The Reality of PTSD

November 23, 2009

Many years ago when I served in the infantry, my closest friend was a young West Pointer named Burt. He was a first rate soldier. When we rotated out, I came home and Burt went on to Vietnam. He led troops in combat and won a Silver Star for heroism. 

A little while later, still in combat and still in the jungles, Burt won a second Silver Star. Almost no one ever wins two Silver Stars. I was not there and Burt, afterward, would never talk about it, but I heard that he had a lot of trees shot out from under him and he saved some people. 

Then Burt won a third Silver Star. Maybe in the annals of American war there are less than a handful of men who have won three Silver Stars. But after that third star, Burt disintegrated.  He came home on leave and told his wife he would never carry a rifle again. The Army sent him back but he refused to carry a weapon. Then the Army sent him home.  

Over the years thereafter, I would call and ask Burt: “What are you up to?”  

“I’m taking care of the roses,” he would say.  

As best as I could tell, that is all Burt did for many years. War and destruction, killing and terror had taken the innards out of the man and he had memories that no person could erase. All this was before PTSD was understood but it doesn’t take much imagination to see that a soldier does not get rid of the pictures of slaughter lodged in his brain by just coming home.

Now comes Rich Lowry, nationally prominent editor of the National Review, who mocks the soldier who plays the victim and indulges in “childish evasions.”  PTSD, proclaims Lowry, is a liberal media obsession. 

In the same week the Pentagon’s new director of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness gave an interview in which she said that the Army is spending too much time treating PTSD.  Talking with the author Gail Sheehy, Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum said we should concentrate on the healthy soldiers and train the fittest to be able to absorb a “kick in the gut” and get back to combat.  

American kids are pampered, Cornum told Sheehy. Their parents “bubble wrap” them.  “Sometimes,” she said, “you gotta package up your feelings and get on with the mission.”  Like Rich Lowry, the general seemed to think that kids whose brains fill up with images of horror are like computers. They should just push reset and erase the memory.

When I was a kid I witnessed a suicide. I stood there for a few minutes to make sure the man was dead and the image burned onto my brain like a photo negative. That night, and for months thereafter, I could not close my eyes without seeing the dead man’s face.  Parents and teachers in those days followed the Cornum approach: Young man, you got to absorb a kick in the gut and move on.  But how can a person move on when he can’t close his eyes?

Today, the papers are full of stories of soldiers who saw children killed or body parts flying past, or who did things that they wish they had not done, killed when they wished that they had not.  They come home and they can’t close their eyes. A sharp sound will cause them to leap from bed or break out in hot sweats. They lose their tempers uncontrollably and sometimes beat their wives, not knowing what has possessed them.  

General Cornum wants them to toughen up and come out of the bubble wrap of American childhood. Rich Lowry wants the liberal media to stop promoting these “childish evasions.” But when I hear them I think back on my friend Burt.  Does Lowry accuse a man whose heroism was almost unparalleled in American history, a man who had won three silver stars in combat, of childish evasions? 

Every glorious story of Hercules or Achilles, of Charlemagne or George Washington, is told in an attempt to overcome the horror of these realities of war.  But don’t ever ask those who have really been there, like my friend Burt, to make his silver stars glorious. Lowry and Cornum to the contrary, those who can never again safely close their eyes do not deserve ridicule. We owe them unbounded affection and every bit of help that we can give.