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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
fiancé 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
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.
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
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.