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The intended president of the society for 1989-1990 was Bob Laufer, pioneer in trauma research and principal investigator for the legislatively crucial Legacies of Vietnam study. But his battle with lymphoma did not permit him to fulfill a role he richly deserved. So it became my task to pick up the baton for both of us. The society was, like my family of origin, a place where death was no stranger and a place of strong siblings in which I was proud to be fourth in line.

I wanted our themes for the year to include Bob Laufer's emphasis on the role of research in developing humane policy, plus my own hopes that we who study trauma might reengage the larger fields of knowledge, which are our well-springs, and to which we in a young field were beginning to have something to offer in return: fields such as sociology, psychohistory, psychology, psychoanalysis and the biology of memory.

Learning late in the year that I would be the next president gave me little time to ponder presidential initiatives or gather an executive committee, but I was most fortunate when Bonnie Green, Bob Pynoos and Susan Solomon agreed to be vice president, treasurer, and secretary/program chair, respectively, with Bessel van der Kolk as president-elect and Yael Danieli as immediate past president.

The society had been growing by leaps and bounds, with beginnings, as with PTSD itself, strongly connected with the experience of American combat veterans of the Vietnam War. Now our membership had grown to 1,500 and included professionals working with other survivor groups: holocaust and political oppression; rape, incest and child abuse; and natural disasters. Our membership had become international, but was it sufficiently international to redefine our domain? If we were to take on the international mantel, would we gain in effectiveness in encouraging regional, national and area trauma societies to develop around the world, or would we lose our own constituency in the U.S. only to be seen as "ugly Americans" abroad? We were committed to communication of the most recent and reliable educational materials on trauma, but should we also take on a certifying role in the field. Our expanding society was taking on multiyear commitments, but we lacked the infrastructure to follow through, as our leadership turnover was annual.

We were undergoing a major administrative transition from an informal and highly personal support system provided loyally by Scott Sheeley and his family (who gave us tireless energy in the formative years of our society) to a professional association management company (Bostrom). This was to be the first year that Scott would not be in that managing role. As chair of the committee to select a management company to succeed him in 1988-1989, I was well aware of the challenges the society faced the first year with Bostrom, in what was to become a stormy up-and-down connection with a number of professional management agencies during the next few years until we finally found a match that would last.

Once I settled in my new job, my hope was to provide leadership for a year of stabilization, to address and try to settle the issues above and to consolidate our infrastructure so the society would truly act as a "trauma membrane" supporting those who worked in the field with trauma survivors in a variety of settings.

A little later than my predecessors, I set out three presidential initiatives for the year: to complete a document on long-range planning, to consolidate guidelines and procedures for the organization, and to set up a task force on new trauma populations. While the latter two would need time to develop, the first one needed tackling immediately.

The board met in Columbus, Ohio, our travel financed by Harding Hospital, who sponsored a one-day conference featuring our members as speakers. Welcomed there by the governor of Ohio, Dick Celeste, we set out to envision our future, to devote thoughtful and planned energy to the long-range planning of the society with the assistance of an organizational consultant from Ohio State University.

There atop a Columbus skyscraper the board looked over the landscape of heartland, USA, and envisioned the society 10 years down the road. The exercise was most valuable.

  • We considered the society's international composition and decided the time was right to ask members' approval to add the word "International" to the society's name, making it the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (a task we completed later in the year).
  • We considered multiple models of integrating local, regional, national and international societies into the larger whole, which was to be the ISTSS. We considered new electronic technologies and how they would alter services to in the future.
  • We considered the society's relationship with its journal and established an orderly search process, which would structure the coming transition from our founding journal editor, Charles Figley, to the second editor, Bonnie Green.
  • We set up a standing calendar committee to look in to multiyear commitments, and in the end we agreed not to strive to be a credentialing body.

Meanwhile, perestroika was opening entirely new areas of trauma studies and opportunities for collaboration.

Twelve members of the board of directors and four faculty members at the National Center of PTSD traveled to Moscow in September 1990. For several years through the mediating of Claire Ryle of the Esalen Institute Soviet Exchange Program, the society had been building bridges with colleagues in the USSR. We could introduce the new field of PTSD to the Soviets and they, in turn, would inform us about Chernobyl, the Armenian earthquake and Afghan veterans. Out of the collaboration could grow joint Eastern and Western studies.

But most of us were unprepared for what we experienced beyond the Iron Curtain. In the photo (above), the day before the long-planned conference, we are in the surrealistic conference room of the Serbsky Institute, where dissidents in the USSR had been psychiatrically hospitalized as part of the state's system of political repression. Since Gorbachov, the institute now sported a new name, the Institute for Treatment of Borderline Conditions. Yuri Alexandrovsky, head of the all-Union trauma psychiatry group, explained a plan to change abruptly the conference scheduled for the next day, so instead, our two delegations could make a joint statement about the crisis of Iraq's occupation of Kuwait and recommend a joint East-West emergency mental health delegation to Kuwait to assist the growing number of Western hostages there.

Consulting with the American embassy, we learned that were we to endorse such a Soviet-U.S. plan we would be playing into the USSR's effort to remove its "black eye," as it currently was banished from the World Psychiatric Association for hospitalizing dissidents. We refused to change the conference, insisting it remain as scheduled. The experience gave us a personal taste of the "double think" mentality of the Soviet world, even in these last days of the Gorbachov years. Nonetheless it brought us closer to colleagues from the East who were genuinely addressing the problems of traumatic stress in their countries, and it was the first step in a number of long-term scientific projects with the West. Sharing such moments together also helped forge lasting bonds among us on the board.

Many of us traveled from Moscow to Noordvejkerhout to attend the conference sponsored by the European Traumatic Stress Society. As my luggage was still lost somewhere in the Aeroflot Empire, I returned Bob Pynoos's coat and Matt Friedman's tie which now featured a new vodka stain, and borrowed another coat and tie from Walter de Loos. In Holland we saw the vitality of the work of our European colleagues and met line workers in Eastern Europe and Russia, hearing the unadorned story of their trauma, promising them to relate their story to the West, a project we completed just this past year with Beyond Invisible Walls, Legacy of Soviet Trauma, Lindy and RJ Lifton, Brunner Routledge, 2001. And we worked hard to create a cooperative climate between ISTSS and our European colleagues.

Meanwhile, Bonnie Green was instrumental in bringing together a set of guidelines and procedures for the society, which was approved by the board at the annual meeting. I assumed leadership of the third presidential initiative: facilitating contact with the many leaders who were responding to newly defined trauma populations, including Lockerby and Sioux City airplane disasters, fires in a ferry off the Norwegian coast and at the Happyland Social Club in the Bronx, NY, bus 405's overturning near Jerusalem, flash flooding in Shadyside, Ohio, and the gradual uncovering of larger populations of politically traumatized individuals within Eastern Europe. We initiated a preconference institute on this subject to connect the newer people with the society, included brief reports on the new trauma populations in StressPoints, and began what we hoped might become the society's effort to continue to improve the acute and follow-up mental health response to new trauma situations.

In New Orleans, Susan Solomon, able program chair, prepared a feast of panelists and keynote addresses for our members. We honored Bob Laufer's contributions to traumatic stress with a keynote panel on public policy, including speakers from the emerging countries of Eastern Europe such as Nora Cziser, Hungary, Eric Avery, Amnesty International, and Zahava Solomon, Israel. Kai Erikson, Steven Suoumi and David Beisel brought the overview of sociology, primate research and psychohistory to broaden our horizons; we featured new work by Dean Kilpatrick, Ronnie Janoff-Bulman and Lars Weisaeth regarding risk factors and PTSD. We initiated the concept of program tracks so that those primarily interested in clinical presentations, disaster studies or domestic violence could sessions to attend at the meeting. We added poster sessions and discussion groups to the program to help find a home for many of the 200+ submissions we received that year, consolidated the concept of special interest groups as informal gathering points for members and tried to bring a beginning order and form to annual awards in the field. And what's more, we balanced the budget, thanks in part to the successful annual meeting.

It is great to look back on 1989-1990, noting its place in the panoply of achievement that is the legacy of ISTSS.