The military, by policy, will not allow active duty soldiers with PTSD to conduct media interviews under the theory that they are not capable of fully, freely and willingly making such a decision. (The military has frequently bent this policy for good news stories, it must be noted).
Although there may be some political butt-covering to this logic, it is not easily dismissed. When interviewing people with PTSD or lingering cognitive problems sustained as a result of a TBI, you may be dealing with people who are quite literally not in their right mind. There is no easy answer here. One workaround that I have used is to simply conduct my interviews off the record, and then return later to review those pieces of the interview that I want to use with the service member and, if possible, spouse or close relative.
A closely related issue to consent is your own sensitivity as a journalist and a human being. When you interview a wounded soldier, you as a journalist are naturally going to want that soldier to recount what occurred. But whether the soldier has actually been diagnosed with PTSD, or remains untreated, the retelling of the story can rip open difficult, emotional and explosive memories. I have left some interviews believing that I put the soldier through hell anew, and regretting the pain it caused.
Again, there is no easy way around this. You are a reporter, and you need to gather the facts. But be aware of what you are doing. I have broken off interviews, saying that I’ll come back later, when the stress appears too much. And I have expressed sympathy, tried to offer support, given a reassuring hand or hug to soldiers that appeared to me on the edge. I’m no professional counselor, and don’t know if this was the right thing to do or not. But it felt right, as a person. You have to do your journalistic duties. But you don’t leave behind your humanity.
Always try to seek out a service member’s health records. The easiest way is by asking them to go to their local military treatment facility (MTF) and ask for a complete print out of their AHLTA record–Armed Forces Health Longitudinal Technology Application. It’s basically the military’s version of an electronic health record. It’s not perfect – one huge, continuing problem is that battlefield medical diagnoses or treatments are often not captured in AHLTA records. But it will give you confidence to know that the person with whom you are dealing, who may indeed have a serious psychiatric disorder, is not embellishing, exaggerating or lying about what kinds of treatment that have been received.
In conclusion, I’d like to say that although this is a complex field, it’s vital. There are more than a half million claims filed with the VA for medical treatment from Afghanistan and Iraq veterans—that’s one of every four people who have been to those battlefields. A lot of those stories are local. A lot are ignored. And a lot are very important to our country.