Remembering Those Who Survived

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Back in the 1970’s a high school friend of mine told me a story that I’ll never forget. His father had asked him to go wake up his older brother, an Army veteran who had just returned home after serving a tour in Vietnam. This soldier was still asleep, and it was close to noon. The family wanted to have lunch with him.

My pal gingerly opened the door to his sibling’s bedroom. He walked quietly to the side of his sleeping brother and gently placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder to rouse him from what he assumed was a peaceful rest.

In the blink of an eye, my friend was lifted from the wooden floor and slammed against the wall that ran parallel to the bed. He heard a picture frame glass break as he became aware of an enormous pressure against his throat, where his brother’s hands were simultaneously choking him and pinning him to the wall.

The next instant he was on the floor. The veteran stood over him and screamed at his shaken, confused, younger brother, “Don’t EVER do that again!”

I can recall my friend’s pain and anxiety. His family had to accept that things were different now. Their son and brother had experienced traumatic, war-zone events that would change him and their family forever.

My friend’s brother is one of the countless veterans that we should all remember to honor this Memorial Day.

Memorial Day dates back to May 30, 1868. Northern Civil War veterans had called for a nationwide day of remembrance for the purpose of placing flowers on or otherwise decorating the graves of fallen comrades. The event was called Decoration Day. General James Garfield, who would become the 20th US President, gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 attendees decorated the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers.

The Memorial Day tradition has always been about honoring our nation’s military men and women who died in the defense of our country. Fittingly, each year on Memorial Day, a national moment of remembrance takes place at 3:00pm local time.

My hope is that we also remember to acknowledge the wounded warriors who fought in every war, every conflict, every military action to which they were called.

These noble men and women who serve in the armed forces deserve our respect, regardless of politics or how some may perceive the importance or appropriateness of a given military action. And whether or not these fighting men and women themselves agree with the missions, military objectives and the defense department policies they are summoned to enforce, they put their lives on the line to serve and protect all of us back home. And they pay a heavy price. This includes the veterans who have sustained life-altering physical, visible wounds, as well as those who endure post-traumatic stress disorder.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) afflicts:

  • 10% of Gulf War veterans
  • 11% of Afghanistan War veterans
  • 20% of Iraqi War veterans
  • 31% of Vietnam War veterans

Many of us have family members, friends or acquaintances who suffer with PTSD. In everyday language, these warriors are sometimes categorized as “being messed up by the war.” And while that is true, that phrase is disrespectful and insufficient to describe what these men and women have suffered…and continue to endure.

A documentary film titled Of Men and War tells the story of a dozen combat veterans who struggled with PTSD and turned to a therapy center for treatment. In their group sessions, these vets shared the horrific events they withstood in the war zone and the destruction that PTSD brought to their homes and marriages. If you would like a deeper appreciation for PTSD, I encourage you to watch it.

One vet described the devastating event that still haunted him. (Note: Please skip this long paragraph if you want to avoid the disturbing details.) After he had taken fire while inside a military vehicle, the soldier saw what he believed was an enemy combatant running for the cover of nearby trees. The soldier leveled his weapon and fired. After they had waited for several minutes, during which no other gunfire was exchanged, the soldier and his team searched the area for bodies. He found the man he shot. There was no weapon, and half of the man’s head was missing. The remaining eye was open and seemed to be staring at this soldier. He tried to close the man’s eye, but it would not stay shut. When he and another soldier lifted the deceased, a chunk of the dead man’s brain fell on the soldier’s boot. After he returned stateside, the veteran couldn’t sleep. He was haunted by the vision of the deceased who was staring at him. He was dealing the horror of the event, the guilt from shooting an unarmed man, and the remorse from making a joke about the man’s brain falling out, an attempt at humor to help him cope with the gruesome anguish of the event. The soldier lived at the treatment center, away from his wife and family, and there appeared to be little hope of an imminent reunion.

There are as many horrific stories as there are PTSD sufferers. But in addition to the psychological devastation from the war zone events, our returning veterans also experience accusations from judgmental American citizens. These are people who portray themselves as morally superior to our veterans. They question how the vet could take someone else’s life. Then, like they’re addressing a mischievous child, these know-it-all types ask the veteran if he would behave differently if he had a chance to do it over again.

For so many of these proud men and women, the psychological trauma is exacerbated by the fact that they’re misunderstood. As one vet in the documentary stated, “I’m a private person at heart, and I don’t like having to explain to everyone that I’m not crazy. It’s embarrassing as shit because you feel small…not as strong as you used to be. You feel defective. That’s what I don’t like feeling like. I hate it.”

Many PTSD vets self medicate with alcohol or drugs…anything that helps them cope with what lives inside them. And many of them prefer solitude. As one vet stated, “I don’t want to have to see a bunch of people and smile and fake it.”

He went on to say that people seem dumbfounded as to why he can’t just change back to the person he used to be before the war. His response to them is, “What I used to be didn’t go through all that.”

This Memorial Day, honor the veterans who gave their lives in service of our country. And remember our vets who came home, but left a part of themselves behind.

Their sacrifice continues every day.

 

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