Monday, May 17, 2010

PTSD Vol. 1: Coming Home

I'm somehow finding it difficult to narrow down my reflections to write this post. I've mentally prepared myself to deal with, or at least, educate myself on PTSD issues since Brian enlisted.

In the past couple of years, I've received anguished letters and email from families of struggling soldiers about what their loved ones are going through. To these families, I've offered my sympathy and prayers, and thanked them for their words, even when they are angry and accusatory. My military Mom tales come off as a little too rosy for some. To these families, I can only declare that others' pain, though I know it exists, and care so deeply that it hurts me also, isn't always mine to share.

Even if it is my son's.

Brian had little access to telephones or internet during his first tour, and his reports home were short and sweet: "Bombs, no one hurt, things are fine." He regaled us with "cat & mouse" stories when he came home on leave. One man, for example, set a bomb in the road in front of his own house every day. Every day, Brian & Co. de-bombed the bomb, or whatever they do to it, but again the next day it would be there. Finally fed up with the bomb du jour, they moved it into the man's yard, and detonated it, blowing out the windows in his car, and killing his chickens. The message: "Don't mess with us, or we'll kill your chickens."

Funny chicken stories. Those are the ones you tell your Mom.

Coming Home

When your soldier comes home from the a war zone, they prepare you with literature containing rules and information about what to expect from them. "Avoid alcohol" is number 1 on the list. Oh, hilarious; when we got those boys back to the barracks after landing, they were 2 steps out of the car before icy bottles of rum were passed around.

At the end of that day, I wrote,
I'll admit to telling Clint that I felt like I'd been tossed into a pool of Testosterone. 12 hours with of 3 soldiers fresh out of a war. 3 soldiers happy to see girls again (there are no women in their company), and making no bones about it! 12 hours of rum and beer, ribald language, hair-raising war stories, and one mere expression of a desire to hit a certain jackass on the sidelines.
Written somewhat in jest, it was also the absolute truth. The barracks were a rowdy place to be, and not entirely what I'd expected. A parent's presence didn't bring about the manners that it did at bootcamp graduation. Beer bottles were tossed from building tops, parking lots covered in glass and garbage and war-whooping was prevalent.

It was a riotous good time to be home.

What I observed over the next 6 months, with my kid and his friends, was that the riots didn't stop. Transition back into a civilized society after being hopped up on adrenaline and fear and anger for 18 months takes more than a 3-week leave with the family. All of the training to react instantly or lose your life doesn't just disappear. Your choices are to check yourself and feel completely leashed up in such a slow environment, or release it and find that adrenaline high. I watched and listened and talked as mine (mine being all those that I knew coming home) wrecked their motorcycles, drank themselves into oblivion, beat the shit out of one another, got arrested, stripped of their ranks, cut their pay, or got kicked out of the Army entirely.

My son was no exception. He was extremely restless, upon returning to routine, seemingly meaningless chores on base. He was home barely 8 weeks before he informed me that he was requesting early redeployment. Good or bad, I advised him to ride out the instinct to get back to the adrenaline rush. Give it a few more months, see if you calm down.

There was more than one conversation in which he tried to convince me why fighting that guy across the bar was absolutely necessary: He needed to be taught a lesson. He'd think twice before heckling a soldier again, wouldn't he? I would exasperatedly try to convince my kid that he was letting worthless people control his emotions, and that you can't beat sense into a dumbass anyway. Knock it off, before someone gets seriously injured or ends up in jail, which is pretty highly likely. In the book Down Range, to Iraq and Back by Bridget Cantrell & Chuck Dean, Dean refers to this behavior as "Driving Fast in the Slow Lane" and being unable to control erratic behaviors.
"I have visited many of America's ex-servicemen who have been incarcerated in state and federal institutions over the years. Most are wonderful people, and it breaks my heart to see these men pay the price for poor judgment. They survived the grueling months of combat only to come home and go straight to jail for the rest of their lives."
The idea of this happening to any of them made me sick. Still, it got to the point where I pictured the Fort Benning barracks more violent with gang warfare than any inner-city.

It's difficult to "advise" without blame. Tread lightly. It's easy to get fed up and pissed off with what seems like juvenile behavior. What we have to remember is that this is all par for the course.

More importantly, what we have to remember is that we have no idea what they've been through. The worst of the tales may take years to come out, if ever. My policy, when listening to my soldier babies, was usually to just give straightforward, common sense reminders. "Take a deep breath, think about yourself; don't jeopardize your future." Admittedly, I've probably, lovingly threatened to slap the shit of them if they keep up the deconstructive behavior. I might also have thrown in a "what in the hell were you thinking?"

More often than not, it's best just to keep your trap shut and your opinions to yourself, and to engage in "Listen. Hug." therapy.

With time, my kid settled down, as did the rest of them, back into people I could recognize. Instead of rising to the challenge, MPs were called at the onset of a probable ambush. Education and training for further endeavors began to take priority over road rage, and unfortunately, structured days turned back to training to redeploy. (boo)

So, that was the coming home, and the year or so after. I reflect now, and worry that in the midst of this, there were times I said the wrong thing. Or I didn't say the right thing. Or I didn't recognize something for what it was. Honestly, I'm not even clear on whether these issues are symptoms of PTSD, or if they fall more under the category of normal acclimating to a peaceful society.

Hey! There's a lot I don't know! And no matter how much I read, or how much I listen to friends, soldiers, their families and spouses, and how much I learn from them, I also know this:

I will never know.

We will never know, and that is the soldier's gift to us. It their service to this country that protects us from ever knowing, ever having to understand.

Don't forget to thank them for that; it never gets old.

 * * * * *

Volume II to come. Reference to my son and others in these posts has been posted with permission by those that shared with me. If you'd like to contribute, vent, or educate me further in understanding, you are hereby granted my attention and my discretion. E-mail me at


  1. Great post, Lori. I was especially touched at the end when you wrote about "the soldier's gift to us" - our never knowing what they go through. Wow.

  2. The good news is that it looks like the stigma of soldiers seeking mental health treatment is finally waning. I read in The USA Today on Friday that soldiers seeking mental health treatment outnumbered injuries for hospital stays last year. It was a big increase over the previous two years. Unfortunately it took all of those soldier suicides to get the government to finally start doing something. There seems to be a movement going on to get help for our returning soldiers. I hope everyone stays on top of that.

  3. The comment about some soldiers coming back and heading straight to incarceration reminded me of an old poem:

    "God and the soldier, all men adore In time of danger and not before. When the danger is passed and all things righted, God is forgotten, and the soldier slighted."

    Yet for all the problems that continue today, the improvements to the system have been pretty profound just in my generation. The guys at the VA hospital from previous wars came home to a system vastly worse... and the statistics seem to confirm their stories. Of course most of the WWII guys still around went into the service on the heels of the Great Depression, so I'm not sure if the damper on their complaints are coming from a very different set of expectations/experience.

    As far as how much is PTSD vs readjustment from the impossible... seems to vary from person to person. For some the readjustment is the worst part... about as impossible as unlearning to type. For others the very specific symptoms of PTSD with the intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares, triggers that send them right back to reliving things that the brain seems to be proactively trying to bury on our behalf... only for those memories, the sound, the smell, the adrenalin, that dread... kicks it all back... or sends us to zombieland to deal.

    When it's both it's an even bigger clusterf***. But how much of which is the real issue seems almost impossible to decipher even for shrinks/people trained to know how. The military and VA methods for screening involve questions so broad that it could sweep up almost anybody with a traumatic experience... the disability rating system is better suited to an insurance bean counter than a medical profession... and the end result for seeking help is muddled by so many other variables that weeding through the mess and finding one's bearings again can be needle/haystack hunts.


  4. ...

    There's been a push to open "veterans courts" in some places to take into consideration the circumstances of returning veterans when attempting to dole out justice for crimes committed... with a propensity to view many situations as needing more help than punitive measures. That may be the right direction to go but there's another stigma that concerns many folks beyond just the fears of those who would otherwise seek help... but a stigmatization of veterans as all broken-minded nutcases. Given the litigious nature of our society, it only makes it harder to find a job when something officially to be taken to one's credit is unofficially seen as a massive liability. There may be no easy way to deal with any of the above, especially when those who need the most help are often the most distrustful of those offering it (sometimes given good reason to).

    For most, life seems to go back to normal(-ish). For many that may stick... for others they may be like some of the vietnam vets suddenly kicked in the proverbial butt when the next big war comes along and brings it all back, hostage to their television sets. For others "normal" comes with so much guilt it can be unbearable. When "normal" sounds more like a naive dream of those oblivious to the world burning, it's difficult to argue that even one's self deserves it. Life's blessings that used to seem so important become more like a heroin fix for the recovering addict... guilt wrapped in regret wrapped in a desire I can't explain.

    If anyone can make sense of all that, they might be the first. As far as I can tell, it is what it is. The hardest thing for many folks trying to be supportive is not taking it personally when someone they care about is trying to figure it out... especially when the chaos or crushing forces involve them due to no fault of their own. Sometimes it is the only way to find a place to breathe.

    There's a stretch of highway in Wyoming I can't shake out of my head right now. Not a sign of civilization or another soul in sight... from horizon to horizon. I could breathe there and forget, just for a moment, the chaos awaiting down the road. But the car is waiting, a one ton symbol of guilt, and it's time to deal with the world as it is, not as I dream it to be. Was the moment worth it or just another fix I'll regret? Time will tell.

  5. May God bless you, your son, and all those brave young men who fight and risk their lives for our freedom.


Back talk! Comment here!