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Nate Self's military record was impeccable. A West Point graduate, he led an elite Army Ranger outfit and established himself as a war hero in March 2002 for his leadership during a 15-hour ambush firefight in Afghanistan. The battle resulted in a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, and a position as President Bush's guest of honor for the 2003 State of the Union. But by late 2004, Self had walked away from the Army. In another surprise attack, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) had taken his life captive.
"I just hated myself," says Self. "I felt like I was somebody different. And since I didn't feel like I could be who I was before, and hated who I was now, I just wanted to kill the new person. I felt like I had messed up everything in my life. The easiest way, the most cowardly way to escape, was to just depart."
When Andrea Westfall returned from her 10-month deployment in Kuwait with the Oregon Army National Guard in 2003, she too found herself fighting an invisible battle with PTSD. Unable to cope with the enemy, she isolated herself and drank every night to numb the pain and aid sleep.
Self and Westfall are among the untold number of soldiers who leave the battlefield only to fight another war in their mind and spirit. Studies show that nearly one in five returnees from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, an anxiety disorder introduced into the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980. Reported wartime PTSD cases jumped roughly 50 percent in 2007; Army statistics showed there were nearly 14,000 newly diagnosed cases in 2007, compared with more than 9,500 new cases the previous year and 1,632 in 2003. About 40,000 troops have been diagnosed with PTSD since 2003. Officials believe the actual number may be much higher—possibly as high as 30 percent of all U.S. vets—and think many are in denial or keep their illness hidden for fear that it could harm or end their military careers and preclude future benefits.