I have spent some time the past year reading about how ancient cultures treated their warriors when they returned from war. One thing that was pretty common was the warriors would come back to their villages and tell their stories of battle. They would talk about everything not just the stories of heroism but their fears, regrets, everything – the good, bad, and ugly truth of war.
Then the people of their communities would share the burdens of the warriors’ experiences so they would not be forced to carry them alone. The communities would also tell the warriors that they forgive them for the things they had to do and welcome them back into the community. They did this because the villagers know the warriors had to experience these things as a part of keeping them safe and protecting them.
I really think the reason PTSD is so wide spread is because this doesn’t happen anymore. This generation of warriors has not been treated as bad as the Vietnam veterans were, but in a way our communities still turn their backs on the returning warriors. Sure they have parades now instead of being spit on, but as soon as the parade is done they expect the warrior to step right back into life here. It’s not that easy.
Most people know about the wide-spread effects of PTSD among Vietnam veterans. It can be seen in the homelessness, the alcohol and drug abuse, and many other things. One thing I’ve learned from researching this is that the Vietnamese veterans from the same war have almost no cases of PTSD. There are other factors that play a role in this, but the biggest reason is because the people of Vietnam as a whole treated their returning warriors in the same way ancient cultures did. They listened to their stories. They forgave their warriors, and the whole country shared the burden of their warriors.
Some of you are probably thinking right now that the veteran you know won’t talk about war. I don’t think that is true. At some point they have talked about it. It might have been as simple as them saying someone they saw in a store reminded them of someone they served with and played poker with. That was an opening for you to ask questions. Maybe it’s a simple question like, was he any good at poker? If you show any interest at all, you might not get them to talk much at that moment but you are opening the door, and maybe each time they will talk more.
The most common question veterans from the Middle East get asked is, was it hot. Only three people have really asked me what war is like. I never got more than two or three sentences into answering them before they shut me down by interrupting me and saying something like, “I’m sure it was probably bad,” then all three of them quickly changed the subject.
People wonder why veterans won’t talk. It’s because no one seems to want to know the truth. One of those three people interrupted me and said, “Never mind. I’m afraid it will give me nightmares.” They are afraid they might have nightmares one night from hearing about war. What do you think it is like for those who actually experienced it?
Modern day warriors experience the horrors of war, the loss of their friends, the shame, the guilt and remorse – all in defense of their country. Then when they come home, they are forced to carry those burdens alone. The people in our country don’t seem to care and don’t seem to want to even try to understand. Carrying these burdens alone can be overwhelming. It leads to depression, anger, hopelessness. The moral injuries and guilt eat at you. Twenty-two veterans die every day because they can’t carry these burdens by themselves anymore.
I made a commitment to my brothers and sisters in the military to never leave anyone behind. My commitment did not end when I got out of the Army. The battle with PTSD can be worse than any war. I need your help to keep my commitment. There are too many veterans dying. I can’t save them alone.
The parades, the handshakes, and the posts on facebook supporting veterans are nice, but we need more.
Learn about PTSD – what it is and what it is not. It could affect your family member now or in the future. It does not affect only veterans. Even if no one in your family is or has ever been in the military, something could happen in their life, and they could develop PTSD. Help us to get more resources for help. Learn how to start a support group. Learn about what war is really like and how it affects people. Help to give us a voice. Give us a place to feel welcome and understood and a place to tell our stories. Share our burdens so they don’t become too much for us to carry. When you don’t want to hear the stories or interrupt us or change the subject, it just makes us feel we are right to be filled with shame and guilt. Help us to feel like we still belong here at home. Forgive us for the things we did….. for you.