Understanding the After Effects of Wartime

Reflections of a Vietnam War Widow: It Doesn’t End When They Come Home
By Penny Coleman, AlterNet. Posted June 25, 2007.

The Department of Defense recently announced that it was hiring additional mental health professionals to deal with the stream of traumatized vets returning from the occupation of Iraq. A widow of an earlier war warns that the effort may be too little and too late.

Daniel and I met at a campground in the Rocky Mountains six months after he got home from Vietnam. It was 1970, and I had just graduated from college. I had helped Abbie Hoffman levitate the Pentagon and turn it orange. I had listened to Jimi Hendrix make love and war to “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. I had helped organize the campus shutdown when we found out that Nixon had secretly been bombing Cambodia.

But in my world, people got deferments. I didn’t actually know any veterans. And here was this sweet, pretty boy who had seen the war up close. He suggested that if I brought over my wine, he would share his marijuana. We sat up talking by the campfire all night, and by morning I thought I might be falling in love.

We had one glorious summer on the back side of Vancouver Island, camping on the beach, playing in the water and in each other. By the end of the summer, we had made plans. It was not an easy marriage. He was hurt in ways I didn’t understand. I can’t know whether he would have been able to tell me where his sadness lived, but I was high on righteousness and he was high on everything else. Perhaps if I had been more open-minded, he would have felt safe enough to talk. I wish I had been able to listen better, but I was 22. And I had no idea what I was up against.

Daniel and I would have fights, the kind of fights that most couples have, but his rage was explosive and frightening, and after it burned out, he would take to his bed with the blinds drawn. All he would tell me was that he wasn’t sure whether or not he wanted to live. I took on the job of saving him. I read him poetry, held his hand, played him meaningful songs.

Six years later, when things were really coming apart, I came home one night and found him in the back yard, mostly dead from the fistfuls of pills he had swallowed. The swirling red lights and the ambulance ride and the hospital scene were a brutal and abrupt end to my childhood. He screamed at me from his hospital bed that he would do it again as soon as he was released. I decided that was extortion and left. When his sister called to tell me he had made good on his promise, the guilt and shame I felt made it impossible to grieve.

I tell the story today because I believe one of the reasons the occupation of Iraq has been allowed to continue for as long as it has is that, beyond the relatively small circle of military families, the individual costs have been so successfully obscured. With the exception of the appalling images from Abu Ghraib (which were e-mailed home by soldiers themselves), we have been insulated from a war that is being fought in a manner that would sicken most of us if we had access. Vietnam-era images, like the naked child trying to outrun her own burning skin, or the anguished women and children waiting their turn to be executed at My Lai, were catalysts that helped turn public opinion against that war. On the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Pentagon issued a directive to the media forbidding any coverage of returning American coffins. No coffins, no funerals, no wounds, no tears. We’ve been deprived of the opportunity to check in with our consciences and our compassion.

We have also been deprived of an honest appraisal of what the future mental health care needs of veterans will be. Inconvenient truths have been buried about the ways in which war predictably damages soldiers’ minds. Those who are coming back from these new wars have already been changed. Some may discover places in their psyches where their combat memories will not be overly disabling, but far too many have been seriously injured by their experiences, their futures irreparably diminished.

At some point, years later, I began to understand how insidiously my experiences after Vietnam had poisoned my life. I was afraid to begin relationships and afraid to end them. Every time one of my children got a C on a chemistry test, I would be thrown into a state of panic. The fear of suicide followed me around like a deer fly, always on the edge of my consciousness.

When the news reports claiming that the number of Vietnam vets who had killed themselves after coming home from the war exceeded the number of names on the Wall, a different understanding began to penetrate. What if Daniel’s death had not been my fault? What if it was, in fact, the war and not some personal failure?

Having entertained the possibility that perhaps I was a war widow and not a black widow, I started looking for other women who had also lost their husbands to suicide after the war. My book Flashback is the result of that outreach. The years of research, the interviews, and the soul-searching that went into that effort have begun some kind of healing process. I have a bit more compassion for that young woman who failed to save the man she had tried so hard to love. In my less healthy moments, I still struggle to believe it was not my fault.

In the wake of the Iraq war, a new generation will struggle with similar problems. Thirty-five percent of returning vets have already sought out mental health treatment since coming home, and, as the symptoms of PTSD often take years to manifest themselves and the stigma still discourages many from asking for the help they need, these numbers are only the ominous beginning. Moreover, every war not only creates its own casualties, but reignites the symptoms of veterans of previous wars. The Washington Post reported a year ago that ‘Vietnam veterans are the vast majority of VA’s PTSD disability cases–more than 73 percent.” Ten thousand of those were new claims filed by veterans who were entering the system for the first time, more that thirty years after their war came to an end.

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