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PTSD: A Lasting Impact of War

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(The following guest post was written by archivist Rachel Telford of the Library of Congress Veterans History Project).

“I went to the VA and I said, with tears in my eyes, I hurt. I mean, I really, really hurt, and I think Vietnam had something to do with it.”
—William Barner, January 2006

William Barner in Uniform, late 1960s
William Barner in uniform, late 1960s

William Barner survived a year in Vietnam serving in a Howitzer Battery, but he did not return unharmed. Following his service, Barner was unable to control his anger and had difficulty keeping a job. Almost 40 years after his discharge, he was finally diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Exploring the experiences of veterans and the impact of military service inevitably means discussing PTSD. The most recent installment of the Veterans History Project’s Experiencing War web feature recounts the stories of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in different career fields who have returned from war bearing the invisible scars of their experiences. The collections in this exhibit were chosen with an eye toward exploring the variety of experiences of servicemen and women who have suffered from PTSD as well as the striking similarities.

Each veteran describes symptoms such as nightmares, anxiety, anger and difficulty maintaining personal and professional relationships, and all but the youngest among them tell of living with these symptoms for decades. Though understanding of PTSD grew after World War II, it did not begin to expand significantly until the 1980s. Many veterans of Vietnam, Korea and World War II have been diagnosed only recently.

Navy photographer Raymond Eldred Metcalf spent the Korean War traveling between combat units to collect images of Navy planes in action, surviving bombings and sniper fire, all while armed with nothing but his camera. In his VHP interview, he said, “When I got out there wasn’t even anybody to talk to … because nobody understood, and it seemed like nobody cared except me.” He experienced nightmares and suffered from depression but had nowhere to turn for help. Returning from Vietnam more than 15 years later, Arthur T. Baltazar, who served with the Army as a perimeter guard, experienced the same types of nightmares and despondency. He thought, “Nobody cares. I can’t believe that nobody cares what we went through. Not just me, but all the vets.”

Reynaldo Puente, fourth from right, in a group photo with a nuclear missile, 1974
Reynaldo Puente, fourth from right, in a group photo with a nuclear missile, 1974

Though PTSD may typically be associated with combat, those serving away from the front lines are not immune. Reynaldo Puente was a nuclear missile crewman in Germany during the Cold War. When his unit went on alert status, he feared not only for his own life, but also for the safety of his loved ones in the event of nuclear warfare. Fortunately, Puente and his crew never had to launch their nuclear weapons, and he returned to Texas to begin a career as a police officer. Unfortunately, nightmares and anxiety eventually forced him to leave the police force. After many years and several more careers, Puente shared his story with a friend who was a psychiatrist, and she suggested he seek treatment for PTSD.

Among veterans of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that between 11 and 20 percent experience PTSD in a given year. Larry Rosenthal, a New Jersey National Guardsman, was activated after the September 11 terrorist attacks and went on to serve in Afghanistan. Upon his return from war, he experienced sleeplessness, heightened awareness and difficulty controlling his emotions. Unlike his predecessors, he didn’t have to wait years to find the help he needed. He shared, “One Sunday I blew up . . . in a fit of what they call blind rage. And I said, ‘Time for counseling,’ and the VA was there.”

The veterans featured in this exhibit share difficult stories that illuminate one of the most lasting impacts of war. For some, PTSD became more than simply an individual struggle. Army veteran David Polhemus became a counselor to soldiers like himself who live with PTSD; former medic Wendy Taines returned to school to learn more about PTSD so she could advocate for veterans; and William Barner spends his free time helping fellow veterans navigate the VA healthcare system.

Visit the exhibit to hear their stories and view all of the featured collections.

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