Audie Murphy

Leading the Battle for PTSD Awareness

medal of honor and flag
medal of honor. Stock Trek Images/Getty Images

In 1980, the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was coined to describe a collection of symptoms that combat soldiers have experienced for centuries. But the condition itself has been around as long as there have been wars. Only the name has changed. During the Civil War, it was called “soldier's heart.” During World War I, it was called “shell shock,” and in WWII, it was “combat fatigue” or the “thousand-yard stare.” But whatever it’s called, the most common symptoms of PTSD include mood disorders and frequent, dramatic—and sometimes debilitating—flashbacks.

And it is by no means a sign of weakness. Audie Murphy, one of the most decorated soldiers of World War II, also experienced these symptoms.

 

Audie Murphy's Legacy

Following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Murphy tried to join the military, but was rejected because at 16, he was too young. In 1942, he changed his birth certificate to make him older, but was rejected by the Marine Corps and the Army for being too small (5'5" and 110 pounds). He kept trying (kind of like the fictional Steve Rogers, who eventually became Captain America), and eventually joined the Army.

Murphy ultimately earned 33 U.S. medals, including several Purple Hearts, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and the Medal of Honor. JHe also received medals from France and Belgium, including the French Legion of Honor, the French Croix de Guerre, and the Belgian Croix de Guerre.

One of Murphy’s most noted acts of bravery occurred in January 1945 near Holtzwihr, France when his platoon came under attack by Germans.

He climbed on top of a destroyed and burning tank, manned a .50-caliber machine gun, and successfully held off a German infantry company despite being wounded. It was later determined that he killed approximately 50 Nazis in that skirmish and eventually forced the Germans to withdraw. He was only 20 years old.

 

Following his military service, Audie Murphy became a famous Hollywood star, well-known for his Westerns and, of course, for playing himself in the 1955 movie version of his autobiography, “To Hell and Back.” 

 

Speaking out about "Battle Fatigue"

His bravery earned him awards, but they came at a price. According to the National Center for PTSD, it is estimated that roughly 7% of Americans can expect to experience some form or severity of PTSD during their lifetime. In Murphy's day, the condition was little discussed and even less understood. Murphy received no help other than through prescription medications. According to a PBS presentation  "The Perilous Fight: America's World War II in Color," combat fatigue was particularly prevalent in the Pacific, with 40% of soldier evacuations in 1943 being defined as “psychiatric” in nature, with over 25,000 of these cases originating from Okinawa alone.

During World War II, attitudes and perceptions regarding "combat fatigue" began to change. It was acknowledged, albeit slowly, that the emotional wounds of battle could take as severe a toll as physical wounds. Overall, during the Second World War, nearly 1.4 million soldiers were eventually treated for battle fatigue.

In an effort to increase public awareness of the mental and emotional toll that war has on soldiers, Audie Murphy was among the first combat veterans of his generation to openly discuss battle fatigue. As he wrote in his autobiography, “I may be branded by war, but I will not be defeated by it."

Murphy's pubic openness about his own struggles with post-war experiences and PTSD symptoms, was instrumental in helping not only his fellow WWII veterans, but also those of the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan get access to vitally important mental health support and resources in their military and civilian lives.

Until the late 1960s, Murphy still slept with the lights on and kept a loaded gun under his pillow. He was continually haunted by nightmares and insomnia. Prescribed tranquilizers and sleeping pills, he became addicted to them but was able to kick the habit on his own.

He remained a notable voice for soldiers experiencing the invisible toll of war until his death, in 1971, in a plane crash. He was only 46. Murphy is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, where his grave is one of the most visited.