Torture's Long Reach – Chile and Post-Traumatic Stress 34 Years Later

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by Shepherd Bliss by Shepherd Bliss

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Last week I received a request from a Chilean attorney that opened a dam. Memories from 34 years ago flooded in.

"We are looking for Mr. Shepherd Bliss in order for him to travel to Chile to testify in the case of Frank (Teruggi)" the lawyer said. He is gathering testimony in a slow-moving court case against those who kidnapped, tortured and executed my young, idealistic friend Frank and another American, Charles Horman.

Soon after graduating from divinity school and being ordained a United Methodist minister I worked in Chile during 1971–72 on a church-funded project. Dr. Salvador Allende had recently been democratically elected president. On Sept. 11, 1973, Gen. Augusto Pinochet toppled his government, with the well-documented support of the United States.

I have thought often of returning to Chile, but my body has not yet followed those travel directives from my mind.

Unfinished business awaits me in Chile. My returning to the scene of that terrible crime and the massive trauma that it caused could support justice and promote my own healing. So I will probably go, but I have my doubts and fears.

Frank and Horman were among the thousands slaughtered during the coup's brutal aftermath, which continued for years and still haunts the surviving families and friends of those touched by that state terrorism. Horman's story was graphically revealed in the award-winning l982 film Missing by Costa-Garvas.

The attorney represents survivors of the Teruggi and Horman families. He wants me to testify about what Frank was doing in Chile. As someone who was raised in the prominent military family that gave its name to Ft. Bliss, Texas, and had served as a U.S. Army officer myself, I could be a credible witness to counter the generals and other military officers being tried.

It could also be preparation for war crime trials against Henry Kissinger and the U.S.'s current leaders for atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan, which many people throughout the world are demanding.

I worked in Chile on religious, educational, artistic and journalistic projects and Frank was one of my closest associates. I wrote articles about Chile for the "Christian Century" magazine and other publications and worked with a theater group of enthusiastic young adults from around the world called Los Saltamontes (the grasshoppers).

Chile had become a gathering place for those, especially young people, wanting to witness and participate in a process of the democratic victory of a progressive government that was not dominated by the United States. Our innocence was shattered by Pinochet's unrelenting, decades-long violence. As Welsh poet Dylan Thomas writes, "After the first death, there is no other."

The recent invitation to come to Chile surprised me. I had given up hope of justice in Frank's case. As one of the many survivors of the thousands who died and were maimed in Chile, my patience these 34 years of waiting for justice had ebbed.

Gen. Pinochet died Dec. 10, 2006, at the age of 91. Though he finally confessed to his crimes, he was never brought to justice. His power and wealth protected this U.S.-supported dictator and enabled him to escape the justice that would have benefited many survivors.

Courts in Chile, Europe, and the U.S — into which the long killing arm of Pinochet's state reached — have failed the families and friends of those hurt by this assassin and his accomplices. Justice for Pinochet was delayed and denied, which has been happening also in the cases of Frank and Horman.

I remember Frank and think often of him – a playful and creative artist. Memories flood in. The request to return to Chile now brought tears to my eyes. Then I froze, suppressing the feelings. I shivered and shuddered, though it was not cold outside on that California May day.

I remember walking toward my office at Harvard University when I first heard of the military coup thirty-four years ago. Crushed, I fell to my knees on the sidewalk, knowing that some of my friends were probably hurt. Sept. 11 has been a Memorial Day for me since.

When I learned of Frank's death, much of my life came to a halt. His family invited me to be a pallbearer at his funeral in Chicago, but I initially did not respond. When a plane ticket from his girlfriend Annie arrived, I realized that I had to go and carry Frank's body. It had been so butchered that the casket was closed. What was I doing, at twenty-something, carrying the tortured-to-death body of my good friend?

One might expect that I would appreciate such a request to return to Chile to contribute to a long-denied act of justice. But rather than respond immediately from the heart or mind, my initial responses were in my traumatized body — a body that partly had shut down.

My tongue even lost its fluency in Spanish and my mind no longer thought clearly in the Spanish that I had begun hearing as a child living in the Panama Canal Zone with my military family.

Psychologists call such a defense mechanism "psychic numbing" – a protection of the psyche from feelings too powerful to endure. My memories of Frank and others were in Spanish, so by losing Spanish I was being protected from that terrible loss and enabled to continue living at least a partial life. Only decades later, when giving a paper at a psychology conference in Spain, did my Spanish begin to return.

The Chile invitation opened me to the most painful experience of my 62 years of life. I write about this personal experience to dilute its continuing hold on me. Perhaps speaking my truth may help educate and remind others about that fateful Sept. 11, l973.

You may not have consciously met anyone who was literally tortured by a professional. You can read about torture by the U.S. military going on right now, but that is different from feeling it in the body. The multiple effects of torture reach far beyond the immediate victims to their families and friends, even to the torturer and his (or her) family members and to the nation itself that sponsors or tolerates torture.

By writing my story I seek to expose and speak out against the long-term traumatic effects of torture on its multiple survivors. The U.S.'s current torture of people from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere is not new. We have trained torturers from around the world for decades at the School of the Americas in Georgia.

Today's Chile differs from that of the Pinochet regime. Its current president, Michelle Bachelet, was imprisoned and tortured by the Pinochet junta. My fears about going have to do with more memories flooding in and overwhelming me.

The Chile request came a couple of days before our Veterans' Writing Group met again. We've gathered regularly for nearly 15 years, told our stories to each other, wrote the award-winning Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, edited by Maxine Hong Kingston, and recently spent an hour on Bill Moyers' PBS-TV program.

The veterans supported me to go to Chile, though I still feel some internal resistance. I want to face my fears and feelings and the ghosts I have from that time. Perhaps writing this essay can help prepare me to gather the courage to go and deal with any demons there.

I lost more than Frank in Chile; part of my soul perished, which I seek to recover. As I hear stories of veterans returning to Vietnam and finding healing there, I am inclined to go to Chile. It is time to release and express more of my feelings and speak more of my truth, especially at this time when the U.S. government admittedly engages in torture, thus staining our nation.

I would carry Frank with me to Chile, since he is always with me. Frank gave his life for liberty, freedom, and authentic democracy. I want resolution about his death so I can remember his life — youthful, playful, and idealistic. Frank, we hardly knew you.

Shepherd Bliss [send him mail] is a retired college teacher and former officer in the U.S. Army who now farms in Northern California. He has contributed to 19 books, including three post-9/11 books, most recently to Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace. He is currently writing a book on Sweet Darkness, Luscious Berries, and Endarkenment.

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