now I think we’re on the cusp of evolving the term further.”
Post-traumatic brain injury has always existed, Springer said, and people are finally talking about it.
“It’s kind of like saying that because the divorce rate was so much lower in previous generations that everybody had these great marriages,” she said, “but actually that was a factor of how much stigma there was about divorce and how dependent women were financially at that time without their own career options.”
Forty percent of medical discharges during WWII were for psychiatric conditions, most for combat stress, according to the National World War II Museum In New Orleans.
But veterans didn’t always mention their trauma when they came home from the war.
“When your grandfather and my grandfather served in World War II, they didn’t talk about it,” Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told me.
“They came home and too often, you know, their therapy was drinking,” he said. “There was a generation of folks who had tremendous trauma and pain, and that overflowed into their families in ways that we still can’t even quantify.”
My grandfather was in the infamous Stalag Luft III prison camp, where “The Great Escape” took place. In his memoir, he writes about going to bed hungry, freezing and terrified of never knowing when the war would end.
“A prisoner of war experiences real-time feelings of helplessness and you’re on-your-own that cannot be imagined unless you have been there,” my grandpa relates in “Luck of the Draw.”
“It is difficult to put into words the sense of powerlessness and vulnerability one experiences when standing completely defenseless before a formidable armed wartime enemy of your country, knowing that the entire might of the United States is of no benefit to you.”
I have his book to remind me, but it’s hard to imagine what else he must have gone through, and the struggles he went through alone, once he was back home.
With so many US troops fighting abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 20 years, the problems my grandpa faced haven’t gone away.
About 16 veterans commit suicide each day in the United States, according to a report by the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Asked for comment by CNN, the VA did not specify how many of those suicides were related to post-traumatic stress.
I became active in the fight for our veterans when I joined the board of directors for the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force near Savannah, Georgia, in 2015 in honor of my grandfather’s service.
I found allies in the cause when I joined the board, including former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Perry, who has been a vocal supporter of our nation’s veterans, was a pilot in the Air Force before entering politics and eventually becoming the US secretary of energy. His father, like my grandfather, served in the Eighth Air during WWII.
“My instinct here is warriors are very proud, and showing weakness in any form has historically been frowned upon,” he told me.
Perry’s attention to the emotional toll of war became heightened when he met Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell. Luttrell had just returned home from a harrowing experience participating in Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan in 2005. (It went on to become a best-selling book and a 2013 film starring Mark Wahlberg called “Lone Survivor.”) Perry and his wife took Luttrell into their home and got him the psychological support he needed.
At same time, Perry was introduced to Amber and Marcus Capone, a couple who had started an organization called Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions, or VETS, which provides resources, research and advocacy for US military veterans seeking treatment with psychedelic-assisted therapies.
They started the group after Marcus Capone returned home from multiple combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and was having suicidal thoughts.
“He didn’t understand why he couldn’t get better,” Amber Capone said. “He was trying so hard. I just thought of our kids and them living the rest of their lives without a father and how this would impact generations to come, and I just thought, I can’t stop fighting for him.”
Six years later, VETS says it has provided funding for more than 700 veterans to get access to psychedelic treatments at centers outside the country due to issues with legalization.
This is one of the reasons Perry has devoted years to supporting veterans and bipartisan legislation for psychedelic therapy for veterans.
“I know this whole concept, Rick Perry’s name and psychedelics in the same sentence, five years ago I would’ve kind of looked at you and said, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” Perry told me. “But I know kids that were really sick that are now about as close to normal as you can get.”
The legalization of psychedelic treatments varies in the United States. Only a handful of states such as New York, California and Arizona have active legislation proposed to decriminalize plant-based hallucinogens, such as psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” and dimethyltryptamine, which is found in some plants used to brew ayahuasca.
While Oregon and Colorado are the only two US states to have decriminalized psychedelic mushrooms for those over 21, other states such as Texas and Maryland are conducting clinical trials with MDMA and ibogaine for those suffering from issues such as PTSD and depression.
Dr. David Rabin, a neuroscientist and board-certified psychiatrist, has been studying the effects of chronic stress on mental and physical health for nearly 20 years.
“We know that hugs feel good. We know that music makes us feel good if we like listening to our favorite songs, right? That is intuitive, but we don’t necessarily remember to breathe when we’re stressed out,” Rabin said.
“Psychedelic medicine is interesting because it works when it’s used properly,” he said. “It works as a therapy amplifier because it molecularly seems to do something in the brain that amplifies the neural pathways of safety that are set up by the therapeutic environment.”
Springer cofounded the Stella Center, a network of clinics that offer ketamine infusion therapy and dual sympathetic reset for those suffering from post-traumatic stress. Dual sympathetic reset is a procedure involving a local anesthetic injected next to a mass of sympathetic nerves in the neck called the stellate ganglion to help regulate an overactive sympathetic nervous system, according to Stella’s website.
“For some, it’s medication; for some, it’s a service dog,” said Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “And I think everybody’s got to figure out what their right prescription is to meet their unique situation.”
Another individual bringing resources to veterans and their families is ABC News journalist Bob Woodruff.
While reporting in the field in Iraq in 2006, Woodruff had a near-death experience that changed the course of his life. An improvised explosive device struck him and his cameraman, and Woodruff was subsequently kept in a medically induced coma for 36 days.
During his recovery, he and his wife, Lee Woodruff, were inspired to launch their nonprofit, the Bob Woodruff Foundation, after getting to know veterans who were dealing with the impact of hidden injuries such as traumatic brain injuries.
“I would say almost every American wants to do something for veterans who served, but many don’t really know exactly where that support should go because it’s very complicated,” Bob Woodruff said. “We just kind of help people who want to do something, find the right direction to help people.”
To date, the foundation says it’s invested over $124 million in these programs and has given over 585 grants to veterans and their families
As for the future, Perry said it’s about continuing the conversation.
“I think mental health is the most undiagnosed and unknown malady that we have in modern society, potentially,” he said. “It was there all along.”