War is brutal; there’s no doubt about that. Soldiers leave their homeland, their families and loved ones, and face a constant life or death struggle in unfamiliar and hostile territory. As bad as it can be, for some, especially those who have been injured, the real test comes upon returning home. Thankfully, technology has come a long way and veterans have much better chances of living productive lives after service compared to soldiers of long ago.
The Treatment Was Worse Than the Injury
The Revolutionary and Civil Wars (like any other) were bloody and deadly. During the first, muskets swords were the main weapons used. By the time of the Civil War, bigger and better cannons and guns, like the repeating rifle, had been devised. Weapons had become more advanced, but medicine really had not.
In fact, a lot of Civil War soldiers died not from their battle wounds, but from infections. Makeshift hospitals from confiscated warehouses and other buildings did not provide enough room for the many injured. Sanitation was almost nonexistent, and more often than not, the cure for the ailment was worse than the problem itself.
Once infection set in, field doctors usually called for amputation of a limb. During the Revolutionary War, this was done basically without any way to alleviate the pain. Bone saws were used to remove infected limbs, and sometimes the same saw could be used on several soldiers, one after the other, without any cleaning or sanitizing. It wasn’t until 1846, just 15 years before the Civil War broke out, that anesthesia was used for the first time.
It is estimated that there were approximately 60,000 surgeries during the Civil War, and about three quarters of those were amputations. Many of the “surgeons” were rudimentary trained, preferring to just amputate a limb rather than try to build a splint or taking the time to remove a partially broken bone. Some of the surgeons of the time criticized each other for trying to experiment as a way to increase their skills and soon soldiers nicknamed them “butchers.” Some even tried to treat themselves, afraid of what the surgeons might do to them.
Still, the wounded were coming in faster than the short supply of doctors and nurses could handle, and medicine was pretty much in its infancy compared to today’s advancements.
Today’s Returning Soldier
While still much needs to be done to take care of our returning soldiers, at least modern medical technology has grown by leaps and bounds. Amputees have been able to get prosthetics since 1862, when Congress provided $15,000 for the purchase of artificial limbs for those who’d been disabled while in service. But those archaic devices were many times much more painful and cumbersome than doing without.
Twenty-first century disabled veterans have a lot more options. Modern medicine has made it possible to return mobility and a better quality of life to individuals. However, even though something as miraculous as working artificial limbs was available more than a century ago, it wasn’t until recent decades that society started to realize the severity of the returning soldier’s emotional and mental health.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is nothing new although it is only finally gaining the attention it deserves. Soldiers have been suffering from the mental stress and atrocities of warfare, but until recent times, there was no medical hope for them. Today’s returning heroes are still suffering, despite contemporary achievements. Many resort to suicide before getting the help they need. Today, just like in times past, our soldiers need the support, understanding, and encouragement from the American people. Veterans Day is a good time to honor our military while remembering all that they have risked and sacrificed throughout the centuries to protect our country and its citizens.
Read more from Kelli Ballard.