Remembering George McGovern

Written by Eric on October 22, 2012 in: Uncategorized |

George McGovern never thought of himself as a hero, but I did. He was an honorable ma who lived an honorable life until his death early Sunday morning at the age of 90. He had some tough losses, but he always faced them with courage … and a wry sense of humor.

In particular, I’ve always been impressed with George’s contention that he came to hate war while waging it. A World War II bomber pilot who won the Distinguished Flying Cross, he became one of the leading voices against American involvement in Vietnam, a principled stand that cost him dearly among the blood-and-glory crowd.

I’ve known the McGoverns since the late 1970s, when I was the statehouse correspondent in Pierre, S.D., for The Associated Press.  George’s humiliating defeat to Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential race must have been still fresh and painful, but he never let it show.

I remember spending a day on the campaign trail with the McGoverns. Both were exhausted, but George would not leave an auditorium, a supermarket line or a street corner without shaking every hand. I also remember how his late wife Eleanor was vivacious and charming as she worked a political reception, then sagged when she was out of the spotlight.

I lost touch with the McGoverns in the 1980s after George was appointed the first United Nations Ambassador on Global Hunger and began a new career of challenging the world to feed the hungry at home and abroad. But I was deeply moved by his 1997 book, “Terry: My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle With Alcoholism.”

When I called to offer my condolences, George told me a tragic story. He said that he and Eleanor went to see a counselor for advice on handling Terry’s drinking problem. The counselor told them that they were enabling Terry’s drinking by accepting her collect phone calls home, often late at night. So they took the counselor’s advice and basically shut her out. Then on a cold winter night, she stumbled out of the back door of a bar in Madison, Wis., fell into a snowbank and froze to death. George never forgave himself for what must be every father’s worst nightmare.

A few years later, I was writing my own series of stories on alcoholism, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. When Hazelden published the stories as a book, “Alcohol: Cradle to Grave,” I sent an advance copy to George, who responded with a ringing endorsement: “I feel enlightened after devouring this powerful book.”

So it seemed natural a few years ago when I was writing “Faces of Combat: PTSD & TBI,” to ask George to write a foreword. “I’ll do the best I can,” he responded. But it wasn’t to be.  George had new American wars to oppose, and his remarkable strength was being sapped by his advancing years.

When I look back on George’s life, I’m struck by the courage he displayed in taking unpopular stands based on his principles. He displayed a sense of honor and courage that is increasingly rare in politics today.

That’s why I consider George McGovern to be a true American hero.

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Military wives shed shirts to fight PTSD

Written by Eric on October 17, 2012 in: Uncategorized |

Military housewives from Fort Campbell, Ken., are finally getting the attention they want – and deserve – in calling the nation’s attention to the plight of their husbands, who have been returning home from war with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and with traumatic brain injuries (TBI).

Ashley Wise, 29, remembers being angry that no one was paying attention, so she thought: “I feel like streaking the general’s lawn.  Maybe a naked woman would get the attention.”

That’s how the “Battling Bare” campaign was born, and that’s how the nation began paying attention.

The New York Daily News recently reported that Staff Sgt. Robert E. Wise, a former Marine and Army veteran who has served three tours of duty in Iraq, had been showing signs of PTSD for years, but his condition began to deteriorate last year until he finally disappeared to a hotel room with “two cases of beer and all the guns in the house.” When his wife finally located him, he told her, “Life is just really hard.”

“He wasn’t sure if he could go on,” Wise told the Daily News. As he continued to spiral downward, she went to the military for help, but felt angry and ignored when they charged him with domestic assault for an outburst she’d told them about to get help with his emotional problems.

So she decided to act on her idea … sort of. She created the “Battling Bare” campaign on a Facebook page, . In the past six months, hundreds of women have taken off their shirts and inked themselves with a “pledge” to stand by their husbands as they heal, and to spread word that these veterans need help coping with mental health issues that can’t be seen.

“This is a pledge that you’re making for your spouse that, in my opinion, is just as important as marriage vows,” Wise told NBC News.

It’s a tasteful campaign, but a telling one. Wise told FOX News that she used eyeliner to pen the “Battling Bare” pledge on the back of Army wife Jennifer Brown. It reads:

Broken by battle

Wounded by war

My love is forever –

This to you I swore.

I will quiet your silent screams

Help heal your shattered soul

Until once again, my love,

You are whole.

Another of the military spouses, Alicia McCoy, told CNN that her husband, Sgt. Brandon McCoy, committed suicide in March. She said her husband sought help for PTSD, but it wasn’t enough.

“Our soldiers have a lot to say,” McCoy said. “They have a lot bottled up inside of them, and no one is listening. I feel like they are afraid to be able to say what they need to say, because they’re afraid it’s going to hurt their record.”

Wise told CNN that the “Battling Bare” mission is to spread the word about PTSD.

“We want to ensure that the stigma of PTSD goes away and people talk about it,” Wise said. “That’s really the biggest thing. In talking, there’s healing and not ignoring it. Because we’re ignoring it now, and people are dying.”


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A gene for PTSD?

Written by Eric on October 4, 2012 in: Uncategorized |

Researchers say they’ve found a gene that appears to increase or decrease the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder among combat vets.

If this study can be replicated, it could help answer the question of why one soldier experiencing trauma develops PTSD while another does not. That, in turn, could lead to ways to boost stress resilience.

“We’re really excited about this because it may help us open a new paradigm between PTSD and TBI,” says Dr. Mark Miller, a clinical and research psychologist with the VA’s National Center for PTSD and an associate professor at Boston University School of Medicine. “People studying TBI-related impairments have found that TBI and PTSD are often highly correlated. What we’re thinking is that there may be some commonality that has a molecular basis to it. I’m kind of anticipating that next decade or so will show lot of advances in neuroprotective and neurodegenerative responses.”

Miller and his team recently published an article in “Molecular Psychiatry” which explained the work they did in what’s believed to be the first genome-wide scan for genetic risk factors associated with PTSD. Their work followed up on studies of twins which showed that sensitivity to stress could be inherited, that it wasn’t totally a function of stress in the environment.

First came DNA samples from 496 military veterans and 233 of their spouses; 53.7 percent of the participants met the criteria for PTSD.  Then the researchers analyzed genetic data for association with PTSD using a microarray chip that contained probes for 2.5 million SNP (single-nucleotide polymorphisms) spread across the entire genome


“SNPs are rungs on the ladder of the DNA double helix called base pairs where there is known variation across humans,” Miller told me. That allowed researchers to see if the stressed vets shared any common genetic difference.

It turned out that they did, and it wasn’t a gene that Miller and his team were familiar with. They found a statistically significant association with a variant of the retinoic acid orphan receptor A (RORA) gene, which was unfamiliar to them at the time.

“RORA has never been linked to PTSD before to our knowledge,” said Miller, the study’s lead investigator. “But when we read up on it, we found that it had previously been linked to other disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, autism and depression. In other words, it was a psychiatrically relevant gene.”

One of the major roles of RORA is protecting brain cells from the damaging effect of injury and disease and possibly traumatic brain injuries, Miller told me. He believes RORA produces a protein that helps protect neurons from neurotoxic effects of stress, including oxidative stress. An imbalance between oxidants and antioxidants in a cell, oxidative stress can be caused by physical damage or traumatic stress.

“Our hypothesis is that those who have the RORA risk marker may have a RORA gene that is less capable of mounting a neuroprotective reaction to stress, causing structural damage and functional changes to neurons that RORA should be protecting,” said Miller.

Again, this is a new study that hasn’t been replicated, but if future studies bear out its findings, researchers may be able to develop gene therapies or pharmaceutical ways to enhance the function of the RORA gene. And that may help stress-vulnerable people become more resilient.

Incidentally, the genome-wide association study is an extremely broad-based look at all associations, rather than a selective look at just some of the usual suspects – specifically the dopamine and the serotonin systems.

“We looked at the serotonin transporter valve and didn’t see any strong association,” Miller told me. “However, there’s plenty of literature supporting its importance. The caveat goes back to the limitations of GWAS. We have to apply such a strict statistical threshold that many lesser associations had to fall by the wayside. The fact that we didn’t find it in this study doesn’t mean it doesn’t play a role in the general population or in a population substrata.”

Nearly a decade ago, Avshalom Caspi published a groundbreaking paper in “Science” magazine that charted the lives (from 3 to 26 years old) of more than 1,000 white New Zealanders in what became known as the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study.

He focused on serotonin, the neurotransmitter that carries electrical signals across a synapse from one neuron to another, then gets sucked up by the first neuron to be used all over again. He noticed that about 17 percent of his study group had what’s known as a short form of the serotonin re-uptake valve, 51 percent had some short and some long forms of this gene, and 31 percent only had the long form (which apparently is more effective in sucking the serotonin back up).

All of his subjects experienced some form of trauma, but those with the long form of the serotonin re-uptake gene handled it better. Among the participants suffering four or more traumatic events, 33 percent with the short form became depressed as adults, compared with only 17 percent who had the long form.

This is another study that hasn’t been replicated, but that seems very promising. And Miller says he isn’t about to rule it out yet.





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