What does posttraumatic stress disorder feel like?
To many men, here’s what posttraumatic stress disorder actually felt like:
The headaches started a couple of years after 1 came home from Vietnam. . . Then one night not long afterwards, my wife, Loretta, found me in the hallway of our apartment, wearing army fatigues and holding my bayonet… It took me another twelve years to find out that when 1 returned from Vietnam, not all of me came home.
. . . sometimes even in broad daylight, faces of the dead come to life.
A story like mine can be told by thousands of Vietnam veterans. The problem is, many vets just can’t talk about what went wrong. Hell, I had to almost die before I found that the only way to live was to talk it
What is a flashback like?
I’d be driving down an open road and a commercial jet flying overhead would become an F-4 taking off from the air strip in Nam… A hill in front of me would turn into a hot spot about to be strafed. . . The thoughts switched back and forth. . .I’m home; I’m in Nam. . . Don’t look at broken white lines on the black road – they’re tracer bullets in the dark night.
If you could read that last paragraph 100 times faster, with 1,000 times the intensity, you’d have an idea of what a flashback is like.61
A friend of mine wrote, "My ex-father-in-law, who strafed and bombed a trainful of Nazi troops, woke up in a cold sweat and in terror night after night for years after having to kill."62 As one military historian put it, "The fear of killing rather than the fear of being killed was the most common cause of battle fatigue in World War II."63
Why is it we seem to hear more about disabled vets and stress disorder after Vietnam than after other wars? Does this signal increased sensitivity? Not quite. Vietnam produced totally disabled servicemen at three times the rate of World War II.64 Why? ironically, because medical evacuation procedures were more efficient – men whose legs were blown off were eventually saved. In World War II, these men would have died.
So the death rate in Vietnam tells us less about the real toll than in other wars. The physical and psychological aftermath – the 50,000 who are blind, the 60,000 who committed suicide (that are detectable), the abnormally large number dying in car accidents, the 33.000 paralyzed – tells us more.65
On a theoretical level, we have recognized that the real trauma ofVietnam is lack of appreciation; on a practical level, we have not translated that appreciation into adequate help for Vietnam veterans facing homelessness, unemployment, recurrent substance abuse, Agent Orange poisoning, delayed stress syndrome, incarceration, homicide, suicide, amputations, and chemical poisoning.
When a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that wounded Vietnam combat veterans suffered more from PTSD than victims of rape and muggings,06 it received little publicity. And little action was taken. For example, we have only four social service organizations in all of New York City dealing with veterans.67 Compare this with more than fifty such agencies dealing with women’s issues, almost all publicly funded – either directly (by the government) or indirectly (by tax – exempt status).