Sunday, October 21, 2018

PTSD - The Beast

Image from Fireengineering.com
A guest column by Mike Peters, Vietnam Veteran
Edited by William Boylan

It’s August, 1974 and we’re walking through a large open field of deep grass that is being utilized as a parking lot for the Canfield Fair in Youngstown, Ohio.  There are quite a number of people heading toward the fairgrounds.  Not too far in front of us, some kids set off some firecrackers and the smell of gun powder permeates the air.  The grass is thick, long and somewhat moist from a thunder storm that had passed through the area in the early morning hours.

With each step, the grass rolls over my shoes and rustles beneath my feet; a hauntingly familiar sound that begins to trigger something in my psyche.  The odor emanating from the combination of wet earth, grass and gun powder further stir my senses and heighten the angst I am now feeling.

I have been here before, not here; not Youngstown, but on this walk and I desperately want to be away from it; to be as far away from this field and this smell as I can get!  But, I cannot leave, not without having my fiancĂ© and my friends think I’m crazy.  So I continue on, and once inside the fairgrounds, the feeling subsides.  I realize what it is and try to shrug it off, telling myself that perhaps it was something I ate for breakfast and had a reaction to.

But deep down, I knew it wasn’t; “It” was back. That same feeling I experienced every day some five years prior, in the jungles of Vietnam.  It was supposed to stay there in those jungles, in that horrid war torn country.  Everything after that year of hell was supposed to be gravy.  That’s what the lieutenant said one day as we waited on the choppers to pick us up for what was to be a long and dangerous mission; “All gravy!”
Now it was back. The Beast was back.  In reflection, I now knew what it was that rousted my father from sleep those years I was growing up.  He was an infantryman with the 26th Infantry Division in the Battle of the Bulge, in World War II.
Photo from talkspace.com, "The History of PTSD"

The Beast, as it were, was not a physical being.  Not something that posed a certifiable threat to my existence.  Nor something I could pick up arms against, battle and claim victory over.  No, rather, it was scarier than that.  The Beast, this beast, was nestled somewhere deep in my soul; in my very being.  It had found a hollow spot there and had been asleep for those five years and now, because of the musky smell emanating from that moist field, it had awakened.

  “I’m always here, one wrong mistake or one stroke of bad luck, and your mine“, The Beast was now my companion.  But unlike death, The Beast didn’t want my life; it just was there to inhabit part of it, along with memories, both good and bad, that had set in, long before its arrival.  It wanted and demanded, no matter how unwelcome, its “rightful place” in my soul.

The Beast, of course, is the affliction which medical science has dubbed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD for short.  A rather sterile, clinical all encompassing term for people, most notably combat veterans, who have experienced a threat of serious injury or death.  Those terms, serious injury or death, are the deciding factors in determining whether a person has the condition, or not. The problem is, the condition is seated much deeper than that.

War embraces the ultimate conflict in men’s souls; good versus evil, right versus wrong. All values, morals and civilities learned as a child become discordant when one is handed a rifle and taught to, “Kill, or be killed.” Most will find it difficult to do the former; some will do anything to avoid the latter.  All will carry the experience with them, for the remainder of their lives.

Any veteran, who has been in battle and in war for any period of time, will tell you there aren’t many days that pass by that they don’t think about it.  For most, it is at the very least, a life changing experience.  For many, it is the measuring stick by which all further endeavors thereafter will be compared.

It is also, unfortunately, the reason many men struggle upon their return home to a supposed life of peace.  A lot of men cannot find that peace they were promised, upon their return home from war.  For the battles are still being waged, deep in their psyches and souls.  Maybe not everyday or all the time, but certainly quite often enough!

It might be something as simple as that smell in those fields I experienced those five years earlier.  It may appear as a result of a loud noise, a traumatic experience, a written word, or even the lyrics of a song.  It may come shortly after one gets home or, as in the case of my good friend Jack, many years later.  Jack was a medic with the 96th Infantry Division in World War II and was wounded on the island of Leyte in the Philippines, while saving another man’s life.  The Beast would not visit him until some fifty years later, in the form of ghastly night terrors, which would haunt him, on and off, for the final ten years of his life.  Any of these things, and many more, could be the trigger that puts a veteran right back where he was; in the theater of war.

We ,as a group, know this only too well.  The lucky among us may never have a problem with it.  Many of us will find a way to deal with it.  “And this to, shall pass”.  And so it does.  But, it will be back.  And we will deal with it.  Again.  The unlucky cannot put those horrors of war behind them.  For them, they are always in battle.  It doesn’t “Pass” and ultimately takes their sanity, or even worse, their lives.  A lot of veterans will deal with The Beast sooner or later.  It’s how well they deal with it that ultimately matters.

The human body is an amazing thing.  It’s ability, with the help of modern medicine, (except in the case of debilitating injuries), to heal and mend itself is truly miraculous. The mind, on the other hand, when subjected to a harrowing experience, such as war, must deal with the aftereffects for many years to come.  People don’t just come back from wars and go on with their lives like nothing happened.  There will always be lingering effects.

What most people don’t understand and what the combat veteran inherently understands, is that war is not just about battle or firefights.  Firefights, when they happen, often come as a relief from the anticipation of awaiting them.  Your instinct and training take over as soon as the first shot is fired and you react accordingly.

Rather, it is about the very existence that one leads in a war.  It’s about not bathing for perhaps weeks at a time.  Not brushing one’s teeth, for fear there will be no water to drink.  It’s about eating all of your meals out of a can and losing weight accordingly.  It’s about drudgery, toil, long arduous days with very little sleep and the sleep you do get is restless, for you are ever vigilant of your situation and surroundings.  It’s about clothes that rot off of you, eaten away from your own sweat, bodily excretions and dirt. It’s about the sores that amass on your feet because of no change of socks.  It’s about a horrid existence that the average man or woman would never want to be subjected to in their life.  And it’s about death; living with it day in and day out; never knowing when or if it will come.

In war, Death takes form.  It is a shroud that is always there traveling with you, every day, along with your comrades in arms.  He may not take you, but sooner or later, he’s going to take somebody or a lot of somebody’s around you.  He doesn’t discriminate; he knows no color, no gender, no religion, no social standing, and no rank.  It’s just his job and he does it very well.  And if you are lucky enough and skillful enough to live and go home, escaping his grasp, it will at times seem he is still there, whispering in your ear, “Sooner or later my friend, we will meet again and then you will go with me and rejoin your friends.”

The Beast is just his messenger, a reminder of his presence, in war and in peace.
These things and many more make up this complex syndrome known as PTSD.
Modern medicine has not eradicated it. No amount of medication or treatment will erase its effects, forever.  But, we should spare no cost in our efforts to help those who have paid such a dear price to keep us free.

Someone once wrote, “For those who have fought for it, life has a flavor the protected will never know.”  Very profound, however, he should have added, “But that flavor has a price and sometimes that price is dreadfully steep!”

Our government, and we as a nation, cannot do enough to support our troops who are fighting the wars in which we are currently engaged.  We must not falter, nor spare any cost, in our attempt to help them heal the scars, both physical and psychological, (which many will carry with them for years to come), upon their return home; theirs, and all veterans who served before them.   Anything less would be a travesty.  It doesn’t end on their return home.  Life just doesn’t go on, it changes forever.

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