A few years ago I was sitting in the VA Clinic in Tallahassee, Florida, and there was an Iraqi vet on one side of me and a WWII vet on the other. The young Iraqi vet had some serious scars on his face from burns. I got talking to him, and he explained that the vehicle he was in ran over a hidden bomb, and it caught fire during the explosion. The WWII vet looked over and told that young man how he was on a Tin Can (destroyer) in the Pacific that was torpedoed, and how he had been burned on over 70% of his body. Well, the two of them got in such a conversation, I moved over so they could sit together and talk about skin grafts, pain, and disfigurement. There were two vets from two different wars who had something in common they could talk about.
I have found over the years since I left Vietnam that it is not always easy or even possible for two veterans to talk about their war- time experiences. Sure, they can talk about their time in the service, and things they saw, and things they read or heard about, but to get right down to the personal level about what they did or what was done to them in the war is a hard thing to even think about, let alone talk about with someone else.
Many veterans keep stuffing thoughts of their war back into their brain, refusing to even think about them, and some do it their whole lives becoming workaholics or alcoholics or doing anything they can think of to keep their mind off those thoughts of war that keep creeping in.
I was surprised when I first went to some VA group therapy sessions put on to let veterans voice what they had been thinking about for years, because there were so many WWII and Korean War vets attending. I thought they would have gotten everything out by then, but come to find out it, was only retirement or their stopping of drug or alcohol abuse that brought all those thoughts to the surface again.
I knew a vet in Northome, Minnesota for over ten years, and we talked about everything under the sun except the one thing we had in common, and that was our war in Vietnam. However, one time, after knowing this man so well for so long, he and I were driving together to Black Duck for a VFW function there, and he just opened up about his fears of all the things he was holding back from himself and everyone else. We stopped the truck in the Funkly Bar parking lot, and talked for a couple of hours and missed almost all of that VFW thing. Over the next few months I tried hard to get him to go to the VA for help but he would not go. A couple years later he blew his brains out.
Me? I only have one friend, another Marine who fought in Vietnam, but not with me or even at the exact time, to whom I have been able to talk to and him to me. I don’t know if either of us got right down to those most personal thoughts, but I think we were both able to let off a little bit of the steam that was building up in that pressure cooker in our brains to keep us form exploding, and both of us went to PTSD VA Hospital treatment. Mine was In Tomah, Wisconsin, and he went to some VA Hospital in Kansas. Even at that “in house” treatment facility it is hard or maybe not even possible to get everything out in the open so you can really think and talk about what you have been keeping to yourself.
What I did find at the VA was that many of the things one vet thought was just the most horrible thing he could have done or experienced didn’t seem that bad to me, but some vets had some really horrible terrible things they had to live with.
I don’t think it matters which war you were in, nor how many years ago that war happened. In every war, you can rationalize that some people had it worse that you did, and that always works for a time, but sooner or later those thoughts and experiences you had stuffed to the back of your brain will worm their way out, and many times at the most inopportune time they will pop right out forcing you to deal with them. I think that pressure relief you can get by talking to another vet, even if you don’t delve into your worst nightmare, can be of benefit, but it isn’t the answer, and really, I don’t know what is.
All I can say is, it takes a long time, and many vets can’t wait, so they take the exit. I guess the best thing is to avoid war. I sure wish I had.
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