General George S. Patton's P.T.S.D. Teaching Moment

General George Patton. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

On August 3, 1943, the issue of combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder—though it wasn't yet called that—got national attention after General George S. Patton slapped a soldier and called him a coward because he was hospitalized for "shell shock." Today, this is a recognized mental illness, but in 1943, public opinion on the disorder was decidedly split.

Private Charles H. Kuhl

In August 1943, Private Charles H. Kuhl had been in the army for eight months, during which time he was hospitalized three times for mental health issues. According to his medical chart, he had been diagnosed with "exhaustion," which was a catch-all term for psychological troubles, especially what had been called "shell shock" since World War I and we now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder. The note added, "He can't take it at the front, evidently. He is repeatedly returned."

A soldier displaying the characteristic thousand-yard stare associated with shell shock. (PD-BRITISHGOV/Wikimedia Commons)

The Slap Heard Round The World

During a stop on a troop tour, General Patton and several medical officials visited a hospital. Patton chatted with patients about their injuries and wished them speedy recoveries, but he was stymied by Private Kuhl, who sat slumped over on a stool instead of lying in bed like the others. When Patton asked about his injuries, Kuhl simply shrugged, and when Patton pressed, Kuhl admitted that he was not wounded, explaining, "I guess I can't take it."

Patton was so angry at this response that he slapped Kuhl across the face, grabbed him by the collar, and pulled him to the door of the hospital, berating him as they went and barking at the hospital staff, "Don't admit this son of a bitch again." When they reached the door, Patton kicked Kuhl in the backside, sending him face down in the dirt and telling him, "You're going back to the front. You hear me, you gutless bastard?" Even with Private Kuhl removed from the hospital, Patton was still fuming, ranting about shell shock being an "invention of the Jews" and making it clear that there was no room for the mentally weak in his army.

Eisenhower privately criticized Patton for the incidents, but refused to remove him completely from command. (U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons)

The Aftermath

General Patton's response to Private Kuhl is shocking today, but during World War II, plenty of people agreed with him and thought he responded appropriately. In Patton's day, the "shell shock" patient was told to stifle their feelings and shamed as part of their treatment, which was thought to bring them to their senses. Others were outraged and called for Patton to be removed from command.

The Army tried to suppress the incident, but when word leaked out, General Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered Patton to apologize. The two men shook hands, and Kuhl later called Patton a "great general" and told his family back home that it was "no big deal." After much discussion, it was agreed that Eisenhower would not fire Patton, but the incident tarnished his reputation forever.