Both during and after World War II, the U.S. government lobotomized around 2,000 troops deemed mentally ill. Those operated on were diagnosed as depressive, psychotic, schizophrenic, and sometimes homosexual. The operations took place in VA hospitals across the country, including Oregon, Massachusetts, Alabama, and South Dakota. Knowledge of the widespread practice by the VA has faded with time, and the department says it currently has no record how the policy was started and how big the program became. While some were helped by the surgery, more often it left the patients with terrible side-effects, with some even dying.
It isn’t possible to draw a straight line between Mr. Tritz’s military service and his mental illness. The record, nonetheless, reveals a man who went to war in good health, experienced the unrelenting stress of aerial combat—Messerschmitts and antiaircraft fire—and returned home to the unrelenting din of imaginary voices in his head.
During eight years as a patient in the VA hospital in Tomah, Wis., Mr. Tritz underwent 28 rounds of electroshock therapy, a common treatment that sometimes caused convulsions so jarring they broke patients’ bones. Medical records show that Mr. Tritz received another routine VA treatment: insulin-induced temporary comas, which were thought to relieve symptoms.
To stimulate patients’ nerves, hospital staff also commonly sprayed veterans with powerful jets of alternating hot and cold water, the archives show. Mr. Tritz received 66 treatments of high-pressure water sprays called the Scotch Douche and Needle Shower, his medical records say.
When all else failed, there was lobotomy.
“You couldn’t help but have the feeling that the medical community was impotent at that point,” says Elliot Valenstein, 89, a World War II veteran and psychiatrist who worked at the Topeka, Kan., VA hospital in the early 1950s. He recalls wards full of soldiers haunted by nightmares and flashbacks. The doctors, he says, “were prone to try anything.”
Files warehoused in the National Archives show VA doctors resorting to brain surgery as they struggled with a vexing question that absorbs America to this day: How best to treat the psychological crises that afflict soldiers returning from combat.
Lobotomies faded from use after the first major antipsychotic drug, Thorazine, hit the market in the mid-1950s, revolutionizing mental-health care.
This is a really frightening, yet interesting look back in time from an extremely dark period in the treatment of mental illness, as well as a horrifying lack of knowledge regarding homosexuality. Many historical photographs and documents, as well as the interviews with veteran Roman Tritz, and his family make this a "Must Read."