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As I sat down to write my final column as ISTSS president, I had a few topics in mind. In previous columns I’ve talked about the initiatives we’ve focused on during the year. Because this is my last chance to speak to you via the newsletter column, I weighed my options carefully. I decided to use the opportunity to discuss the theme of our upcoming annual meeting—War as a Universal Trauma—and explain how I chose it.

The universality of war is emphasized by several major stories in current news. The United States death toll in Iraq has exceeded 1,000. We observed the 3rd anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, in which almost 3,000 people—civilians going about their daily routine—died while not ever realizing they were victims in a war. Shortly before the 9/11 anniversary, the world learned of the terrible tragedy in Russia, where Chechen terrorists killed more than 300 hostages, a great number of them children.

These stories in the news illustrate other aspects of the universality of war. Trauma doesn’t end when the fighting stops. The majority of American deaths in Iraq occurred after the war officially ended, during a time in which we planned to build water treatment plants and schools and help the Iraqis develop a viable democratically run government. Many of the deaths involved personnel who did not have typical combat roles and technically were not in battle. Deaths in situations of war or armed conflict are not limited to military personnel. Virtually every day, Iraqis in the struggle for leadership kill other Iraqi civilians.

Yet despite these widespread and persistent events, for many trauma professionals, the topic of war or armed conflict conjures up mainly images of soldiers or veterans. When I first announced the meeting theme, some people expressed concern that the topic would be too narrow. Some worried that they would find little of interest in presentations about war, or that their proposals on other topics would not be accepted.

In our promotional materials for the meeting, we’ve worked hard to dispel these concerns and communicate the parallels between war trauma and civilian trauma. Yes, we should all be concerned about war because it occurs far too often and has such a devastating impact on the people and the countries in which it is fought. But my choice of war as the meeting theme also was based on what can be learned from populations traumatized by war.

Like the event of war, what we can learn is universal too. The 2004 conference sessions illustrate this. For example, if you’re interested in the physical health effects of trauma, presentations on the physical sequelae of torture are relevant. Presentations on torture also may be relevant to individuals whose interests include the topic of sexual abuse, who in turn may be interested in presentations on civilian women who are sexually assaulted in war. Those interested in children or the elderly will want to attend presentations on the effects of war in those populations. For more details, take a look at the meeting content at www.istss.org/meetings/index.htm.

The past year has gone by quickly. It seems like only a few months ago that I filled the position of Onno van der Hart in our organization, when in fact Barbara Rothbaum will be stepping up to the presidential position very shortly. The year has been busy, and challenging at times, but more rewarding than I’d ever imagined. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to serve as ISTSS president and look forward to my new role as editor of the Journal of Traumatic Stress in January. I thank everyone for the support shown during the past year, and I hope to see you in New Orleans in November.