Last night I had an epiphany.
I dreamt I went to my doctor’s appointment at the VA, and they discovered that my blood pressure was outrageously, dangerously high, and decided to hospitalize me.
The thing was, they never spoke to me about it. The doctor issued a bunch of orders to the nurse, then left. The nurse went off to do something, leaving me alone. So I left.
And in my dream, somehow I ended up being admitted (committed?) to the hospital against my will, and at some point I was required to sit in on a group therapy session.
As I listened to these veterans in this therapy session, I realized that many of them had the same kind of anger issues I did.
I was surprised, after all these years, to realize I still had issues.
Later in my dream, the therapist handed me some paperwork. It was information about working for the VA, helping veterans.
It occurred to me that many veterans out there might be troubled for other reasons than what you might think. You see, by and large, the army is not very good at leadership. I remember that during the first Gulf War, when we lived in appalling, squalid, extremely harsh conditions, our fearless leaders told us, “You have no right to complain. You signed up for this. The army never promised you hot meals, showers or shelter.” And so on. From the top down, it seemed that was the party line.
What a good leader would have said is, “I know things are rough, but it can’t be helped. I’m so proud of you all; you’re doing a great job. Keep it up, and we’ll all get through this together.” It didn’t help that our fearless leaders were living in climate-controlled trailers, probably eating like kings and spending all day printing out nasty memos to send out to the troops.
(That’s right, we lived in moldy old heavy canvas WWII era tents with dirt floors, used dilapidated, insufficient, jerry-rigged shower and latrine facilities and rinsed our clothes out in buckets, but every day we were treated to a nice crisp memo printed up in the command trailer!)
Instead of encouragement, pride and camaraderie, we were dealt a daily ration of derision, disgust, shame and palpable distrust. Our version of a “threat brief” was when we stood in formation and were harangued with a list of the punishments we would suffer should anyone step out of line.
Because we never got into a real war and never saw any real combat (does accidentally flying through artillery fire count?), it was only natural to feel that we didn’t deserve to complain, or feel deprived, or lonely or miss our families or anything.
And after six months of being a prisoner of war (are you still obliged to try and escape when you’re being held by your own side?), I came home very angry, confused, and somewhat ashamed. I felt like I didn’t deserve to have issues. What had I done, after all? I had not been exposed to the atrocities of war. I saw no bloodshed, no bodies, nothing to cause any post traumatic distress.
The thing is, I went there voluntarily. I was so proud to go and fight for my country. I didn’t deserve to be treated that way. I didn’t deserve to be cheated of my pride and self esteem, and treated like a potential deserter who had to be dragged out there against my will.
This time it’s a real war. People are coming back missing limbs, or not at all. They’re being exposed to violence and bloodshed and the whole gory shebang, and many are coming back understandably shell-shocked.
But not everybody is on the front lines. Not everybody gets exposed to the atrocities of war. And therein lies the rub. I think some of them might be like me. They’re coming home and they’re angry, they’re depressed, they’re having trouble coping. People around them are probably sympathetic, treating them like war heroes and congratulating them on a job well done.
But they know the truth. They weren’t really exposed to any danger. They didn’t really do anything. They don’t feel like they have any right to be angry or depressed or suicidal. This makes them even more depressed. What kind of a weakling are they? That’s not in line with the way the army expects them to be.
Veterans are reportedly committing suicide at more than double the rate of the civilian population. From 2005 to 2011, somewhere around 49,000 veterans took their own lives.
The VA assumes that all these veterans are killing themselves because they were in combat. What if some are killing themselves because they weren’t?
This is where the epiphany came in. I’ve been reading this book called “What should I do with my life,” in which the author profiles a number of people who struggled to find their true calling in life only to find it right under their noses all along, in the form of life experiences they had subverted, rather than acknowledge.
I don’t know that I should actually go to work for the VA, but that might be a start. I realize now that these issues have never really gone away. I’ve just buried them. I was married to a Vietnam War vet who saw a lot worse and never talked about it. Who was I to whine about my problems?
I was in the 18th Aviation Corps and the 82nd Airborne Division. Many times we got ourselves into flight training fiascos that were incredibly stupid and dangerous. There was this mentality that because of who we were, we should be able to do anything. Our fearless leaders failed to recognize that many of our pilots were young and inexperienced. This was a generation that had never been to war.
Calling everybody scum and being abusive is a tactic used in basic training, to break people down before you build them back up again, as soldiers. Some “leaders” however, hold on to that abusive mentality, and think that by treating everybody badly, they’ll make them tougher.
Even 82nd Airborne soldiers are people too, like it or not. They need to be able to feel a sense of pride in what they’re doing. It is, after all, a soldier’s right to complain, but truth to tell, they’ll put up with anything as long as you tell them they’re doing a good job!
I’ve been so angry for so long, and I think that’s what’s kept me from finally getting all my stories down on paper. Maybe I should start by talking to some veterans. Maybe I could succeed where the military and their battery of analysts and psychologists is failing, by giving veterans what they really need; a voice.
Please consider getting counseling yourself. This is PTSD it seems to me.