No veteran wants Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In fact most will fight it for years, and when things really get out of hand, they have to go through the embarrassment of asking the Veterans Administration for help.
If you Google for a definition for PTSD, you find there are 677,000 pages on the subject. Here is one of the first ones I found:
A debilitating condition that often follows a terrifying physical or emotional event causing the person who survived the event to have persistent, frightening thoughts and memories, or flashbacks, of the ordeal. Persons with PTSD often feel chronically, emotionally numb. Once referred to as shell shock or battle fatigue.
I can remember when I first thought about getting some help with the problems I was having after returning from Vietnam. I was going to Arizona State University under the Vocational Rehabilitation for Disabled Veterans Program, after a tour in the Republic of South Vietnam with the Marines.
Basically, I was okay as far as I was concerned, but I was having nightmares and almost constant thoughts about Vietnam.
So I sought help at the student health center. I wasn’t the first vet they had seen with these problems. They had the answer all ready for me. That would be a big bottle of 10-mg. pills of Valium. The pills were nice, and they did take Vietnam off my mind, but they also took everything else with it. Since I was trying to learn something at school, after a really crazy week I flushed the rest of the bottle and decided to just stuff everything into the back of my mind.
Like so many other vets, I stuffed that stuff; and every time it popped back out, I would stuff it in again. Some vets from World War II have been doing that for more than 60 years. The problem is that you can’t keep everything hidden. They might not know what is wrong with you, but your loved ones know that something is terribly wrong, and usually they are the ones who tell you that you need help.
There are lots of places to get help. Many vets used alcohol and others smoked lots of pot or snorted their problems away. In the end, though, most vets go to the VA for help, and that is where scary comes into play. First off, it is pretty unanimous that vets with PTSD don’t trust the Veterans Administration.
I still remember my first time at the Minneapolis VA looking for some help. The Nam vets at that time distrusted the VA so much that the building for PTSD was down the road about a mile. You couldn’t even see the VA hospital from there.
That first day was very scary. To begin with, I was totally embarrassed because real Marines wouldn’t need help, or at least that is what I thought. Then, to set the tone of the day, the first two vets I saw there were waiting for their tune up. Their tune up, as they called it, turned out to be electric shock. After hearing that, I was ready to bolt.
I should back up a bit here. Before I started going to the Minneapolis VA looking for help with my wartime traumas, I was living on the bank of the Big Fork River, about seven miles from the Canadian border … in the woods. I started out trying a program set up by the VA to get rural vets from the Vietnam War some help. They would send a guy out to my house from the St. Cloud VA Hospital, and he and I would sit around my house and talk. At that time I was too scared to tell anyone what was really going on in my head. Before every visit, I told myself that I would open up this time, but I just couldn’t. I didn’t really know what was wrong, and to tell you the truth I don’t think the guy from the VA knew anything either.
After several visits my counselor and I decided that that type of help wasn’t going to do me any good, so I went back to stuffing everything into the back of my mind. It actually took a few more years before I got up the courage to go to the VA.
Meeting another Marine was the real reason that I finally made it to the VA to find some help. I was down in St. Paul, and I met a former Marine who had been in Vietnam about the same time as I had been. This guy was a mess, and we hit it off like old friends.
Confronting my PTSD
Remember how I said PTSD vets don’t trust the VA? This guy told me his experience with them. While in Nam, he decided to send his younger brother a finger from a dead gook. You know, like a souvenir. I think we became closer then because when he told me that, I said, Cool, like he was talking about a hot rod he had built. Heck, I might have done the same thing, but I didn’t have a younger brother. You don’t send severed fingers to your sister.
Somehow this guy’s mother learned about the finger, and she flipped right out. The VA was waiting for him when he got off the plane from Nam, and they put him in the psych ward and started him on Thorazine. Veterans refer to Thorazine as liquid straitjacket.
He said they kept him in there for six months, and he was able to get out only because his dad worked on it. What he remembered best was regularly walking to the nurse’s station when a bell rang. The bell rang when it was time for his next dose. He said there was a long line of Nam vets waiting for their pills. Also, he said it could take him several hours to get his shoes and socks on.
Needless to say, thinking about going to the VA freaked me out after that. Like I said, this Marine and I became good friends. He had kids the same age as mine, and a time or two his family drove the 250 miles north to visit us. I didn’t have a lot of friends; in fact he was the only one.
One day he and I were having coffee together, and he got all serious and said, Man, you are screwed up. He wasn’t talking about being stoned, and I knew that, but I said, Well you are screwed up, too. To which he said, I know.
It is one thing to know in your heart that you are messed up but it is another thing when your best friend knows it, too. We both knew that we had to do something, and the VA was the only game in town. He knew if he went for help, he would be drugged again. The VA figured that if you were sending fingers home in the mail, you were dangerous. So I was elected to be the one to check things out. The vote was 1 to 0. I abstained, but lost anyway and, like I said, this guy was my only friend in the world; and looking at the bright side of it, maybe they had better drugs now.
Seriously, I had this guy’s blood oath that if I didn’t come back after a few weeks, he would do a special-operations mission and break me out. I had every confidence that he would do whatever it took to get me out of there if I needed the help.
Entering the VA Hospital
There was no Internet back then, so there was no way to Google up the question about what they were doing to Nam vets at the VA. I was going in cold, and I was scared.
As with everything else in the government, you start off with lots of paperwork and tests. They had one multiple-choice test that lasted hours where they asked many inane questions, such as how I felt after I heard a sad song.
I must have passed the test because they kept having me come back and I started having interviews with doctors. Now that I look back at it, I have to laugh because those guys had no idea what they were doing. I could tell they were thinking that at any minute I was going to freak out and go nuts. Because they were on edge, I was on edge.
I must have passed with those guys too because I was then sent to the PTSD Unit down the road at Fort Snelling. Fort Snelling was an army fort about 100 years ago. Since then, it was made a historical site, but they did have one building off by itself that housed the VA’s PTSD clinic. Fort Snelling sits on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, and if you walked to the edge of the bluff, there was a retaining wall you could look over. It looked to be about 200 feet straight down to the river. I wondered how many guys thought of taking a dive off there.
Just as an aside, all through my active time getting help at the VA, there were guys doing themselves in. One day a Marine did a header off a footbridge onto the concrete below while a bunch of us were having a smoke across the parking lot. Here is how it went back then. They called in counselors for all of the VA employees, and they sent us home after canceling all of the day’s appointments. The people working at the VA didn’t see this guy take his dive, but we all did. He was dead when he hit, and he left a real mess behind to clean up. Today they have a wire screen on that bridge so you can’t dive off.
I always thought they should have had a plaque there saying, Corporal John Smith took a header off this bridge, October 23, 1987, or something to that effect. Who knows, he might have saved some other guy who was thinking of doing the same thing, but couldn’t now because they put up that wire barrier.
That first day at the Minneapolis VA PTSD clinic, I met the two guys waiting for their electric-shock treatment. The sad thing about that was that one of those two guys had his 70-some-year-old mother drive the two of them out for their appointment. These guys were way past having the ability to drive a car. That guy’s mother looked so frail and sad. Over the next couple of years, I kept seeing these guys around the VA, but after a few years they couldn’t carry on a conversation anymore.
I was a bit early for my appointment, and I was talking to the guys who were waiting for their appointments too. They explained to me that one doctor was into using psychotropic drugs. Not that he used them himself but that he had the vets he was working with use them. The other doctor, they explained, was Harry Russell, who didn’t like the idea of using drugs. As worried as I was, I figured that I needed a clear head in case I wanted to skip out of there quick. It was a good choice.
A few years later the doctor who believed in prescribing drugs was forced to retire by the VA. He was a World War II vet and was past the age the government lets you work. I saw a lot of guys break right down and cry when they learned that he was not going to be there to help them, and he had helped a lot of veterans. In truth I didn’t know the guy. The only time I talked to him was when I had a bad headache, and he gave me some aspirin.
Dr. Russell started out slowly with me. I saw him about twice a month for a year. That was about 1,200 miles a month driving back and forth to the VA. There is no magic cure for PTSD, and right from the start Harry was up front with me, saying I would get worse before I got better. Sure enough, the longer he and I talked, the sicker I got. PTSD is a horrible ordeal.
One really great thing Harry Russell did was to have a program for the vets’ families, where he would tell them about what was going on with their loved ones. My oldest daughter went to his talk, and I think she learned a lot.
After a year of talking to Dr. Russell, he told me that it would be best for me if I went to an in house trauma-treatment program at Tomah, Wisconsin. He said it would last eight weeks. He could recommend that I go down there but I would have to have an interview first, and the people in Tomah would decide whether they thought I was sick enough to enter their PTSD Program.
The Tomah VA Medical Center sits on 173 acres in west central Wisconsin. The PTSD unit there was about 300 miles from my home, and it was a long trip driving down there thinking hard all the way about whether this was the right thing for me. After having spent a year talking to Dr. Russell at the Minneapolis PTSD Clinic, I was ready to get whatever help the VA had to offer. But I kept remembering that everyone was talking about how hard these VA programs were and that getting everything I had hidden from myself out in the open would make things worse for a while.
They were right, because throughout the visits with Dr. Russell things did grow progressively worse for me. At the start of all of this, I would schedule my appointment for early afternoon at the Minneapolis VA clinic. It was a five-hour drive down, and I could leave at first light and be back that same night. After a while, I noticed that I would get more tense the closer I got to the VA. Another thing: when driving down Highway 46 toward Minneapolis, the sun would be coming up on my left and the flashes of sunlight through the trees would put me right back in Nam. I could not figure out why those flashes of morning sunlight did that to me, but it would freak me out so badly that I had to change my appointment time to early morning. That way I could leave for the VA at midnight and avoid the flashing sunlight.
I now know that things do get worse when you start dealing with your PTSD, because for so long I tried to stuff everything about the war into the back of my mind. What I didn’t realize is that the things that were coming out and bothering me were just the tip of the iceberg. I might have a couple things that were always setting me off, such as, the sound of a helicopter; for some guys, it was the smell of diesel fuel. Those triggers would start me thinking of my wartime experiences. For a while we learned how to stop those thoughts. Like I said, some guys used alcohol or drugs; others dove into their work. Whatever it took to take our mind off the things we didn’t want to think about is what we would do.
For some, that diversion technique works for decades and for others it works for a few years. Either way, the time comes when nothing works anymore, and a guy either gets some help or he does himself in. When a guy starts dealing with these thoughts of his war, then everything starts coming back to him.
Many veterans find that their time in the war was just a time in their life, like high school or college. After it was over, it just became a memory. For others, their time in the war zone becomes the most vivid thought in their life. I don’t know why one guy can walk away and the other can’t. I have met veterans who have become executives of successful corporations, and one day their war experience jumps out of the back of their mind and takes over their life.
Some guys have scars on their bodies from battle wounds that remind them of combat every day. I met a Korean War vet there who had been shot in the face, and let me tell you he looked just awful. I asked him if he had ever tried living out in the community, and he said that he had but the looks of little children bummed him out too much.
They can do a lot with plastic surgery but after years of multiple surgeries, some guys don’t want the pain for the little gain they get. Like this guy said, to reconstruct a face you first have to have a face to work with. So he lived at the VA hospital, and I guess he will die at the VA hospital.
Others have no apparent visual reminder, but they are affected by their time in combat too. I met a guy at Tomah who was wounded at Iwo Jima in World War II. He was still in that VA hospital 50 years later. He told me he was better, but he explained that all the time we were talking he could hear his fellow wounded Marines screaming as they waited in horrible pain to be taken off the island. The sounds of those wounded Marines stayed with that guy 24/7. To him these were not just voices in his head — the sounds were so real that he actually could hear those screaming, dying Marines.
The decision to seek help
You read about Iraq and Afghanistan vets needing psychological help after their return home, but they never explain what that help entails. Young men or women needing help with their war experiences, and the stress those experiences can cause, will spend years, decades, maybe the rest of their lives trying to get back to normal.
I know I was going to write about the PTSD program at Tomah, but I got off on this tangent. I could try to blame that on having PTSD, but I know too many people who have never been to war and who have trouble with their mind’s wandering as well.
Maybe I just don’t want to think about my program there at the VA. It wasn’t fun; it was hard work. Something most people don’t know is that the program is free, provided by the government to help veterans who have served in a war, and because of that service they are having problems. The program is free, but that is it. You don’t get any money to live on, you don’t get any money to travel on, and your family has to get by while you are away.
To say the least, you have to really need the help in order for you and your family to put your and their lives on hold while you try to get yourself back together. A lot of guys start, and a lot of guys quit. Some find it easier to go back to the bottle or return to being a workaholic. Others decide it is easier to take their own life and end the torment the war zone has placed on them.
As I stated earlier, Dr. Russell from the Minneapolis VA PTSD clinic wanted me to go to the Tomah VA Medical Center in Wisconsin for an in-house, long-term PTSD program. He could tell Tomah that he thought that its program would do me a lot of good, but Tomah had to decide whether it wanted to take me on, because it had many more referrals than it could ever handle.
I remember driving down there from the north of Minnesota. I went through Duluth and down Highway 53 to Interstate 94. It was the start of Wisconsin’s deer-hunting season and their northland was filled with guys outfitted in red or blaze orange, carrying rifles. I had to stay alert all the way because all those hunters in the woods got the deer moving, and there could be a deer on the road around every curve.
Entering the VA hospital
When I finally got to the VA hospital, I was amazed at how big the place was. There were huge brick buildings that looked as though they had been built before World War II for some Ivy League college. The sprawling acres of lawn gave the place a parklike setting, and there were many little ponds with tall wire fences surrounding each. I later learned that the fences were put up to keep vets from drowning themselves in the ponds. Tomah VA Medical Center had been a veterans’ psychiatric hospital for years.
After checking in and filling out a lot of paperwork, I was given a map of the place and sent over to the PTSD unit. As soon as I got close, I knew which building it was because of all the vets my age standing around outside smoking.
I still remember the guy who interviewed me. His name was Jim Oliver, and he was born and raised in Tomah. He told me that as a kid after World War II, he would have to walk by this VA hospital on the way to school every morning. He described how he could hear the screams of the veterans inside. Then one day the screams stopped. He later learned that the hospital had started using psychotropic drugs that quieted down the veterans. That got him interested in the field that would later prove to be his career. Interestingly, there are still wards at Tomah that are filled with padded cells. Maybe I should say padded rooms.
To tell you the truth, I don’t know what I said that made Jim Oliver decide that I should start in the next program but he offered to give me a room until then. We had talked about what my life was like at home and how I got along with my family, the community, and a bit about my service in Vietnam. I declined his offer of the room, as I had to get home to get everything ready back there for my absence. It was late fall, and I would need to get several cords of firewood up near the house, and I had to figure out what I was going to do about my house payment and utilities. Now that I think back on it, the only thing that stands out in the interview was that I made eye contact with Oliver. Dr. Russell had told me that was important. I know a lot of vets who have a problem doing that, but I don’t think I ever have.
I have to admit that everyone back home was very helpful. The bank told me not to worry — that we would work things out when I got home. The woman who owned the bank was a World War II veteran herself. I had enough savings to handle the rest of the expenses, but there was one group that stiffed me, and that was the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I was in the VA hospital when it was time to pay my yearly dues, so the VFW post dropped me from their membership rolls. So much for the VFW’s helping the vet.
I packed all the clothes I thought I would need, did a tune-up on the truck, and headed back down to Tomah. The first place I stopped at on the way was Les Beach’s house outside Grand Rapids. Les was in Nam when I was, only he was in the Army. If I thought I had PTSD, I knew Les had it much worse. He was a total workaholic and would always tell me, Hey, I work, I pay my bills, and I own a house, so I am like totally together. What Les wasn’t saying is that he lived alone and couldn’t leave the Grand Rapids area without having to hurry back, because he would start having panic attacks so badly he would stop at the first hospital emergency ward he could find, thinking he was having a heart attack. But Les was a great guy and a very good friend. He worked for the electric co-op and fell out of a tree during an ice storm as he was trying to clear some wires. He died on the spot. Les wasn’t a lineman; he was a staking technician. He put stakes in the ground to tell the crew where the power wires should go when somebody was building a new house. He was in that tree, clearing wires of ice only because he loved to work every hour they would let him.
Les told me every bad thing he had ever heard about the VA while we played a few games of cribbage, and then he took me out to what he called my final dinner on the outside. He really figured the VA would never let me go. He said that too many World War II nut cases were dying, and they needed Nam vets to fill the beds so they could keep their budget. Like I said, many Vietnam vets do not trust the VA.
So after Les’s vote of confidence in my going down to Tomah, I headed off with my head full of all sorts of thoughts.
When I got down there and checked in, they had me put my truck in the impound lot. They said there would be no weekend passes and not to worry — if the battery in my car ran down, they would get me started when it was time for me to go home. That was comforting.
When I started this series I gave the following definition for what Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is, but there are hundreds if not thousands of definitions to choose from if you search them out. I learned from other veterans that each person with PTSD has symptoms that appear to be the same, but when you get to know vets well, you find that their symptoms and their methods of coping with them vary just as much as the traumatic events that caused their stress in the first place.
The definition of PTSD is: A debilitating condition that often follows a terrifying physical or emotional event causing the person who survived the event to have persistent, frightening thoughts and memories, or flashbacks, of the ordeal. Persons with PTSD often feel chronically, emotionally numb. Once referred to as shell shock’ or battle fatigue’.
I have met vets who have lost limbs, are scarred up, limp, or walk with the white cane of the blind, and you don’t have to even wonder what caused their troubles. Others have physical wounds and scars you don’t readily see, but they are affected the same way. As an example, I met a vet who had to jump into a small pool of water during a firefight. A couple of hours later, when the battle was over, he found that his body was covered with leaches, which left permanent scars all over him from his chest down. While swimming in our lake in Minnesota, I found how hard it was to notice a leach on my foot and what a nasty looking creature it was. A little salt made it let go, but even having it on there for just a little while left a small scar on the top of my foot. Having hundreds of them on his body for a few hours would not only freak a man out when he saw them, it would leave his skin looking very bad.
I saw one vet with his shirt off when we were playing basketball, and he had a huge chunk out of his back with a series of scars across his chest that looked as though someone had taken an ice cream scoop and made holes all over him. I know every time this guy looked at his body, the memories of his being wounded would flood back.
Veterans have every kind of wound imaginable, and many that no one could imagine. It seems understandable that veterans with these wounds could suffer from combat stress for years, maybe for a lifetime.
There is another group that suffers the same combat stress as those I just described, but this group has no physical scars to remind them of their time in combat. I think a good example is the corpsman who had to deal with the Marine who had all the leaches on his body. Remember, corpsmen in the Marines and medics in the Army are not doctors; they are just soldiers and Marines who have been sent to a course in advanced first aid. In wartime, that course can be as short as six weeks, and they are expected to deal with sucking chest wounds, blown-off limbs, intestines coming out of the stomach, and, who would guess, a body covered with leaches.
Then there are young men and now women in combat who have to deal with wounded in their unit. The best corpsman or medic can deal with only one person at a time, and so there are many times when a soldier or Marine who is not trained as a medic is put into a position in which he has to administer first aid to keep his comrade alive.
American troops are constantly dealing with wounded civilians. Helping the severely wounded child is hard. In a tour of duty in a combat zone, there could be many times that any one soldier will have to deal with dead bodies or parts of them. That would be our dead and the enemy’s dead.
Somebody has to put our dead into body bags to get them to the rear, and then Graves Registration personnel have to take those bodies back out of that body bag, clean them up, identify them, and get them ready for the trip home in the flag-draped coffin.
So knowing all of this, because of the year I had already spent working with Dr. Russell at the Minneapolis VA PTSD unit and talking to fellow vets in the clinic’s waiting room, I was wondering what the vets would be like at Tomah.
Like most vets, I thought I was in pretty good shape, but all these other guys were really sick. I just needed a tune-up; these other guys needed a complete overhaul. Of course, all of them were thinking the same about me.
Arrival at Tomah
I am not going to give you a day-to-day report on the Tomah PTSD program, but I will let you see a bit of what they did for me. There were eight guys in my group, and we stayed together almost to the end. One guy dropped out.
Starting out, they gave us a complete physical and a few of the guys were in rough shape after living on the streets for years, but most were healthy and looked to be fit. None of us knew the other, and so we were assigned rooms (two to a room) by luck of the draw. We had one floor on one wing of the hospital along with a group of vets who had started the program four weeks before we came.
The guys who had been there before us seemed to me to be in terrible shape, but I would find that we would deteriorate pretty rapidly in the weeks to come. Bringing out everything about our combat experience — everything we had fought so hard to keep hidden for years — would do that.
So that first week was used to start our group getting to know each other and to get us started on a journal. We could start writing about any time of our life: when we were six years old, or when we joined the service, or when we went to Vietnam, but every day we were supposed to spend time writing in it. Every week the doctors would spend some time reading the journals, and if one of us didn’t work on his, he was told to do so. For some guys this was hard because they never wrote anything, and for others it was a way of getting things out that they couldn’t talk about in the open. I found a little room that doctors used to write things on medical charts, and they let me use it to write each night after most of the staff had left.
We had one floor on one wing in one of the many huge hospital buildings at Tomah. At one end of the floor we had a smoking/reading room where we could all get together and talk. The coffee pot was always on in there. At the other end of the floor, there was a recreation room that had a bar-size pool table and an exercise bike. I can’t remember there being a television.
There were veterans from all over the country, and I remember there being one from Delaware and another from Wyoming in our group, with the rest from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Each of us had been an enlisted man — two of us had been Marines, one had been in the Navy, and the other five all had been in the Army. We had a couple of guys who had been living on the streets, two guys who were corporation presidents, a county veterans’ service officer, a carpenter, an accountant, and one guy who would never tell us how he made a living.
After a few hours in the smoking room I noticed that we had all fallen back into talking as though we had left Nam a week ago. Lots and lots of swearing and lots of slang were used. We were kind of feeling each other out, finding out when and where a guy served — I guess trying to figure out if my war was anything like their war and vice versa.
We had to walk what seemed like a mile through connected buildings to get to the cafeteria for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There was no leaving the grounds, and even if we wanted to go for a walk we had to check in with the floor nurse to go out and come back in. There were two floor nurses on duty 24/7, and if things got hard for us, we could always have a talk with one of them.
That first week was orientation, and after that the fun began. As I look back on it now, the whole program was very interesting. I found some parts to be very helpful and others to be a waste of my time, but I am sure some of the things I thought were a waste, were beneficial to others.
Next month I’ll tell you about the structured program we started after that first week of settling in.
So far I have gone from thinking about needing help with post-traumatic stress, to going to the Minneapolis VA and getting a year of one-on-one sessions with a shrink, and on to an intensive eight-week in-hospital PTSD program at the Tomah, Wisconsin, VA Medical Center.
Now I’ll take you further into the program, starting with my second week at Tomah. You know, I wish this was exciting, but it isn’t. I have been thinking about this for a while now, and I can remember most of the program. But I might have things out of order. Some of the classes or therapy sessions we had were assertiveness training, dreams, relaxation, trauma, journaling, and relationships.
Assertiveness training was good for me because, to begin with, I realized that I had two ways of dealing with things. No matter what the situation was, either I got really angry and said whatever came to mind, or I would mentally say, To hell with it, and walk away not saying anything.
Let’s say that I went into the rural electric office to dispute a bill or the courthouse to talk about my real-estate taxes. Usually I could get my question out in a coherent manner, but if the answer I got was not what I wanted to hear or wasn’t in a form I could understand, I would start to get worked up. I could get terribly angry in 10 seconds and because I was so angry and didn’t really want to be that way, that would frustrate me. My best bet was just to walk away, which I learned to do.
A lot of Vietnam vets took the other path. When they got frustrated they would get angry, and then many of them went from angry to violent. Lots of Nam vets spent time in jail or even prison because what started out as a simple problem escalated into something totally different.
I don’t know if I am right here or not, but the way I figure it, many veterans who have problems with post-traumatic stress are stuck in the way they thought while in the combat zone. Too many times if a person didn’t answer a soldier’s question or didn’t do what the soldier wanted him to do, the soldier got violent. Usually, going nuts verbally with an automatic rifle in his hands got the results the soldier wanted. If things went from bad to worse, the soldier could always shoot or even kill the person who was wasn’t doing what he wanted.
Giving 18-year-old kids that kind of power of life or death over a population is not a good thing, and when he comes home he tends to forget that that power has been taken away. Power does corrupt, and the Marines and Army will give a recruit absolute power. Remember too, that a Marine or soldier is given that power when he is scared out of his mind. He is that scared, and he is watching friends and comrades-in-arms being killed or wounded on a regular basis. That is a bad position to be in, especially for a teenager.
That is probably why, when I got home, I would walk away when I felt things start to escalate. Many times I would walk away and throw up because a huge dose of adrenalin would be dumped into my body so that I could be ready for whatever was going to happen. I think this is called the fight or flight response.
The assertiveness training classes at Tomah could have been called being in control class or being prepared class. What they taught me was to have a balance in my response to whatever situation I was in. I learned that nothing is black or white. A person’s being on the other side of the counter did not mean that he even had an answer to my question; and if I couldn’t understand what he was saying or I didn’t agree with his answer, I could always ask to see his supervisor. Another good pointer for me was to do my homework and try to be as knowledgeable as, or even more knowledgeable than, the person to whom I was talking.
Now when I have a problem with a bill, or with the county, the state, or the federal government, I take it as a challenge. It becomes a game for me, and if I do the research before I start asking questions, many times I don’t even have to take it to the next step. Before Tomah, I thought I was always right because I didn’t take the time to study my problem. I could look at a bill and think, This isn’t right. Now I take a second, third, and maybe fourth reading of that bill, before I take it to the next step.
That assertive class was one of the first classes we had at Tomah, and it got me off to a good start because it was something practical that I knew that I could use. In the big picture it wasn’t that big of thing, but it got me to change the way I thought about things.
I’ll tell you one thing that saved me a lot of trouble, and that was that I lived in the woods of northern Minnesota, and that was by choice. Living in the woods when I was upset with something meant I was usually too far away to do anything about it. There are lots of vets living out in the woods because it gives them a cushion of time and distance to things that could get them in trouble.
Nobody likes to think this but dealing with PTSD has something to do with maturity. A GI leaves that combat zone as a young man who knows how life works in that zone but the military never gets him ready for the new zone he is going to after his war is over. That new zone is life in the real day-to-day world of America.
Maybe getting out of the combat zone is akin to getting out of prison. We’ve all heard stories of the prisoner who has done his time and gets out of prison. He doesn’t know how to relate to the real world and gets himself in trouble and lands back in prison. It’s the same way in the military — we knew how things worked in that setting, and that is all we knew. We tried things that worked there just fine, and they don’t work in this new world at all.
We knew how to act and we knew how to think, but those actions and those thoughts didn’t work anymore. In fact, they got us into trouble. The hard thing is, those thoughts and actions kept us alive. It is a hard transition to make.
Last month I wrote about the assertiveness training in the Tomah Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) program and how I thought it helped me. This month, it’s dreams and relaxation therapy. I am purposely saving the trauma group for last, both because it was the most important part of the program and because I don’t really want to talk about it, and putting it off seems like a good idea.
Honestly, the dream class seemed kind of bogus to me. Guys would talk about their dreams. The facilitator would then try to interpret what the dreams meant. Some of the guys had dreams that were completely far out in left field, and they had every detail of the dream. On top of that, they would take the whole class period to describe one dream. I don’t know about other people, but I don’t dream in minute detail like that.
It is true though that veterans with PTSD do not sleep very well at all, and while at Tomah I never got up in the middle of the night without finding two or three other guys up already. I still do that to this day. I get up and walk around just to make sure the perimeter is secure. I have bad dreams a lot, but I don’t usually remember what they were about, and my wife used to tell me that I would call out numbers. Later on I figured out that they were grid coordinates.
With the dream class we learned tips on how to get a good night’s sleep. Exercise during the day, don’t use caffeine after 4 p.m., and don’t drink a lot of liquids or alcohol before bed. Most of the tips were just common-sense things that we should have known by then. I guess if the dream class helped some guys, it was worthwhile.
For me, the relaxation class was very helpful, and I still use what they taught me every day. A lot of vets are what they call hyper-vigilant, and many have a strong startle response. For some guys, if a truck backfires, they hit the ground and cover their heads. It is an automatic response, and it can be very embarrassing. Many are constantly looking around to see where they are in relation to other people. Those vets will always sit with their back to the wall and try to never be out in the open and vulnerable.
It can be exhausting if you are staying alert all the time, and learning how to relax did a lot for me. I don’t know how the class started out, but the guy giving it had a voice that could put anyone at ease. He had us try all sorts of techniques, and I remember the first one that worked for me was to take one muscle group and flex that for about 10 seconds and then let it go limp and then move on to another group. That worked for me, and all the time we were trying it, the instructor was quietly talking us through it.
Later on he taught us another method that I still use today. In this one I start out thinking of my toes and do deep breathing at the same time. In my mind I envision my toes getting bigger as I inhale and smaller as I exhale. I start with my toes and go to the ball of my foot and on to the rest of my body until I have relaxed my whole body. Today I can start with my whole foot, move on to my legs, and get totally relaxed in about one minute. It feels so good when a tense muscle lets go.
I don’t fall asleep doing this, and I do it for only about 15 to 20 minutes in the afternoon. When I am done, I am refreshed. A couple of years ago a drunk driver went through a stop sign and plowed into my truck. I was lying on the side of the road with a dislocated hip, a broken hand, a lot of cuts, cracked ribs, and pain like I couldn’t imagine. So I prayed and then started doing my relaxation-therapy routine while waiting for the ambulance. It worked wonders for me.
Now if I hurt my back or am having a bad day, I take the time to run through that routine, and I sure feel good. I do the same thing if thoughts about Vietnam start springing into my head. I can get so relaxed that I can no longer feel any part of my body. I use music now to help me get relaxed and have found that American Indian flute music works best for me.
Having post-traumatic stress is hard on the body and the mind. The PTSD program had us work on both. Learning how to live a healthy life was just one part of the program, but I came to believe that the program was a package, and I needed to work on everything they gave me if I wanted to get something out of it.
Now we come to the very reason that veterans get PTSD. More than likely, there was a traumatic experience or experiences that, you might say, overwhelmed them.
Now that I have been through it, I believe that the whole Post Traumatic Stress Program at the Tomah VA Medical Center was designed around the trauma group. Everything we did there — the relaxation class, the dream workshops, assertiveness training, the journal, even the set-up with a small intimate group of fellow Vietnam vets — was designed to get us focused on that trauma or those traumas that had taken over our lives since we left the war. Getting the things we had kept secret in our minds out in the open where we could look at them and getting feedback from a group of our peers was supposed to help us.
It is hard for me now to remember the first trauma group meetings, but I do remember that we had that group more often than any other class. I think we started by reading something out of our journals about Vietnam. And it wasn’t long before we all knew what kind of unit each guy had been in, where in Vietnam he had been stationed, and what years he had been there. We learned about each others’ jobs, and we talked about the good times and the bad.
As the weeks went by, we explored more and more of what was really the problem with each man. It didn’t take me long to figure out that, like me, each of those guys had something that sounded pretty bad, but they could talk about it. For me, it was like a cover story. I could talk to the doctor about it; heck, I could use it myself to keep what was really bothering me hidden in the back of my mind. So everybody would tell his cover story, thinking that it would be good enough, so that he didn’t have to tell everyone that secret thing in the back of his mind, that thing that was so horrible that he didn’t even want to let it out for him to look at.
Some guys’ cover stories were pretty horrible, and if it wasn’t for having something that hurt them more, that cover story could have been the thing that they were keeping hidden. When we went to group, we agreed that what was said in that room stayed in that room, so I won’t be repeating what the guys I was with were saying; but here is what I talked about when I had to come out with something that was on my mind all the time.
The woman in the cage
I was taking some radios from Signal Hill, above LZ Stud which was down Highway Nine past the Rock Pile. I hitchhiked a ride on an H-37 helicopter to Dong Ha, took an H-46 to Phu Bi, and from there I got a ride on a Huey helicopter to Da Nang, where our repair facility was. It was hard getting from the airfield to where I needed to go, with the radios weighing more than 50 lbs. each; and I had all my other gear, flak jacket, rifle, helmet, pack, ammo, and probably some C-rations. I finally found the place and turned in the radios and they gave me two new ones to take back.
It was late, and I made my way back to the field, knowing that I wouldn’t get out until morning, so I walked around looking for a place to sleep. I was walking around an area that was a staging area for supplies, and I found a place between two conex boxes that wasn’t all that far from a head, and there was a bunker nearby that I could go to if there were incoming rounds. I should explain. Conex boxes are big green metal boxes that supplies are shipped in. They are about 8 feet by 8 feet by 8 feet and have skids under them so that a fork lift can move them.
After I got situated, I walked around having a smoke, and as I came around one conex box, I saw that there was a wire mesh screen attached to it that formed a cage. There was a Vietnamese woman in that cage with her young child. I guess the child was about three or four. The woman was tall and at one time she had been pretty, but right then she was exhausted and she was begging me for water. The child was lying at her feet, alive, but not moving. I got out my canteen and was about to give her some water, when an American army major came running up and yelled at me, What the hell do you think you are doing? I said I was giving the woman something to drink, and he put his hand on his .45 and told me to walk away, which I did.
The next morning I had to take a look and see what was up with this woman. She and her child were both lying in that cage dead. I believe that they died of thirst. A metal conex box sitting in the sun would bake anyone and the inside of that box was the only shade they would have had.
I don’t know what that woman had done. I don’t know what information she might have had that that major wanted, but I do know that we, the United States of America, murdered her and her child, and it bothers me today just as it bothered me back then. It is one of those things I could’ve, should’ve done something about; but I was a Marine sergeant who had been through the brainwashing boot camp all enlisted Marines go through, and when a major tells a Marine to walk away, he walks away. I pay for that almost every day.
That is the thing that I would use to hide what was really sticking in my craw, and it worked for a lot of years, until I got to Tomah. Here is the goal that they told me I was working for: Things about my time in Vietnam were constantly on my mind, and they were really affecting my life. The doctors at Tomah said that they couldn’t make those things go away, but they might be able to get me to the point that I could have those thoughts and memories in a special place from which I could retrieve them whenever I wanted; but I could also put them away, so they were not right out in front always trying to jump out at me.
Did it work? Kind of, sort of. Like I said, the story about the woman in the cage was horrible, but I had already dealt with it and its guilt. Now I used the thought of that woman and her child to hide some things much worse than that. I was hiding those things from myself. I knew about them, but I didn’t want to ever think about them again. So when Vietnam would overwhelm me, I would go through the story of that woman again and that kept everything else at bay, but the other things were always trying to come out.
That is why they have the trauma group at Tomah. They told me that I had to get those things out in the open before I could get better. Here is something strange. A lot of the guys’ horrible, terrible experiences, the ones that were driving them nuts, didn’t seem to me and many in the group as traumatic as other things that happened to them. It was the time, the place, and the way our minds saw things. What was horrible, terrible for one, might not really be that bad for another.
Some of the things the corpsmen and medics went through, I think would give me a lifetime of bad dreams; but out of all of the wounded and dying men they had to deal with, somehow, one of those was the memory that they couldn’t shake. I don’t know why it is that way, but it is.
By the time I left Tomah there were many memories of my time in Vietnam that had surfaced there that I hadn’t dealt with before. I don’t know whether I was better or not, but the program gave me some tools to work with, and I got a lot of things out in the open so I could look at them. They were and are sometimes overwhelming, but at least now I know what I am dealing with, and sometimes I can put them away and live my life; but then again there are things that will pop them out, like the sound of a helicopter going over, or a little kid screaming at play, or the flashes of sunlight through the trees.
The pain of PTSD
Yes, post-traumatic stress is scary stuff. It is scary for the veteran who has it, and it is scary for the veteran’s loved ones. On top of that, it is also embarrassing.
The reason I say that post-traumatic stress is embarrassing is that it is. A man gets home from the war, and he wants to forget about what he saw and what he did, but he can’t. Many veterans want to avoid being around those close to them because they don’t want their loved ones to know that they are having problems.
The whole reason that I wrote this series is that there are tens of thousands of veterans returning from George Bush’s wars, who are now having psychological problems, and there will be many thousands more who will develop traumatic stress later on. Dr. Michael G. Rayel, writing for AboutMental Health.com says,
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder characterized by avoidance, hypervigilance, emotional difficulties, and recall behavior such as flashbacks and nightmares after a traumatic event such as rape, war, vehicular accident, or natural disasters. Recent researches have shown that after a trauma, biochemical changes develop in the brain that can result in psychological signs as shown above.
If untreated, some people develop emotional difficulties such as depression associated with inability to concentrate, sleep, or eat. Occasionally, they also become hopeless to the point that they want to die.
There have already been reports of returning veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have committed suicide, and I expect that will continue because it can now take many months to start getting help through an already-overwhelmed VA system.
I can still remember thinking that I had better suck it up and blow off the thoughts I was having. I was thinking, Marines don’t do things like I was doing. I kept telling myself that I was one of the few, one of the proud. As we said in Nam, Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I am the baddest #%@*$% in the valley. When I finally did go for help, it was an incredible relief to find many other Marines going through the same things I was.
I have to tell you that even though I went through the VA’s program at Tomah, the stress didn’t magically go away; neither did the intrusive thoughts of Vietnam. They don’t have a special stress pill to give us. I did get some tools to use to make the whole thing a bit more bearable. I know some of the guys in my group have done well, but others, from my point of view, are in worse shape after going through the program.
The program opens up a whole new can of worms by getting vets to confront everything that happened to them in a combat zone. For some guys that was a relief, but for others it was too much for them to handle.
Now with these new veterans coming into the system, everything at the VA will be a little bit slower for those veterans already in the system. There are still World War II vets, Korean War vets, Vietnam vets, and Desert Storm vets making their initial visits to the VA asking for help with the problems they are still having from their time in combat.
I have met veterans who have thought that post-traumatic stress was just a bunch of hooey. That is, they thought that until one day everything about their war experience came crashing down on them, and they didn’t know what to do.
I was always told, if you are at a VFW or American Legion bar and there is some guy bragging to everyone how he won the war at one end, and there is another guy sitting at the other end not talking to anyone, put your money on the quiet guy as really having been in the thick of things.
I believe that to be true, and we are going to have a lot of soldiers and Marines coming home now, who are not going to talk about their time in combat, and they are going to try to work things out on their own as long as they can.