PTSD and the Military

This nation does a terrible job of dealing with PTSD in the military. Anyone who has seen combat will have PTSD to some degree. It may not manifest itself until much later (as it did with me), and it may not be terrible, but we all have it.

My family is a military family. My father’s family arrived shortly before the US Civil War and fought for the Union. Mom’s people (Blackfeet) have been warriors since time immemorial. Both sides of the family served in and saw combat in the Spanish American War, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Global War On Terror and the Cold War. We have members in the US military right now and we have seen action in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

All of the combat veteran members of the family I have been able to speak with have had experiences and memories that haunt them to some degree.

I had two great uncles and a very young uncle in WWII. My one great uncle flew P-51 Mustangs in Europe (3 confirmed). He was on a fighter sweep and latched on to a JU-88 and pumped fire into it. It flamed and he saw the crew hit the silk. However, one of the crew had a canopy on fire. My great uncle circled back, determined to do a mercy killing with his six, fifty caliber guns. However, the German beat him to it, drawing a pistol and killing himself seconds before his chute collapsed and his body fell several thousand feet to the ground. After that, my great uncle never pursued an enemy plane if they broke off and ran. He’d shoot at them if they attacked, but if they ran he let them go. He could not kill another man the way he saw the German die. The fact that he steeled himself to commit coldblooded murder as a mercy killing also bothered him no end. He did not want to machine gun the man, but it was a better death than falling five thousand feet to earth. While he did not have to do it, watching a man so desperate and so much in fear that he killed himself also haunted him. He never flew after WWII as a pilot or a passenger. He hung up his wings, as they say.

My young uncle was a tank crewman and later a tank commander under Patton. He went ashore after D-Day with Patton for the breakout. During the war he had I think three tanks shot out from under him and saw friends killed right next to him. That was bad enough, but he was one of the GIs who liberated Buchenwald and saw the horrors when they were fresh. What he saw in Buchenwald horrified him more than any combat or loss of fellow crewmen. When they found former guards in the area, they brought them back and gave them to the survivors who pretty much tore them limb from limb. After that, they did not take a single German SS prisoner for the remaining weeks of the war. They shot them where they found them. Buchenwald and what they did afterward haunted him the rest of his life.

My other great uncle was a Marine in the Pacific. He didn’t come back. He was on I believe Saipan (his wife was sketchy on the story as it hurt her and she didn’t remember or else suppressed details). The Japs counterattacked and he was wounded and could not get away. They dragged him back to their lines and used him for sword practice, trying to make him scream so they could scare the other Marines. According to his wife, the men in his unit said he would not scream in pain. He was a Blackfoot warrior. They recognized his voice as he cursed the Japanese until they finally got tired of him and decapitated him. When the Marines counter-counterattacked and pushed the Japs back, they recovered what was left of him. My great aunt despised Japanese for the rest of her life. She realized than modern Japanese did not kill her husband, but she could not get over how he died and never forgave them. She had PTSD, too.

My father served in the 101st Airborne in Korea. His sneak patrol was airdropped way off target (happened quite a bit in those days) and almost on top of a ChiCom infantry unit. In a four day running battle, his patrol fought their way back to Allied lines (actually, Australians). Only my dad and two others survived. On the first night, they had to lay quietly next to their dead buddies and watch rats eat them. If they made noise to chase away the rats, the ChiComs machine gunned where they heard movement and they fired flares to try and catch the Americans in the open or moving. After Korea, my father never flew on an airplane again. When he was transferred to Los Angeles from Ohio during the moon shot program (he was a machine engineer for North American/Rockwell), we drove to Ohio every year for vacation. Nor would he ride on a Ferris wheel or anything that reminded him of flying or parachuting. And he hated rats with a passion. We boys shot rats on grandpa’s farm and dad paid us a bounty on every dead rat we showed him.

I served in the Marines in Vietnam. I had just tuned 19 when I made it to 2/5 Marines and a week later Tet 1968 started and we were sent to Hue. I saw lots of men die. I killed people. Constant door-to-door combat. But the worst was when we were on a patrol after we had retaken the city and was ambushed. We called for extraction and the closest choppers were USAF. They landed and got us. My best friend was shot as we climbed aboard. I got off the chopper, picked him up and threw him in the chopper, covered his body with mine to protect him from more bullets and we got away, but he’d taken an AK burst. There was a medic on the chopper but my friend was leaking faster than the medic could patch him, then the medic found a bullet hole in his chest and stopped trying. His head was in my lap and he was begging me to save his life. I could not save him, no one could, and I could not take his place, although I would have if it had been possible. He died with his head in my lap and I held him until they came and took him away when we landed.

I had been so numbed to combat and death and killing after Hue that I did not properly mourn his death. Helluva thing to do to an 19 year old kid. I put it behind me to help me survive the rest of my tour. I went on to serve my tour, get out, stay out a while then join the Army and the Rangers. I have squeezed the trigger on people, I have used a knife, a garrote, and set off Claymore mines which turned men into strawberry jam. I have called in mortar, artillery and air strikes. I have even used my bare hands. Yet I slept well at nights and I was not self medicating on booze or drugs. When I retired I thought I had lucked out and not gotten PTSD. I thought I was too tough for PTSD.

I was wrong on both counts.

Almost forty years after my friend died in my arms I was at the USAF museum in Dayton, Ohio with some cousins. I was in the Vietnam section. I’d seen it before and it didn’t really bother me. However, they had recently added a new exhibit to the Vietnam section. It was a USAF Jolly Green Giant helicopter. They put it back in Vietnam colors. I turned the corner and saw it and I stopped as if I had been poleaxed. In a flash I was back in Vietnam with my best friend’s head in my lap and he was dying, begging me to save him, in the belly of a Jolly Green… just-like-this-one. I stood there and began crying, hard but quietly. It took me about five minutes I guess to get control of myself and I completely soaked my bandanna/ handkerchief with tears and my running nose. I put my hand on the nose of the chopper for balance. One USAF youngster pulling duty in the museum came by and said; “You can’t touch the exhibits.”

I turned to him with what had to be death in my teary eyes and said; “You shut up!”

He left and I saw him no more. That’s when I realized NOBODY was immune to PTSD. I had now had the dubious honor of joining the club to which my older male relatives were members. I can now pass by the exhibit with no more than a sniffle and a little dampness in my eye. But I understand better what my senior relatives meant. I could no longer just sympathize, but empathize.

The efforts of the government to deal with PTSD are pitiful. Small wonder why veterans commit suicide at the rate of about twenty each and every day. Mostly the government ignored it. They covered up suicides after WWII, Korea and even Vietnam to prevent “shame” to the family. They even shamed men (and women) who had it. Brave men and women. A lot braver than me. Seeking counseling could cause you to lose security clearance and even miss promotion. Then they gave counseling but it was by doctors who had usually never even fired a rifle or had a fistfight as a boy, let alone seen combat. Ineffective. Then they over medicated it. Give them antidepressants and other psychoactive drugs and turn them loose to live on the streets then claim you did something. I tried to get treatment (counseling) for mine but I was told it was “too late after the war” for me to qualify, as if I was jumping on the bandwagon to try and claim additional benefits. I had to work through it myself.

I was lucky. I could have been one of the guys living under a bridge, self-medicating with booze and heroin until it hurt so bad that I took too much heroin trying to make the memories go away and wound up dead. Another statistic. We really need to do a better job of healing both the bodies AND minds of our returning warriors. We’re making some headway but not enough by far.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.