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The Sound of PTSD
By Gregory Ross
In a PTSD group consisting of nine men, a door slammed. I was the only one who "startled." We are all combat vets of varying degrees. I am by some standards, of the least degree since I never set foot "in-country," but floated a mile off the coast of Vietnam with the 7th Fleet in support of ground troops with "guns" capable of firing 335 pound shells. Our work station was directly below a cannon. A lot of percussion and concussion to absorb. Perhaps why I was the only one who "startled." My work station was also where I slept because the communications equipment required a temperature of no more than 75 degrees to function correctly. Sleeping in the ship proper, where it was often 100 to 120 degrees, was less desirable. Since there were only three enlisted men in the Communications Technician rating and we worked 12 on 12 off, we slept in the work spaces. "A lot of percussion and concussion to absorb."
Since 1969, the year I pulled Sea Duty, to the present, loud noises startle me. The Fourth of July in particular. Some fool in our neighborhood would purchase a lot of M80s and fire them daily, the week before the Fourth. On the Fourth, everything went crazy. The fool finished off his M80s, the week after the Fourth. It felt unrelenting. Often, I would join our dog under the bed, both of us shaking, her with fear, me with rage.
Some parts of my nervous system have gotten better. For years, any sound approximate to gears clanking drove me obsessively out of control. I had to silence it, immediately. An example: my wife and I drank bottled ice tea while driving. We placed the glass bottles on the floor behind her seat, where they clanked, which reminded me of the sound of the gears that moved the "guns" on the ships. Much to her dismay, I swerved to pull over on the freeway to stop the sound. She thought I should have kept it together until an exit and pulled off. She eventually accepted I could not do that, but still felt that I had needlessly endangered us. I agreed that it may have been an endangerment, but not needlessly. Now, I am able to better tolerate sounds that remind me of the gears. I no longer would pull the car over on the freeway, but would get off as soon as possible.
About two years after my discharge I got a job through a federally-funded program designed to put people to work. You got extra points for being a veteran, an ex-convict, or disabled (physically or mentally). Some vets got points for all four. I was sent to work at the county hospital in Buffalo, New York, where we did make work. We got paid, they got the administrative monies and the good PR. I was on a crew assigned to rake leaves on the grounds of the hospital which had five buildings. First, we raked leaves, eight hours a day, five days a week. Then we shoveled snow, eight hours a day, five days a week. Because of the harsh winters in Buffalo, the five buildings comprising the Hospital campus were connected by tunnels, one of which I ducked into to warm up. In the tunnel a few minutes, long enough to wander away from the access door, a booming, angry voice screamed out, "I hate them all. I'll kill them all. They killed my men." "Them" was a racial slur for people of Japanese descent. I backed up towards the access door and held the shovel to use as a weapon if I couldn't get out of the tunnel on time. The voice grew louder. A gurney with a large Buffalo City Police Officer strapped down was being pushed towards what I knew was the mental health ward.
The last part of this piece is so small, but in some ways the most significant. Loud noises? Of course, a PTSD trigger. Screaming WWII vets in the throes of a flash-back? Distressing of course. But, a pen clicking? In a writing group of veterans, I was sitting at a table with another vet. It was a silent writing period of one and a half hours. I got stuck on a thought and was mindlessly clicking my pen. The other participant, an "in-country" veteran, reached over and placed his hand over the pen and whispered, "Please stop, it sounds like..." I don't remember the exact words, but it had to do with loading and readying his weapon before going out on patrol.
From an M80 to a supposedly benign click of a pen: the sound of PTSD.
Gregory Ross was in the Navy during Vietnam, 7th Fleet, Gun Line . He published an anthology, "Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace," edited by Maxine Hong Kingston.