The struggles of a combat veteran with PTSD
| Living with PTSD
"Coming home from very lonely places, all of us go a little mad: whether from great personal success, or just an all-night drive, we are the sole survivors of a world no one else has ever seen." - John le Carre
Growing up, our family always shared dinner, regardless how busy our schedules were. My dad, a minister, was a WWII combat veteran, having served as a Navy Pharmacist Mate (Hospital Corpsman) in the Normandy invasion and the entire duration of the battle of Okinawa, considered to be one of the bloodiest battles of WWII. He was proud of his service, and although he accomplished many great feats in his life; lawyer, pastor, advocate for alcoholism treatment, he always said he was a Navy man.
Often, during those family dinners, he would become quiet, look down and clutch his chest. Mom would ask us to quiet down; it was dad's nerves. It was only after my return from my second combat tour that I realized that dad's nerves were latent combat stress or post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). I often clutch my chest and practice slow breathing to calm my anxieties, just like my dad.
Dad's generation didn't know about the lingering effects of combat stress, although all the signs were there. The WWII generation came home, and most used work therapy, rebuilding post-war America to cope and earning the label the "Greatest Generation."
The conflicts following WWII failed to garner the same level of public investment and support, leaving returning warriors feeling adrift in a sea of apathy. Korea was the "forgotten war" and Vietnam, the war that the public wanted to forget. The first Gulf War was a short duration, patriotic feel good war that required little public investment. Finally came the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns. Although initially the public patriotic fervor was behind the military, they were not invested in these conflicts and soon lost interest. Ask the average citizen to find Kandahar or Fallujah on a map; they cannot. We get the obligatory, "Thank you for your service," but it is a shallow statement without meaning. Most Americans do not have anyone close to them that have serve, so the military is a mysterious profession to them.
I am proud to have carried on the tradition of military service established by both my parents. But service comes with a price. The sights, sounds, smells, and loss are always with me, "...like an imprint on his retina." My stress reactions can be triggered by something as simple and being penned in by other shopping carts at the grocery store. I may even look normal on the outside, but inside I can be a "hot mess" trying to prevent a total meltdown by getting away from the trigger while using controlled breathing. The meds from the VA helped for awhile, but so numbed my mind and body as to make interpersonal relationships nearly impossible. I gave them up; better to deal with the anxiety than to live a life completely alone.
The Vet Center is a refuge where I can finally feel "normal" in the presence of other combat veterans. I find myself drawn to other combat survivors, just like my dad's generation did. I live alone now, sitting quietly in the evening nursing a bourbon. Being close to someone means being vulnerable, and that takes effort for me. My church is behind me, supporting me as I try to heal, so I do have some blessings and hope.
How this all will play out, I don't know. My Vietnam veteran friends are still working through issues 50 years later. Unlike the WWII generation, combat veterans from later conflicts didn't get the hearty welcome home and the ticker-tape parades. The Vietnam vets were met with contempt. Iraq and Afghan vets were met with apathy. I'm not sure which is worse.
So, as I work through my own struggles in an effort to be "normal" again, I'll continue to reach out to my fellow combat veterans so we can share the path to recovery.