June is National Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Month. I am glad. Not because so many military veterans are living with the disorder or suffering because they are afraid to seek treatment. I am glad because now people can increase their awareness of PTSD, satisfy their curiosity, ease their fears and easily seek help if they need it. We often fear what we don’t understand. I am glad because I am no longer afraid. I am no longer ignorant to the facts of PTSD. I am enlightened.
One of my first real jobs out of undergraduate school was as at a labor union in downtown Washington, DC. The office was located in a rather dilapidated building, complete with vermin running across the gravel parking lot and a squeaky, moody elevator. The air conditioning worked when it felt like it. At 22, I was the youngest person there and very green to office politics. I had not yet learned to wait to form opinions about co-workers based on my own interactions with them rather than based on what someone else told me. So when the receptionist warned me on my first day to, “stay away from Mr. Royster* because he’s shell-shocked and will flip out on you,” I took it to heart. I avoided that messy cubicle tucked in the back corner of the office like it had the bubonic plague. When its bearded inhabitant occasionally emerged, I would avoid eye contact and pretend to be busy doing anything that would prevent me from having a conversation with the dreaded Mr. Royster. He came and went each day. He ate lunch at his desk, alone. No shared jokes at the water cooler. No participation in the communal complaint sessions about the elevator or the AC. No office friends.
I wonder if he knew. Did he know that we were all afraid of him? Of what he might do if we unwittingly triggered an angry outburst? Did he know that we were grateful for his service in Vietnam but were too afraid to ever ask him about it? Did Mr. Royster know we were afraid because we were ignorant to the facts of PTSD?
One of the Veterans History Project’s (VHP) interviewees, Charles L. Ferguson, served in the U.S. Army from the time he was drafted in 1943 until he retired in 1970. He learned all too well about the hell that is war, and how the experience of war can cause PTSD. Thankfully for him, his wife and daughter were tuned in to his fragile mental state and sought help for him. During his 2005 VHP interview, Ferguson recalled his unit being hit by rockets the night after they landed in Da Nang, Vietnam, and the toll that this and other wartime experiences took on his psyche.
And I tell you, war is scary. It is not pleasant. You think about me, because at nighttime, I was dreaming, fighting, sweating in my sleep, you know. My wife, she would wake me up, she wouldn’t touch me, calm me and check on me. When I checked with my daughter and telling them about that, she told me, she said, ‘I’ll get you an appointment with the psychiatrist.’ When we went to see him, and talking, he said, ‘Are you from World War II?’ I said I was in North Korea and Korea, and Vietnam. He told me, ‘You got post-trauma distress.’ He said, ‘You thought you could get rid of it, but you can’t.’ I am on medication for that now. Then I go to a counselor at the Vet Center every Friday, there is a group of us.
Ferguson is not alone. Hundreds of VHP participants mention during their interviews being diagnosed with PTSD or being shell-shocked. Some never give it a name, but the symptoms they describe are textbook classic: flashbacks, nightmares, numbness, angry outbursts, feeling on-edge and intense guilt. Like Ferguson said, war is not pleasant. Many times, that unpleasantness follows veterans home and puts down roots like an unwanted house guest.
PTSD does not discriminate based on branch of service, military occupational specialty, race or ethnicity, gender or socioeconomic status. Neither is the diagnosis exclusive to military veterans. It can happen to anyone who has experienced an event that caused or threatened serious harm or death. To cope, many people turn to illicit drugs or alcohol as a means of self-medicating—a way to escape their personal hell, if only temporarily. It can take years, decades even, for trauma survivors to face up to the fact that they need help, and sometimes even longer to find the courage to seek it.
Wendy Marie Wamsley Taines was no different. She enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1990 during the Persian Gulf War. When she left the Army the following year, she was a different woman. In her 2005 VHP interview, she said:
When we came back from the war, we just came back and put on our tennis shoes and went back to life as usual. And it wasn’t until about 10 years later, which is my life now, that I’m having reactions to what I did, which they’re calling post-traumatic stress disorder. I am very numb today and I’m trying to work through that because I would like to have feelings back. After the 9/11 attacks, my psyche — I went — I got really, really sick. I drank a lot, I took pills a lot, I had suicide attempts, I had a lot of self-destructive behavior. And it got really bad to the point where — and it’s still to the point where I can’t watch the news and I can’t read newspapers. And, you know, I’m at a point in my life where I’m trying to — I’m living a sober life, I’m learning how to work through all this, I’m doing psychotherapy, and I’m really positive that I can become well-adjusted. I’m one of the lucky ones, though, because I’m determined to be healthy in spirit and mind.
To look at Taines’ smiling image in the photograph she donated to VHP along with her interview, you would never guess that just a few months later, she would begin her descent down a path of self-destruction. After hearing her story, it made me want to go back in time and find that happy woman leaning on a railing at Fort Dix, posing between two comrades and say, “Wendy, brace yourself! Tough days are coming, but you will pull through. I promise.” But I can’t.
Taines is a proponent of the use of folklore and personal narratives to assist veterans in coping with what they did and saw while in uniform. From her perspective, the sooner veterans have an opportunity to share the stories, the better.
The issues need to be addressed within that first year that they come home. They need to talk about — in a safe and healthy environment, they need to talk about what they did. They need to make sense of what they did. They need to have an opinion about what they did. It’s really important.
Loved ones of PTSD-diagnosed veterans should know that they can play a huge role in the healing process. Loved ones should:
- Remind the veteran that he or she is not alone.
- Encourage the veteran to seek professional, medical treatment or therapy.
- Contact the National Center for PTSD, www.ptsd.va.gov/, for a list of resources.
- Keep an open line of communication with the veteran. Participating in VHP can be one way to start—by working on something together for posterity.
The Veterans History Project is the seeking the firsthand accounts of veterans who served in the U.S. military, in any capacity, from World War I through the more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. All veterans are welcome to participate, even if they did not see combat. The easy-to-follow interview process requires a few forms found in the VHP field kit, an interviewer, an interviewee and a recording device. Visit www.loc.gov/vets to learn more and to view a 15-minute instructional video.
When asked why she chose to participate with VHP, Taines said:
I felt it was my duty to share my personal oral history with the Veterans History Project so that it could be added to the growing research collection at the Library of Congress and made available to current and future generations.
Taines and approximately 91,000 other veterans in the VHP archive so far share that same sentiment. The American public will benefit from their service and generosity long after we are gone.
I often wonder if Mr. Royster is gone. If he is still out there somewhere, I hope he is well and enjoying his retirement years. I hope he is surrounded by family members and friends who love him and are not afraid to interact with him, sit with him for lunch or share a good joke. I want him to know that I am all grown up and no longer afraid. I am finally enlightened. I know better, so I do better. And I am glad about it.
Join the Veterans History Project for a panel discussion on National PTSD Awareness Day, Friday, June 27, 2014 from noon to 2 p.m. in the Whittall Pavilion of the Library of Congress Jefferson Building. The panel discussion, which is free and open to the public, will include veterans living with the diagnosis and experts who work directly with PTSD-diagnosed veterans. Visit the Library of Congress website the following week to view a webcast of the panel discussion. For a list of PTSD resources, go here. To access more firsthand accounts from U.S. military veterans, search the VHP database at loc.gov/vets.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.