You, Me & PTSD
By: Steve Crabtree
Over thirty years ago I was a LRRP or an Airborne Ranger, or whatever you want to call it. I attended the toughest schools the United States Army had to offer. I fought in Vietnam with the Americal Division’s Ranger unit. We pulled missions deep into enemy-held areas, many times on the “other side” of the border. I was there when one of my teammates was shot in the face. I pulled John Bennett’s dead body out of the South China Sea. I was young, brash, and cocky. Nothing bothered me then. I was Superman!
And nothing bothers me now. BULLSHIT!
We were all brought up to believe that “men don’t cry;” “Take it like a man;” “Crying is for sissies.” When I came home from Vietnam I wanted to tell everyone what was really going on over there. Nobody cared. It took me about six months to realize this before I smartened up and quit talking about it. I locked up everything inside me and wouldn’t even admit to having been there.
In 1990, 28 men from my unit got back together. The following year over 80 of us met at the Wall in Washington, DC. Getting together again after all those years was one of the greatest things that has ever happened in our lives...and one of the worst. Two have withdrawn from society, their wives, their friends and their families. Another took a buddy to seek help for delayed stress only to discover he was hurting more than his pal was. He no longer will have anything to do with any of the men from his unit. Another put a gun to his head last month and blew his brains out. All of us have nightmares, some more than others, some more horrible than others, but we all have them. Why? Because we were trained to "hold it together and get the job done" under conditions that most people (yes, even most men) would be unable to function in.
I have a friend who claims that PTSD doesn't exist in her household. She refers to her husband's problems as TWT, or too-well-trained. She was a social worker, and knows that contrary to what the VA psychologist told her and her husband she is NOT an "enabler" because she lets him sit with his back to the wall in a restaurant. She simply honors the training that saved his life and the lives of his buddies, more than once. She is very aware that the handgun her husband keeps on the headboard is NOT a threat to her or anyone else in her house, unless they don't belong there. Her husband is TWT and would always identify a target prior to firing it up. How many of you know that Audie Murphy slept with a handgun under his pillow until he died? He came back from WWII to great acclaim and success, but never stopped doing perimeter checks. How much worse is it for the ones who did not achieve what he did or have the support that he had?
My father-in-law is a retired Navy commander. He honorably served his country for 22 years. Prior to WWII he was stationed on a destroyer; during the war on aircraft carriers. His ship, the USS Wasp CV-7, was hit by torpedoes and sunk off Guadalcanal. Although he treaded water for over six hours waiting to be picked up, he was credited with saving the life of one of his crew. All this time he watched his wounded crew members drowning around him, one by one. At the same time he also watched his buddies in the air, with no where to land, crash into the sea because their carrier was gone. Talk about carrying some baggage! He never filed for PTSD because: 1) Men don’t cry! And 2) Why should he file for Government compensation for service related disability only to have whatever dollar amount he might be awarded deducted from his military retirement? He did ask the VA to pay for his hearing aids only to have them “decide” that his hearing loss was not attributable to working the guns on a destroyer or having an ammunition bay explode under your feet on your aircraft carrier.
There are many men in our situation that have never filed a claim for PTSD, and refuse to admit that they have a problem because they have all their body parts intact. I have heard many times "I wasn't hit like so and so," or "I didn't have anyone I was really close to die." These phrases when spoken by a former combat veteran show the deepest wounds of all, wounds to the soul. They live daily with the question, "Why Me?" or rather "Why NOT Me?" Survivor's guilt is an overwhelming and horrible wound that leaves no external scars that you can show the VA or your family; but never the less, is one that continues to bleed for a lifetime. It may "close over" for a while. You just keep yourself very busy, keep that adrenaline flowing at maximum speed and you don't have to deal with the wound. Perhaps that is why combat veterans have a 50% higher rate of heart disease and heart attacks. But eventually you have to sleep, and in that sleep the wound is picked at, the scab lifts and you start to bleed all over again.
On October 3rd, 1993 Ranger and Delta Force personnel got into a 26-hour firefight in Mogadishu, Somalia. Six Rangers were killed. One dead Ranger’s body was drug through the streets and shown on national TV. If this isn’t enough to cause nightmares, what I’m about to say certainly will. It is considered a psychological weakness to seek counseling for PTSD if you are on active duty in a Special Operation Unit. Should one of these young troopers seek counseling, he would be immediately removed from his active Ranger Unit. What’s wrong with this picture? We won’t even allow our men on active duty to mourn their dead comrades.
I still have nightmares about Vietnam. Most of them have something to do with water. This is kind of odd because all but two of my missions had nothing to do with water. Could it be because we were playing football on the beach one-minute and the next I was pulling a friend’s dead body out of the South China Sea? Combat is not the only cause of PTSD. Any shocking or traumatic experience can plant the seed, and just about anything can trigger the reaction. The death of someone dear, rape, extreme stress, an accident (or near accident) or any traumatic incident can be contributing factors. There doesn't even have to be a specific incident. If you served 365 days in a combat zone, you have had 365 POSSIBILITIES that you could be wounded or killed. Living through that time with the constant anticipation of danger leaves you with a heightened awareness of your surroundings and an elevated startle-response. These are two of the most common symptoms of PTSD. The reaction to these stresses can be immediate, or they can lay dormant for years. The key to what I’m trying to say is acknowledge you have been exposed to PTSD causing factors and then do something about it.
Having been awarded the Combat Infantry Badge (CIB); the VA acknowledges your exposure to PTSD contributing factors. If you file a claim with them, you will be awarded a minimum of 10% disability. It has been suggested that because of the types of missions the LRP’s, LRRP’s and Rangers pulled in Vietnam that any of them filing should, and I stress the word should, be awarded 100% disability. Many of the men from units like ours did receive a 100% disability rating in the past. However, in November of 1998 the rules became more stringent regarding a 100% rating due to the number of "wannabes" that received a high rating without having to present their DD-214 or any evidence of how or where they served. But it is not uncommon for a LRRP, LRP or Ranger to receive a 70% rating with 100% disability under the regulations regarding individual unemployability.
What can you do to prevent PTSD? Nothing, you already have it, but you can prevent the symptoms from ruling your life. Talk! Talk to a friend who was there. Each of us carries a different cross made from the same material. Each of us was there and can understand the mindset of a brother veteran. You’ll find that the memories that bother you the most are also shared by your buddies. You’re not alone and your feelings (both love & hate) are mutually shared. Talk! Talk to a trained professional. Most people specializing in PTSD treatment are veterans who were there and did that. The ones who weren’t have been trained to assist. If you don't want to go to the VA for help, and have private insurance, call your local Vet's Center and have them recommend someone who has experience dealing with delayed, combat related PTSD. If you don't have private insurance, see if you can get help through the Vet's Center, or if there isn't one in your area, contact county and state mental health associations. And, most important of all, talk! Talk to your family. Your parents and siblings know that you aren't the same person that left for Vietnam all those years ago, however, they may be wondering when YOU will come home. Let them know that the anger you sometimes express, even if it seems to be directed at them, is actually directed at those internal demons you carry around. Let your wife and kids know that you love them, and if it seems that you expect too much of them at times, it's because in Vietnam, in your type of unit, anything less than perfection could get you killed. In the unit you served with, there were no shades of gray, only black and white, right and wrong. They need to know that you have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility toward them and that you love them AS IF THEIR LIVES AND YOUR LIFE DEPENDED ON IT! ! Your loved ones probably don’t understand why you have no patience with or consideration for them, while you show so much for the guys you served with. Let them know that the guys you served with not only share your problems, but that you accept them because they have proven themselves dependable to you over and over on the field of battle. At one time they were more important to you than your mother, father, wife or children. Your very life depended upon their actions. Most of all, what you can do to help yourself, is to forgive. Forgive yourself. While no one has ever put a name to it, you are probably, in your own way, doing penance for those 58,000+ names on that Wall in Washington. I know that I am, every day of my life. What if your name was on that Wall, instead of someone else's? Would you want those that returned from Vietnam to be chained to your grave? NO, of course you wouldn't. So remember, you have the responsibility to live the best life you can, not only for yourself and your family, but also for them.
Authors’ note: This article is dedicated to Richie Burns. Richie fought in Vietnam with the 1st Cav, 101st Airborne Division, 162 Advisory Group and since his return has been counseling Veterans with PTSD problems. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1997. Rich died last night (10/18/01) after a long and valorous battle. He leaves behind his wife, Cathy; his daughter, Erin (27, a West Point graduate); and his son, Shane (25, a former United States Army Ranger and now a Police Officer in Florida). The VA does not recognize colon cancer as having any relationship to exposure to Agent Orange. This fact gives both a warm and comforting feeling to: Richie’s family, Tony Avgoulis’ family (deceased, 1998), myself, Dennis Nye, Paul Green and the many, many other Vietnam Veterans who have been diagnosed with or the families of those who have died from this disease.