Like many of you, I have spent quite a few hours over the past 10 days watching the Ken Burns PBS program personalizing World War II. I thought that it brought this war home for me, more informatively and more poignantly than all but a few of the great War movies (All’s Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, Saving Private Ryan).
I learned three things about PTSD from these programs that I had not fully appreciated. First, the graphic depiction of battle in World War II dramatically verified the amazingly rich food for growing PTSD in a young man’s brain in this conflict. Shocking, disturbing to the max, terrifying, exhausting, degrading, hyper-stimulating, you REALLY wouldn’t want to have been there. Second, 25% of the soldiers sent home from the War had no physical injuries. They suffered from “shell shock”, i.e., PTSD of a magnitude that left them grossly dysfunctional. Third, almost all of the soldiers who told their personal stories about the horrors of extended combat experiences in the War more than 6 decades after the fact graphically described a post-War struggle with PTSD.
Two personal remembrances about the War:
I was 3 years old when the War ended. I vividly remember adults talking about soldiers who suffered from “shell shock”. These individuals were commonly labelled as unmanly cowards, lacking the strength of spirit to endure what every real (‘tough’) man or woman HAD to endure. PTSD was labelled a ‘human weakness’. Even the Army and Navy psychiatrists did not think of it as neuropathological. That was all terribly cruel and unfair, in retrospect. I had a boyhood friend whose father had been blinded in the War, and who had a history of “shell shock” that everyone seemed to know about. How much can a person give of themselves, in the service of the rest of us? This individual committed suicide 12 or 13 years after the War. Many of his demons came from his war-time experiences. Tragically, others were piled on, after he came home. In so many ways, his friends and neighbors (very few of whom had been anywhere near the real War) told him that he should be thoroughly ashamed of himself. How utterly, cruelly unfair.
In the winter of 1945-46, four of my uncles came home from the War, on the same day. The most jingoistic of my uncles, my uncle Bill, had been stationed on the Aleutian Islands for the duration, and much to his disappointment, had experienced no combat. My uncle Willard had served in Europe, but I don’t think that he saw direct combat (he certainly never talked about it). My uncle Larry had served as an infantryman in France and Germany, and had been a front-line soldier through the Battle of the Bulge and beyond. My uncle Bud (Matt) had been a forward artillery spotter in New Guinea and on other Indonesian islands, and through the invasion of the Phillipines. All of our family gathered at my family’s house, to greet the returning “heroes”. And so they were, in their bright dress uniforms and hats, the latter quickly dispersed to we children. I can see them arriving in and dismounting from my grandfather’s Packard, in my mind’s eye, as I write this. I was 3 and a half years old.
My uncles were exhausted from their long journeys when they arrived, and my uncle Bud quickly retired to catch some sleep. At some point in the evening, as we prepared for supper, my mother asked me to go up and waken him. I climbed up the stairs and found him deep asleep, with his back turned to me. I tapped lightly on his shoulder and began to call his name. WHOMP. I had been hammered by a stiff forearm and fist, and thrown like a rag doll against the far wall. Uncle Bud literally could have killed me. I couldn’t believe that my wonderful, light-hearted, smiling, heroic uncle could DO that to me!
I was later told that uncle Bud operated with a small unit as a forward artillery observer, and that he and his comrades lived in constant dread of being over-run by the Japanese as they slept. Indeed, near Lae in New Guinea, they HAD been over-run, and my dear, light-hearted, smiling uncle has personally killed a Japanese soldier trying his damdedest to kill him.
My uncle did not have an easy personal life after the War. Although I lived a block away from him, worked with him and my uncle Bill through several youthful summers (they were stone mason/bricklayers; I was their ‘assistant hod carrier’), and always felt very close to him, I never heard him say a single thing about his war-time experiences. I think he carried a few demons with him, through his life.
We’re smarter about PTSD now, than then. Because we know better, we must DO better, for the young men and women who suffer from this invisible wounding, on our behalf. And we must also accept a responsibility to help all of those involuntary non-combatants who also have invisible brain wounding, because these true innocents have had to endure the horrors of modern warfare that you and I have bankrolled, and through our government (whether we like it, or not — and I did NOT like it), endorsed.