World War II combat veterans pretty much to a man told me there was no such thing as PTSD when they came home from war in 1945. Most of them said things like, "To go for medical care, you had to have a hole in you!"
We spoke to several WWII veterans that were referred to treatment years after the war. Many had entered programs to treat their PTSD because of demonstrated abnormal behavior or alcohol abuse or alcoholism. Some had been brought to treatment by wives and other loved ones. Many told me that they thought they were OK but they just had some trouble fitting in and they need the camaraderie of their friends (other veterans). This often meant long period of time at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) or other club-like environment that included a bar.Many of the WWII veterans who were subsequently treated for PTSD spent two decades or more searching for what was the solution to their nightmares and trouble: their ghosts as the poet below calls them.
Vietnam War combat veterans are vastly different from their WWII brothers. They all told me their problems naturally started in the field, but many said they first started to feel alone when they came home. They came home alone: not with a unit. The U.S. Army has now corrected this-- one of the many lessons learned that are applied to today's returning troops over those that came home from Vietnam.
I thought Vietnam War veterans would talk more about not having a parade. But that was not the problem. The problem was not so much indifference, according to these men. The problem was the disdain of their fellow citizens.
"When I would tell people I was in Vietnam, people would right away ask: 'Did you kill anyone?' I don't know how to answer that. I still don't. It was a war."
He said he felt hostility from his fellow citizens for his service.
He told me he ultimately left the United States to live in South America. "There," he said, "I was at least an ordinary guy. Sometimes I was admired. In the U.S. I had no chance."
Because the United States was so terribly divided, nearly every one of the Vietnam combat veterans treated for PTSD told me they felt a terrific sense of dislocation once they returned to normal society. Many had trouble finding jobs. When asked what kind of work he was good at a job center, one veteran told me he thought, "Well, if you had a 155 here I could drop a round on your desk from a long way away...."
Another told me he was offered a job as a floor sweeper in a factory. He thought he had real skills but he didn't know how they applied to "normal" society." He said he had been an aircraft forward air controller. There was no established system to find these veterans appropriate jobs, as far as they could recall. They also said that PTSD was not much understood-- and that to go to the VA you better have a visible wound.
More than one Vietnam Veteran told me they thought the VA had the fine PTSD effort it has today because the misconduct of suffering Vietnam veterans became an embarrassment to the government and the VA. Then action was taken.
Several veterans wanted me to know they "took it." A typical line went like this. "The men you see here are all in the mental ward for check ups. All suffer from PTSD. They are not here because they ran away or cracked up. They are here today because they could take it. And they did take it."
This line of thinking was repeated over and over and I was reminded of the movie "Twelve O' Clock High," about the 8th Air Force bombers in WWII.
In this movie, Major General Ben Prichard relieves an air group commander for being too soft on his men.
Then he lays out the dilemma to the man he wants to take the job. "There is only one hope of shortening this war. Daylight Precision Bombing. 50,000 airplanes. That's what they say they are making. I wish I had 500....I gotta ask you to take nice kids and fly them until they can't take any more. And then put them back in and fly them some more...We've got to find out what a maximum effort is....how much a man can take and get it all. I don't even know if any man can do it."
Many of the Vietnam Veterans could empathize with this film and this theme. But as Army Veterans they still thought the Army Air Corp men of WWII "could at least come home every night to a meal, the club, and a bed."
One veteran talked very eloquently, as if it was just yesterday, that he would spend weeks in the field, eating rations, not able to bathe, and then return to real sheets, real beef and lots of running water. He said his brain was "always seeking the real reality."
One Vietnam veteran told me he was on Hamburger Hill. He was among the relief troops that fought their way into Plei Ku. He fought at An Kie near the DMZ. He was in Vietnam for Tet 1968 but he had arrived in 1965. He was with the 1st Air Cav.
"Why were you in Vietnam so long?" I asked. He said he was the oldest brother. Another brother was near him during the first part of his tour (199th Light Infantry from Fort Hood) and he extended in country to be with brother number three (1st Marine Division) when he arrived. Good reasons.
Many of these veterans admitted that the war may have brought out or aggravated pre-existing conditions. Some talked of alcoholic or abusive fathers and other situations often associated with trouble later in life.
One Vietnam veteran had obviously given a lot of thought to his condition and the condition of his fellows. He told me, "When you are young, you think you can do anything and handle anything. So you come home from war and you cope. You know things aren't right but you keep moving. Maybe you drink or do drugs. The problem is: as you age, the disease doesn't get any weaker and maybe it gets stronger. But YOU get weaker with age. Like a shed with a tin roof that gets snowed on every winter; it is good for a long time. Then one winter it rusts through and everyone is amazed."
Another said, "We were wolves. We trained as wolves. We became wolves. And after a long plane flight home we were expected to be perfect lambs. It didn't work for me."
Looking at these aging veterans, it was difficult to see the wolves. And one of them must have seen that in my eyes. He said, very softly, "John, we were all young and beautiful once. We were SEALs, Marines, Airborne. We were the young, the proud the tough. It is only when you become old that you become philosophical."
Young wolves aren't philosophical, I know from my own experience.
Finally, without too much introduction I would like to share the poem below with you pretty much the way it was shared with me. He introduced himself, told me his story briefly, and said, "This popped out of me during treatment and I have carried it ever since."
I sat down, read it twice with a tear in my eye, and then said a short prayer, asking God to protect warriors everywhere and always. And I thanked Him for bringing these men to me or I to them.
Poem From A Vietnam PTSD Patient
During Inpatient Care
Year Approximately 1985
(More Appropriately, Name Withheld at His Request)
The ward is so cold this evening,
And I am so very alone
Except for the ghosts to keep company,
and the sins I'll never atone.
I am sorrow, I am pain. I am
tears that won't go away
I am the shiver of the first chilly night
When autumn has come to stay.
My brothers are tucked here with me,
Sharp objects are all locked away
But there is no protection from inside
Of hearts whose lives have gone astray.
And yet these hearts keep beating
Inside bodies long ago dead
Not from bullets or bombs or wars other harms
But the ghosts that live inside our heads.
Yes, they speak to us often,
yes daily we are never allowed to forget
And the names on the wall do not cover all
Alone, we are living regret.
Like a flower is snipped from a rose bud
Our youth was cut off long ago
Those who cared for us then do not want us again
we bring trouble like winter brings snow.
So Just sweep us away in the closet
Call the closet Ward Seven "E"
Let us scream in the night in unconscious fright
Just my brothers, my ghosts, and me.