PTSD: What About the Children?

By Felicia Gustin
Jun 4, 2012

I met Kim Phuc in Cuba where she was studying in the early 80s. After she told me her name, the young Vietnamese woman asked me if I knew who she was. I didn’t know what she meant but before I could respond, she whipped out a scrapbook. Yes, a scrapbook. It was filled with articles all referencing the iconic AP photo taken of her when she was 9 years old. Running down a road, naked after a plane dropped flaming napalm on her villlage.

I, like most everyone else, knew the photo well. It was one of many that gave a human face to the horrors of Washington’s war in Vietnam and helped to turn public sentiment against it. I will never forget looking at that scrapbook with Kim Phuc and thinking about how that trauma was still clinging to her years after the incident itself.

This past week marked the 40th anniversary of Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize winning photo of Kim Phuc and there were numerous articles in the media about her journey over these past 4 decades. It got me thinking again about how war affects children. Not just physically but emotionally and psycologically.

There’s a lot in the news these days about PTSD among returning U.S. soliders. But what about the children? Dr. Haithi Al Sady, the dean of the Psychological Research Center at Baghdad University, has been studying the effects of PTSD on the Iraqi civilian population. His initial reports showed 28% of Iraqi children suffer some degree of PTSD. These figures would mean that the number of Iraqi children suffering from PTSD could be over 3 million. For children who live in Afghanistan, the diagnosis is also bleak. Acccording to a 2009 report in the Journal of Traumatic Stress,  “Children who live in Afghanistan are particularly affected every day by a multitude of war time stressors which increase the likelihood of developing PTSD … On a daily basis they are first-hand witnesses to the bombings, abuse, and the general upheaval of their home life and society as a result of war....”

It’s easy to see how children’s psychological well-being is profoundly affected by daily explosions, killings, abductions, rape, threatening noises and turmoil all around them. But right now all we see are statistics; rarely do we know the names or see the faces of children who suffer the brutality of war. The media blackout has meant that, for so much of the U.S. population, the war is invisible. Out of sight, out of mind.

Kim Phuc’s photo brought it to mind again – a thousand words worth of imagery about what war does to children. As a mother, I can’t help think about countless Iraqi and Afghani mothers whose children are victims of these wars, not just physically harmed but for whom PTSD will follow them for years to come. Where are the photos of these children?


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Felicia Gustin has been with War Times since the beginning. She currently works at SpeakOut, a national organization working primarily with colleges, universities, and high schools and dedicated to the advancement of education, racial and social justice, leadership development and activism. She is a long-time activist in international solidarity, peace, racial justice and labor movements. She was a journalist for 10 years in Cuba and is currently working on several projects - an historical memoir and a poetry collection, among others.

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