A Primer on the Whys and Wherefores of PTSD: Whatever You Did in War Will Always Be With You
By Marc Levy
VA Shrink: Were you in Vietnam?
Vietnam Vet: Yes
VA Shrink: When were you there?
Vietnam vet: Last night.
I'm kneeling. Tears streak my face, drip down, fall to earth. It's only my second time in combat. Soon I'll be different. Soon revenge for our dead and wounded will meld with fear, and I will help with the killing and the killing will help me. We're just regular grunts: we make too much noise, we have no special skills, we're not elite.
But after a time we get the hang of this war, the rhythm of it. Wait. Engage. Disengage. We call it contact, or movement. We psych ourselves up. "Time to kick ass and take names," we say. And between contact and kicking ass or having our asses kicked there is tension that starts small, then builds and builds until we secretly pray it will happen. That we walk into them or them into us, or we mortar them or they rocket us, then the tension explodes like perfect sex, and afterwards... we're spent. There are days, weeks nothing happens, then terror, instant and deep, then relief, like paradise, since the killing is done and we have buried away the wounded and dead. Until it starts all over again.
That was thirty-seven years ago. Or was it last night? A day, a year, twenty years home from war you may begin to act strange. The shrinks, social workers, group therapists, clinical researchers, each has a different take on what causes PTSD.
"It's neurolinguistic. It's cognitive. It's biochemical", they chime and chatter.
Who cares? Just stop the pain. Just stop it.
But where does that pain come from? What's going down? Here is what I know: what you learn in combat you do not easily forget. You drop at the first hint of an ambush falling so fast your helmet still spins in the air. You shoot first and ask questions later. The enemy is an unfeeling slippery bug to be stomped out. You live like an animal. You learn to like killing. Learn to fear and hate the enemy. Hate civilians. Can't trust the bastards. You hate taking prisoners. You'd rather kill them.
Why? Because the enemy wants to fuck you up. Kill you, your pals, some new guy doesn't know jack shit, wants to waste your Lieutenant, the whole damn platoon. After a time you learn what war is: the fish like iridescent gleam inside a brainless head; the sleek white caterpillar of pulsing human gut; the grotesque tableau of charred bodies frozen stiff; the impossible music made by voices howling beyond human form; pure white bones piercing ruby ripped flesh; the strange oily feel of blood; the sudden slump of the man next to you. The business of flies on the mouths of the dead.
After a time, to a supernatural degree you learn to live with terror, rage, struck down sorrow, blocked out guilt or dumb struck grief. Yes, the supernatural threat of catastrophe and the ways to survive it become preternatural1y normal, second nature, a fully formed part of you.
Then one day you get shot, or if you are lucky, complete the tour, return home intact. But for those who havc seen their share the equation might go like this. Johnny got his gun - Johnny marches home - HEEEREE'S JOHNNNNY!!!!
And the good soldier John or the good troop Jane, who under fire never once thought of your civil rights, your silly flag, your doofus politics. Good Johnny or Jane, I say, feel and act a tad differently when the locked down feelings, bottled up memories, instinctive behaviors of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder fervently, unexpectedly kick in. The symptoms of PTSD, in plain bloody English, are as follows:
• Flashbacks: seeing and feeling a combat event as if it were happening right now.
• Hyper Vigilance: being always on guard, always looking for where the next shot, next grenade, next rocket, ambush or IED will come next.
• Survivor Guilt: feeling bad, feeling real shitty for having survived, where others in the platoon or squad didn't.
• Moral Guilt: wrestling with actions one did or did not take on.
• Startle Reflex: dropping, flinching, turning fast at a sudden noise or unexpected touch.
• Suicidal Ideation: thinking of killing oneself.
• Homicidal ideation: thinking of killing people. Friends or complete strangers.
• Homicidal Rage: anger way out of proportion to an everyday event. It comes quick, down and dirty.
• Sadness, depression, anxiety, crying spells: Staring into space, saying nothing.
• Nightmares: violent dreams related to combat. Sometimes it's the same dream. Some vets make strange noises. Thrash in bed. Wake up scared, or sweaty.
• Ritual Behavior: at night checking the lights, locking the doors, maybe keeping a weapon at hand.
• Alienation: a vet feels as if no one understands him, doesn't fit in, feels as if he or she should have never retuned
• Panic Attack: for a short time the combat vet becomes suddenly and intensely afraid. He or she sweats, breathes hard. has a pounding heart, might gel dizzy, choke
• Social isolation: staying alone for long periods of time. Or in public saying very little. To the point of being noticeably very quiet
• Drug and alcohol abuse: whatever works to dull the pain glowing inside one"s head
•Fear of emotional intimacy: combats often won't let anyone get close 10 them. If someone gets too close. the vet backs off or pushes them away
• Employment: a lot of vets can't keep a job. Every couple of months quit or get fired
• Psychic Numbing: not have the ability to feel emotions. Vets talk about feeling hollow, blank, empty.
• Denial: Problems'! What problem? ] don't have a fuckin' problem.
•High Risk Behavior: doing daredevil stuff to re-live the rush of combat.
These symptoms are normal responses to extraordinary events outside the range of normal human experience. Most civilians are clueless about combat and its aftermath.
Some types of treatment:
• The talking Cure: a vet talks to a therapist who is skilled in treating war stress and is not a paid bullshitter.
• Group therapy: seven to ten vets meet once a week for an hour or two. A good group leader is essential. That person knows when to talk, when to listen, how to keep the vets focused. Otherwise, group therapy can get lame fast
• EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing): a form of hypnosis in which the vet is fully awake.
• Exercise. Meditation. Meds. A friend who will just listen. An artistic endeavor.
One other thing. This is real important: a lot of vets fear talking about war. They fear losing control. Breaking down. Crying. My advice to those who have seen combat; face yourself. Chances are good you will learn to live less in the past, more in the present, but you will never be the same. WW II. Korea, Panama. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central America, wherever you were. whatever you did in war will always be with you. A]ways.
Marc Levy served with Delta Company 1/7 First Cavalry Division as an infantry medic in Viet Nam and Cambodia in 1970 His dccorations include the Combat Medic Badge, Silver Star, two Bronze Stars for Valor, Air Medal, Army Commendation Medal. He was court-martialed twice and received a General Discharge. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Commentary on VVAW.org:
- We Have To Be Winter Soldiers by Bill Branson
- Fascism is Not an Option by Vietnam Veterans Against the War National Office
- Is This Who We Are? by W. D. Ehrhart
- Why We Struggle by Bill Branson
- We Must Continue the Fight for a Better World! by Bill Branson
- Into Another Rich Man's War (VVAW Statement on Potential War with Iran) by VVAW
- Forever Wars Demand Forever Opposition by Bill Branson
- From the National Office by Joe Miller
- The River Keeps Flowing by VVAW
- The Struggle Continues by Joe Miller
- VVAW Still Teaching the American War in Vietnam: On Burns/Novick "The Vietnam War" by Joe Miller
- 50 Years of VVAW by Joe Miller
- For Peace, Justice, and Veterans Rights by Bill Branson
- The Importance of Vietnam and VVAW: Then and Now by Bill Branson
- Veterans Fight Back by Bill Branson
- From the National Office by Bill Branson
- No New War in the Middle East by Bill Branson
- From the National Office by Bill Branson
- Our War, Our Legacy by Bill Branson
- From the National Office by Bill Branson
- Get Out and Vote: Demonstrate Our People Power by Bill Branson
- What We Know and When We Know It by Meg Miner
- From The National Office by Bill Branson
- Blood on the Tracks - A Review by Horace Coleman (reviewer)
- From The National Office by Joe Miller
- Ken and Bill's Excellent Adventure by W. D. Ehrhart
- From the National Office by Barry Romo
- From the National Office by Barry Romo
- Soldier Jailed For Rap Lyrics Is Discharged by Dahr Jamail, truthout.org Reporter
- US Military Plans To Extradite Stop-Lossed Iraq War Vet to Iraq For Court Martial Over Protest Rap Song by Iraq Veterans Against The War
- A Letter to America: No Medal Jacket by Marc Levy
- The Worst Question You Can Ask a Combat Vet: Talking Dirty to the Kids by Marc Levy
- From Vietnam to Afghanistan: The Bling They Curse and Carry by Marc Levy
- The "Obama Drama" by Horace Coleman
- Matthew Hoh Resignation Letter by Matthew Hoh
- Just Like Hanoi Jane by Marc Levy
- Winter Soldier Iraq and Afghanistan (the book) by Horace Coleman
- How What Happened in the Bush Administration Shaped What Happened in Iraq by Horace Coleman
- A Father traumatized by a son's wounds goes into action by Horace Coleman
- All Bets Are Off For Today's Vets by Horace Coleman
- Election Night Musing by Horace Coleman
- War Jokes Wanted: No Laughing Matter by Marc Levy and Susan Erony
- The Leftie Nation Throws a Rightie by Jerry Lembcke
- Thuy's Dream of Peace: Winter in America by Marc Levy
- Retraction of Article in the Veteran, Volume 38, Number 1, Spring 2008 by VVAW National Office
- Support PFC James Burmeister by Carol Rawert Trainer
- Support IVAW's Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan
- Fake Vets Chasing Fame by Marc Levy
- William Hugh Davis: 1948 - 2007 - Anti-war, union activist by Patricia Trebe
- President of Vietnam Vets Against the War - Year-long tour convinced him it was wrong by Larry Finley
- You Tube videos of Bill Davis
- Iraq Dead Ahead: A Brief Military History and Civilian Guide to Arlington National Cemetery Iraq Dead Ahead by Marc Levy
- The Horror of War Can be Catnip for Young Men by Jerry Lembcke
- Iraq War Resister Kyle Snyder Arrested in Canada, then Released: U.S. Army Requested the Illegal Apprehension by Gerry Condon
- Vietnam Veterans Against The War Endorses HR 508:Bring the Troops Home and Iraq Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2007 by VVAW National Office
- VVAW Supports All the Troops
- A Primer on the Whys and Wherefores of PTSD: Whatever You Did in War Will Always Be With You by Marc Levy
- What the Fuss Is All About by W. D. Ehrhart
- Winter Soldier DVD Now Available at VVAW Store
- From Vietnam to Iraq: Ignoring the Veteran Healthcare Crisis by VVAW & IVAW
- Vietnam Veterans and Iraq Veterans Release Memorial Day Report on Veterans' Healthcare Crisis by VVAW National Office
- VVAW Statement to the People of Vietnam by VVAW National Office
- Vietnam Veterans Against the War Denounce Bush Proposal to Cut Vets' Benefits by VVAW National Office
- The Struggle Continues by VVAW
- Stolen Honor - A Dishonor: Vietnam Veterans oppose Sinclair Broadcast smear even in reduced format by VVAW National Office
- A Troubling Tribute by Jan Barry
- Defending VVAW Against Swift Boat Vets Lies by Keith Nolan
- 40th Anniversary of Gulf of Tonkin shows history repeating itself with Iraqi War by VVAW National Office
- Anybody But Bush by VVAW National Staff and Coordinators
- Vietnam Veterans Say Torture Policy Not an Aberration - Dates Back To Vietnam War by VVAW National Office
- Chicago Vietnam Veterans Against the War and supporters honor fallen servicemen on Memorial Day by Chicago VVAW
- Vietnam Veterans Against the War Statement on John Kerry
- John Kerry and War Crimes in Vietnam by Jan Barry
- Living with Lies by Dave Curry, Joe Miller and Barry Romo
- On the Oil-Slicked Road to Empire: Are We Really Safer Now? by Barry Romo, Dave Curry & Joe Miller
- No War with Iraq No Blood for Oil or Ego by Barry Romo, Dave Curry & Joe Miller
- Vietnam Veterans Against the War Statement on the "War Against Terrorism" by VVAW National Office
- Vietnam Veterans Against the War Statement on September 11 Attacks by VVAW
- VETERANOS DE VIETNAM CONTRA LA GUERRA DECLARACION SOBRE LOS ATAQUES DEL 11 DE SEPTIEMBRE
- VVAW Statement on Robert Kerrey by Clarence Fitch Chapter of VVAW
- Remembering the Tonkin Gulf and After by Joe Miller
- Indian Wars & the Vietnam Experience by Ben Chitty
- Recollections:Brainwashing Busts Out at Cecil Field by Mike Woloshin
- "Peace with Honor" by Ben Chitty