The Downside of Combat Experience

Yesterday, I wrote about the value of having served in combat to defend the nation. But as a reader pointed out, it’s not all benefits; there are some wounds, too. To the soul.

Among the presentations I do is one called “Post-Traumatic Stress Injury: A Warrior’s Malady.” It tells of the wounds to the soul I will always suffer from as a result of having served in combat. I don’t call it a disorder because it’s not a case of an internal malfunctioning—it’s an external wound inflicted by experiences too ghastly to talk about. It’s what happens to the psyche when the man fighting by your side is killed horribly. Its symptoms are panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, and irrational rages.

My case of PTSI reached the unbearable level after I escaped under fire when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in April 1975. But because I had top secret codeword security clearances, I could not seek relief through psychotherapy. I had to cope on my own. I learned that the only way I could manage my excruciating memories was to bring them into my conscious mind and train myself not to become hysterical. Writing down what happened was the most effective way of forcing myself to face the memories head-on. It helped that I was a born writer, dedicated to expressing myself through words.

Another help was the pride I spoke of yesterday, knowing that I had been willing to give up my life for my country and to save the life of the man fighting by my side. Ultimately, the sacrifice and my continuing struggle with PTSI are tolerable because I know that I served my country with honor. Nothing in my life has compared with that knowledge.

But arguably the most effective balm for PTSI is helping others. I found that when I was devoting myself to people who needed me, the agonizing memories faded into the background. So at the height of the AIDS epidemic, I volunteered to work with men dying of the disease. Five years later, after helping seven men die with peace and dignity, we found ways to treat the disease so that it was no longer fatal. I went on to volunteer work at a hospice. I kept at it until I was too old to lift my patients and had to step aside.

So, yes, the aftereffects of combat can be terrifying. But I have no regrets. I did what needed to be done for my country. I live with the damage to my soul. And if I were able and the need arose, I’d do it all again.

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