Sometimes the deepest wounds can’t be seen
On Memorial Day, we (hopefully) will pause to honor those who’ve served our country, in particular, those whose lives were cut short in a visible way. Like returning home in a body bag. Or not at all.
Thankfully, most returned home in relatively better shape, scarred or missing limbs, and we honor them too. But what about those wounded in ways that can’t be seen? In some ways, those are the hardest wounds to heal.
My father suffered one of those wounds. He went into World War II as a second lieutenant, straight out of Bordentown military school, graduating at the top of his class and fluent in five languages. He went out of the war via an extended stay in a US Army hospital in Germany, babbling like a child, barely able to write his own name. It’s amazing the effect seeing your entire unit being blown to bits will have on your mind.
My father rarely spoke of it. He once told me it happened in some building or warehouse, during the Battle of Normandy. They heard German planes coming and hit the ground. The ack-ack-ack of bullets shattered the building. When my dad looked up, every single soldier in his unit was dead or dying. Outlining the place where he lay were two rows of bullet holes. He wasn’t even scratched.
It was his first and only maneuver, and it ended in disaster. Seeing his unit slaughtered utterly traumatized him. At 18, he was unprepared for what he saw in France. You see, back in the 1940s, there were no gory war movies or video games to desensitize future soldiers to the sight of bullets exploding someone’s skull or a grenade turning a body to hamburger. They didn’t watch “Saving Private Ryan,” they lived it. Scraping your buddy’s intestines off your face can really do a number on your mind, long after you leave the battlefield.
Back then, they called it “Shell Shock.” Nowadays, we call it “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” – PTSD. Seems like in all this time, we could do better than come up with a label, like provide comprehensive psychological treatment for all veterans who’ve seen active duty. But in talking with soldiers who’ve recently returned from Iraq, it doesn’t seem like much has changed. No meaningful, intensive treatment for PTSD, just an honorable discharge, some pins on your chest and a shove toward the door to civilian life. Unless, of course, they can coerce you to reenlist first.
So, those with Shell Shock and PTSD muddle along as best they can. If they’re lucky, they learn to cope. My father wasn’t quite so lucky. True, he eventually “recovered” from Shell Shock (as far as the Army was concerned), and devoted himself to saving lives rather than taking them, and became a physician. On the exterior, all was well. The interior was another matter.
Years went by, he married, had kids, but his invisible wound continued to fester. He attempted to soothe it with alcohol, and was unable to recognize that ultimately, this only made it worse. As time went on, his thoughts and behavior became increasingly disturbed. He was consumed with the idea that enemies were perpetually after his family and it was his job to keep them at bay.
I vividly remember him coming into my room in the middle of the night and whispering, “Stay down. Keep quiet.” He’d close the door behind him and step down the hall. Soon, I’d hear his footsteps outside the window, slowly trudging around, and see his silhouette from the streetlight, his rifle at the ready. I chalked this bizarre behavior up to “alcoholic” or “paranoid” or just plain “nuts.”
It was only recently that someone snapped it into focus: “Don’t you see? He was still protecting his unit.” I felt like a lead weight was dropped onto my chest. For the first time in my life, I finally “got” him. He spent his life obsessing; making sure his “unit” didn’t meet the same fate as his first. When I suddenly realized I wasn’t the child of an alcoholic, my shift in perception was seismic. I was — am — the child of a veteran with wild, raging, undiagnosed, uncontrolled PTSD. So many things snapped into focus — in particular, my anger over what happened to him in the war, and even more, what happened to him afterwards. My brilliant, brilliant father was shattered beyond repair on that day in Normandy — a psychological Humpty Dumpty. But unlike Humpty Dumpty, no one could see that he was in pieces. The cracks were on the inside.
My dad was labeled an alcoholic by the Veterans Administration and all who knew him, including friends and family — written off by so many as just another drunk. Alcoholism wasn’t his primary condition, it was a symptom of his primary condition: PTSD. There’s the ultimate insult — heaping stigma and shame on top of unseen wounds. In particular, unseen wounds the VA refused to acknowledge, let alone take responsibility for.
Is the VA doing any better now? Oh, I don’t know — ask one of those homeless guys begging for money at the stoplight on any random corner in San Francisco. More likely than not, he’s a veteran with PTSD. Hey, here’s an idea: How about we support the troops AFTER they come home? How about giving the walking wounded the therapy and attention they deserve? A homeless disabled veteran begging for money is our national disgrace.
Was my dad’s wound disabling? Absolutely. Was his life cut short? Positively. Was his invisible wound ever acknowledged? No. You don’t get a Purple Heart for a wounded mind.
So, this Memorial Day, remember the fallen. But remember the living too. Rather than scramble to the mall to get that great deal on pillowcases, leave a flower on a soldier’s grave. Say “thank you” to a veteran, even if he doesn’t have a wound you can see. Maybe to those veterans in particular.
(Columnist’s note: An earlier version of this column ran in May 2010. This is an updated, expanded version.)