From the quiet enclave of my small office in College Station, the wizened yet tender-hearted staff sergeant sat beside me and shared his story, of what it was to endure a catastrophic IED explosion in an area once known as Babylon.
He whispered words of instinct and survival, despite partial and full thickness burns over most of his body, the loss of his ears, nose, and several digits, the vertebral fractures, the black lungs, the renal failure.
In my heart, I could hear what he wanted to say that lay dormant between the place where reality is suspended and trauma threatens to suffocate memory or erupt in sorrow too deep, too wide.
Yet I had the ears to listen and the heart to hear him, because I know something about sacrifice, having spent three-quarters of my life in a military household where service was benchmark and bedrock.
The term “PTSD” gets lobbed about quite frequently in communities across America reeling from devastating loss over the last dozen years, and I know something about that syndrome, that loss.
While my father would never have used the acronym, he lived with combat every single day. Having traded the wheat fields of North Dakota at age eighteen for the foxholes of Korea, he spoke rarely about his life underground.
With his vibrant sense of humor, he’d freely share the stories of shit-on-a-shingle served in a mess cup or his naivete as a teenager in battle, but the dark side of that war did not emerge in daylight.
Loosened up with a few shots of bourbon and branch, he’d attempt to go there, but his inner censor would shut down most stories and he’d look upon a journey none but him could describe, unable to utter the horrific truths of what he saw, what he did, where a piece of him died.
Try to call him a hero and he’d quickly defer to his older brother, Alan, who spent ruthless months interred by the Japanese at the end of the death march to Bataan. That’s the hero, he’d say, and move the topic along, far away from the personal and precious details of his own sacrifice.
He would not use PTSD to describe the disconnect that came over him when he tried to recall the hidden battlefields of Laos or Cambodia as he donned his Green Beret and disappeared. My brothers and I had vague clues of trauma when he tried to share—from airborne night drops onto the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to napalm and Montagnards, to bouncing betty’s and punji traps, and casualties too numerous to bear.
It was the bombed and boiling river filled with thousands of NVA that woke him again and again from a dead sleep.
How deeply I loved my father, and love him still, but how badly I wish that he had understood the importance of treatment for trauma. He kept it all inside.
Today’s soldiers must not hold it in; this generation must be encouraged and supported as they speak aloud what seems impossible to say.
The healing dialogue, the bridge of words across the deep crevasse between what we are able to process and what we cannot fathom, must be established.
When I probed deeper into the psyche of my soldier friend, I understood that it was the telling, the retelling, the retelling, and the retelling, that was allowing him to decompress and come to terms with pink mist, the oily residue of blood and bone, the empty boot.
Men, women, boys, girls, their families, caretakers, and support teams must learn how to listen, and how to hear the words that are so tough to utter, the stories that are so tainted by unspeakable tragedy.
Unlike cancer, PTSD cannot be excised or radiated, but untreated it does metastasize. The soldier who sits beside us in church on Sunday morning may take his life on Sunday night.
We must reach out to him; we must listen to her. There is nothing unmanly or cowardly about speaking the truth. Each of our veterans has a voice that deserves to be heard.