I spoke yesterday of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) and its effects on me. Several aspects of that discussion deserve further attention.
Readers ask, how did I get cured of PTSI. The answer is I didn’t. There is no cure. The best a victim can hope for is to learn to cope. Two activities helped me—I’ll speak of one today, writing. Tomorrow I’ll address about the other.
About writing: I’d been writing stories since I was six, so when I returned to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon, I wrote and wrote about my experiences in combat and during the fall of Saigon. That forced me to face the memories head-on and prevented me from doing what I wanted to do—drive the recollections from the conscious mind and not think about them. That would have relegated them to the unconscious where they would fester and come back to haunt me. I ended up writing a novel about a man who did that, The Trion Syndrome.
Combatants who don’t come to terms with their memories are condemned to suffer flashbacks, irrational rages, nightmares, and panic attacks. The only way to go on living rationally is to bring the memories into the conscious mind and learn to live with them.
The rate of suicides among veterans is 22 percent higher than among the non-veteran population, according to the Veterans Administration (VA). Another way to express that number is that 22 of us die each day by our own hand. Of those, some 65 percent are 50 or older.
Among Vietnam veterans, 31 percent suffer from PTSI, according to the VA, a rate much greater than among veterans from later wars. I suspect the figure for Vietnam vets is actually much higher—a human being can’t go through combat without soul damage. I’m persuaded that the numbers reflect what happens to the human soul over time. The longer the memories are suppressed, the more virulent they become. My forecast is that the figures for PTSI among veterans from later wars will go up as time passes.
Finally, an aspect of PTSI rarely discussed is the sense of loss when the guy fighting next to you dies. Noted elsewhere is this blog, in the thick of combat, the combatant is fighting for the man or woman standing next to him. The bond among men who fight side by side is the strongest love I’ve ever experienced. Soldiers and Marines don’t use the word love—that’s too sentimental. But that’s what it is.
When a fellow combatant dies, especially if his death is grisly, the loss is devastating. Inevitable, too, is guilt: why him and not me?