We may even learn how many of our people come home to a marriage they can no longer maintain, a job they can no longer hold, a society they no longer feel comfortable in, a life they can no longer bear to live. In time, we may even know which divorces, which lives sinking into alcohol and drugs and which suicides had roots in Fallujah or Baghdad or Kabul.
What we can never know—and I speak for all Americans who have never been to war—is the experience, or accumulation of experiences, that damages soldiers invisibly, yet so deeply that we label their pain with an acronym they must share with rape victims, automobile accident victims, victims of robbery or abuse. PTSD: post-traumatic stress disorder.
We can only guess at what specifically induced it in those men and women, sons and daughters. Did he watch a brother-in-arms die? Was it the RPG, or the IED, that turned his HumVee to shards and his squad to KIAs? Was it the carnage? The thump of rockets? The unrelenting fear?
Or did he kill? Is that what haunts him?
If past wars are any guide, it may be years—decades—before our younger veterans understand why they aren't the same people they were when they shipped out. But, if past wars are a guide, we can measure with relative certainty what many of them will go through on that path to understanding. And as bleak as that measurement may seem at times, is it not our duty to the men and women who make it their duty to fight our country's battles that we not only let them know what they may be in for, but that we provide them every allowance of help they need?
Following are the stories, incomplete as they may be, of three veterans who suffer PTSD. They fought in different, older, wars from those in which our soldiers are now engaged. But while the enemy, the terrain or the tactics may change, the aftermath doesn't.
Steve Colson knew he was in trouble the night he emptied his gun into the waterbed he and his wife had once shared. It was either the bed, or himself.
"I had my pistol to my head. I was going to blow my freaking brains out, and then I thought, 'I can't. I still have my son to raise.' So I unloaded 15 rounds into a waterbed. It was pretty comical, but back then it wasn't. There was water shooting all over the place, and I'm, like, 'Oh shit! What the hell was I thinking?'"
Whatever brought Steve to that moment had been incubating for a long time. He joined the Army at 19. He's a big man—played football for Nampa High School—and he was a good and willing fit for the position of airborne scout. He wanted to go to Vietnam, but by the time his training was over, essentially Vietnam was, too.
- Joyce Alexander
- After leaving the military, Steve Colson found himself suffering from the same symptoms many other veterans of combat have experienced, although its only recently been given a name: post traumatic stress disorder. Thanks to support, Colson has been able to battle his demons.
There was no shortage of unfriendly locales for the U.S. military to be, though. Steve's first deployment was to the East German border, where he watched helplessly as a man's corpse was left hanging for two days in the barbed wire after being shot while trying to defect. Korea followed—Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua, Egypt, Lebanon—he was five miles away when the Marine barracks, along with 241 Marines, were bombed in 1983.
Ten years in, his leg was injured in a parachute accident and he could no longer jump. The Army found him a ride—an M1-A1 tank—and that's how he spent the first Gulf War. In exercises, he and his crew could put a 120mm shell through a target the size of a basketball hoop from 1,000 meters. With skills like that, there was little doubt who would come out of it victorious in any encounters with Saddam Hussein's armored divisions.
"There are things that stick in your head. Clearing bunkers sticks in my head. Always will. I shot a BRDM [Russian-built personnel carrier] at 2 in the morning. It was boogying across the desert. I lased him; put a heat round right through him. Well, apparently, it was carrying fuel, because it just went up in a giant fireball. An unusual explosion for that kind of vehicle. And then these guys are running out, and they're all on fire. That stuck with me for a while.
"Basra bothers me. If you go to Basra today, there's not a very big dog population. We took care of them. We buried all these dead Iraqis, and dogs were digging them up at night, and you see a dog running off with some guy's arm ... So we took care of the dogs.
"The great thing I'm proud of in the entire Gulf War ... I shot this guy's tank out from underneath him. The next morning, I'm looking through the thermal sight and I see this little hot spot ... I get over there and he's hiding. The guy is soaking wet, it's been raining, and it's cold as hell. I took him around behind the tank. He'd been told that Americans would execute him, and he just knew he was fixing to die.
"I stood him behind the exhaust of the tank, and it dried him out in no time. I give him a blanket, an MRE, put him up on my tank. I carried that little bastard around with me for 24 hours. He had pictures of his wife, pictures of his kids. He's a soldier, doing what he's supposed to do. Defending his country just like we were defending ours. So you gotta respect the guy. Even when they're dead. You bury them properly. You make sure they're taken care of. You register their graves. They're soldiers. And you treat every soldier with the same respect that you want."
After 22 years, Steve retired from the Army and in an exit evaluation, he was diagnosed with PTSD. He'd been experiencing sleep disorder and suicidal thoughts for years, but at the time, he wasn't aware it was a great problem.
"I just thought this was normal. I thought, 'OK, everybody must go through this.'"
Steve's marriage lasted six months after he left the military.
"We talked later, and she said, 'You were a totally different person. You weren't the happy-go-lucky, jolly guy that I knew before. You were quiet, you were sullen, you didn't communicate like you used to.' I didn't have a clue. I didn't realize I had changed that dramatically.
"I went from my strapping 220 pounds down to 170 pounds. I wasn't eating. I wasn't sleeping. In November of '96, was when I first went and got help, and that was a big deal for me. I'd fought it and fought it. 'There's nothing wrong with me, there's nothing wrong with me.'
"And then, you know, I mean ... I shot my bed.
"Everybody experiences different reactions, different symptoms. For me, it was ... you lose the ability to trust folks. You question things a lot more. You feel an uneasiness. I could not get used to being a civilian. Could not get used to it.
"I still feel that way. I go anywhere ... I go into a building, I'm looking for escape routes. I'm looking for where the most likely attack would come from. I'm going down the road thinking, 'How would I defend this position, how would I defend that position?'
"I call it my 'Spidey senses.' My Spidey senses start going off, and I kind of look for a corner to crawl off into. Nothing's going on, but it's overwhelming, because I feel like I'm being closed in. Trapped.
"When I go to a new place, like a new bar or a new restaurant, especially around new people, you will find me somewhere observing, watching, wondering 'who or where or when am I going to run into trouble here? And how am I going to deal with it?'"
To this day, Steve misses the Army way, the structure, the attention to detail, the camaraderie. "I also noticed that people had a hard time dealing with me. I expected people to be on time, appropriately dressed, ready to work, ready to do their job ... If I got upset at somebody for not doing their job correctly or whatever, I would go into Army-mode and start chewing their ass like I did soldiers. In the civilian world, they don't understand that. They're like, 'This guy is nuts.' To me, that was normal. That was my normal.
"Civilians don't understand, and that's part of the problem I have relating to civilians. I can't ... I don't have an on-and-off switch. You go into combat and shit starts flying everywhere, and you're in this mad minute, two minutes, five minutes, however long it lasts ... a fire fight. It's usually just short little periods of intense stuff. And then there's quiet, dullness and boredom. So you spike. Your lows and highs are like canyons and Mt. Everest. And when you come home, you're dealing with a whole different set of priorities."
What Steve went through—and is still going through—is not in the least unusual for a combat veteran. Lingering edginess, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, substance abuse, the thoughts of suicide—they have all plagued ex-soldiers probably from the origins of war. After World War I, it was called "shell shock." WWII gave it the name "combat fatigue." It wasn't until combatants were returning from Vietnam that mental health professionals began to give the problem the serious attention it deserved. And with that attention, many veterans of earlier wars started to recognize their own troubled lives reflected in the younger generation of soldiers, and after decades of suffering, finally sought out therapy.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has responded admirably, by most accounts, to the Iraq and Afghanistan vets stricken with PTSD. Within six months of returning from deployment in those theaters, every soldier—be they active duty, National Guard or Reserve status—is evaluated with a Post-Deployment Health Re-Assessment. Out of the hundreds of thousands who have been tested thus far, the PDHRA data is showing that somewhere around 35 percent of them have come back with psychological problems that, in the view of VA professionals, need to be addressed.
"There is a whole spectrum of what we would call war-related problems, and you don't want to just focus on PTSD because depression is almost as common as PTSD in combat veterans," said Dr. Larry Dewey, chief of psychiatry at the Boise Veterans Affairs Medical Center. "Sleep disorders are just rampant. People can't sleep because of nightmares, hyper-vigilance and restlessness. That is exhausting. It wears you down over time. Substance abuse is up. We are keeping track of that. Post-deployment deaths are up. That is something we see in every war ... the first year or two after people come home, they are more likely to die of accidents. They take more risks."
- Joyce Alexander
- Dr. Larry Dewey, chief of psychiatry at the Boise Veterans Affairs Medical Center helps veterans of all wars deal with PTSD.
The end of a young veteran's marriage doesn't necessarily mean PTSD is involved, but the VA is tracking the rate of divorce among returning soldiers. From 2001 to the end of 2004, the divorce rate in the Army officer corps rose almost 400 percent. And while the alarming rise in suicides among military people has made news of late, it may be only indirectly related to PTSD.
"The data suggests that the causes of suicide are disruptions in families. If you look at what's happening and why people are committing suicide, it's because their marriages, their families are falling apart. You can make another connection to that ... If they have PTSD, that might make them harder to live with and harder to stay together as a family," Dewey explained.
"But the Army would say it's the rapid rate of deployment and the extent of deployments. Being deployed not once, but twice, three times, four times. PTSD is probably involved at a secondary level ... but the primary cause is family disruption and the loss of love relationships."
("Dave" is a false name, as is "Rudy" in the later profile. Dave didn't want his identity known, and Rudy—upon learning one of the other vets interviewed for this article wanted to remain anonymous— said "If that's what my brother wants, I'm with him.")
Dave, 61, walks with a cane and is on medication for chronic pain. When asked if his bad leg has anything to do with the wounds he got in Vietnam, he first answers no, then backtracks.
"Actually, it does, but in a kind of strung-out way. When I came back from Vietnam, life was pretty f***ing boring. I needed to get that adrenaline high again, so I did stupid things, including big motorcycles. I used to ride with the vets, and we'd decide, 'OK, let's take some acid and ride from [Los Angeles] to San Diego as fast as we can go at 3 in the morning.' Just really stupid things. This [he points to his knee] is from a high-speed motorcycle accident. I was 23."
Five years before his accident, Dave left Idaho Falls and enlisted in the Air Force. He was trained to be an Air Commando, going through the Army's Jump and Ranger schools, then was sent to Vietnam.
"We'd go out under the wire and we'd be out there sometimes for days. When you look back on it, that can get pretty depressing at times. I called in air strikes. That's what we were out there to do. Usually, we took off running because it was like a real good idea to get out of there. But one time ... they told us to go back. There were crispy critters all over the place because I'd called in napalm. Then all the sudden, there were little crispy critters. I've never forgotten that."
Dave left the military in 1968 with two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. He is humble about his heroism. "To this day, I'm not really sure why I got [the Bronze Star]. There was this situation, and all I was trying to do was get the f*** outta there. I don't see one thing brave about what I did."
By the early '70s, he began to suspect he had a problem. He was living in Southern California at the time.
"I went to a VA hospital in L.A. and set up an appointment with a doctor. He told me it was all in my head—which I wasn't denying because it definitely was. But that didn't exactly give me an explanation. One of the things he said was 'You're just in here to try to get some money out of the government.'
"I looked at him and said, 'That's strange. I never thought about money. I'm just kind of worried about some of these dreams I'm having.'
"I just about—just about—smacked a girlfriend one night. She was trying to wake me up because I was in a bad dream. I grabbed her by the throat and my hand was back, and I went, 'What the f*** am I doing?'
"I have one dream that keeps recurring over the years ... that always brings me back to a situation where I ... I ... it was the first time I ever lost anybody that I was commanding. That was just a horrible blow. And I was 20."
"PTSD will find ways to start showing up. In Southern California [was] the first time I'd ever had an intrusive thought. I was actually standing there looking at somebody I knew I'd put in a body bag. I was wide awake. It was daytime and I wasn't alone. It happened and I went, 'Whoa. I don't like this idea.'
"Then when I was doing my student teaching ... I was standing up in front of the class, behind the lectern. I looked up, and sitting on the teacher's desk in the back of the class was the first guy I knew who got killed in Vietnam. I mean, I was with him when he got killed. There he was. He looked about 18, which is about right. And I said, 'Mother f***er,' just like that. The kids were like 'Mister ...!' I swear at the time I could even smell it. I could smell the jungle rot."
In 1979, he took an offer to work in a veterans' center—first in Boise, then in Iowa and North Carolina. He worked to make other PTSD-afflicted vets aware they weren't alone and that help was available.
Dave escaped none of the symptoms associated with PTSD. "There's the hyper-vigilance ... that's always fun. That's where you go around, after you know that you already locked the doors and the windows in the house, you go back and check again, just to make sure. I've spent years sleeping with a pistol under the pillow. I've been in several vets' houses where there were multiple firearms, everywhere. And I'm going 'Hmmm ... I thought I had it bad.'"
"Sometimes you get through to people. There was one guy I visited up in Northern Idaho when I was doing outreach. First time I ever went to his place, there were signs that said 'No Trespassing: Survivors Will Be Prosecuted.' He had a gun everywhere in that house. I went up there twice to talk, and he'd come down here and we'd talk. And then finally, he came down out of the mountains, moved his family down and started college. Finished an undergraduate degree and also a master's in social work."
In explaining the isolation a PTSD-sufferer often feels, Dave said, "Most people think nobody else could be feeling things like that. I don't know how many times I've talked to people who came in for counseling, and they'd look at me and say 'Have you been reading my mail?'"
"It wasn't until later years, once the idea of PTSD started making the circuit and people started finding out about it, [older vets] went, 'Wow, yeah, that's what I've been feeling.' I've talked to a lot of them, what I call the 'Class of '46' folks ... WWII vets, Korean vets. I get the same reaction from them basically that I get from Vietnam vets. They've got this stuff, and they've carried it with them for a long, long time.
"The longer you deal with PTSD, the more ways you have of putting it down, trying to tamp it in. A lot of it is really ultra personal. It becomes that way because of the nature of what you've done. You know, what's the difference between a war hero and a war criminal? Not much."
In his remarkable book, War and Redemption (2004, Ashgate Publishing Limited) Dewey tells of a WWII veteran who, in a group therapy session, relayed essentially the same sentiment as Dave.
"We had been meeting for about two years and were discussing some of the vets' more distressing experiences in greater depth when Ed said quietly, 'Aren't we all murderers?' As I looked around the group, I was sobered and distressed to see many nodding in apparent agreement."
Colson expressed it another way. "You see shit, you do shit, and you think, 'How could I have done that? People don't do this.'"
In many ways, the PTSD of veterans is not indifferent from that suffered by civilians from civilian traumas, but Dewey explained a significant difference: "As currently defined, PTSD is a response to stuff done to you. It's not really a response to what you do to others. That's why I wrote War and Redemption because nobody was talking about that in the PTSD literature. We don't recognize how different 'outside-the-wire' soldiers are sometimes from 'inside-the-wire' soldiers. The 'inside-the-wire' soldiers are people who are getting shot at, rocketed and bombed. But they're not delivering death to the enemy. The 'outside-the-wire' people are the hunters. They're going out there, seeking out the enemy, and they're killing them ... They have a very different set of symptoms and responses than the 'inside-the-wire' people. The 'inside-the-wire' people are more traditional PTSD patients. The 'outside-the-wire' people are much more complex. They've seen all the trauma that the 'inside-the-wire' people have, and a lot more. They have dealt out as much death as they could ... And that changes how you think about yourself ... You're a different person because of that."
The "outside-the-wire" soldiers also have an added burden: fear of being stigmatized for what they may have done and what they feel they may have become. That fear often keeps them from ever letting anyone know about what well might have been—at least to them—the defining events of their lives. Nor is it an unfounded fear. "Dave" remembered the time he gave in—against his better judgment—to a girlfriend's request that he tell her what he'd done in Vietnam. He returned the next day to an empty apartment and a letter explaining how she could no longer be with someone like him.
In his one and only face-to-face encounter with the enemy, Rudy pulled his shot.
"We'd been out in the field forever, and we get sent out again. We marched all night through two Viet Cong villages and set up some ambushes and then [others] were going to make an assault on these villages. My partner, S..., and I get sent out on an outpost. I am absolutely exhausted. I just had to go to sleep. I said, 'Let me sleep for 10 minutes and then I'll pull guard until we get pulled back.'"
Without knowing the specific details of what he was getting himself into, this is exactly what Rudy had set out to do a year earlier in 1965, the year he'd enlisted in the Army.
"As I was growing up, all of the men I looked up to were all veterans. Father, uncle, neighbors, they were all veterans of World War II. The implication to me as a boy was that this was part of the process to manhood. In fact, you could jump right to manhood if you'd been in a war. As ludicrous as that sounds, I was 20 years old, and I thought it was true. I volunteered for the infantry so there was not a chance of me trying to approach my manliness from inside the wire."
Within hours of arriving in Vietnam, Rudy's innate sense of right and wrong was challenged when he witnessed a more seasoned soldier throw a can of C-rations into a small Vietnamese boy's chest. "I grabbed him by the scruff of his neck. 'What the hell did you do that for?' And he said, 'He's a f***ing gook.'"
Rudy's first tour lasted little more than four months. But before he was sent back to the states for Officer Candidate School, came that night in the jungle.
"I'm still sleeping and this [VC] bursts through the hedge ... S ... stands up with his [weapon] and pulls the trigger. It didn't fire. The VC guy turns around and S... grabs me and screams 'Wake up!' and here's this guy, from here to [about 20 feet away]. I swing my rifle around and I pull that trigger. I can't let myself do that. I raise the rifle. I pull the trigger again and I raised the rifle again. 'God dammit!' I say. I pull it again, but I can't make myself stop raising the rifle. I put it on full automatic, thinking I can hold that sonofabitch down. But by this time, the guy is a long ways away, and I can't hit him.
"I was struck by two things almost simultaneously. One of them was ... I felt good. I thought, 'Shit, I couldn't do it.' But almost immediately, [it hit me], 'I can not not do this.' I mean, I'm in the infantry, right? It's my job. My job is to kill people."
No one but him realized what had happened. "I knew I couldn't live like that in Vietnam. The next time something like that happens, [the enemy] is going to turn around and shoot me or shoot my buddy. And I can't allow myself to have that reluctance."
Before returning to Vietnam for his second tour, Rudy married. He learned his wife was pregnant just before he left.
"Anger precedes violence, and for me, rage has to precede real violence. I had to cultivate a rage that would enable me to over-rule that instinct, that reluctance to kill. During my second tour, I worked on this rage, and I was pretty good at cultivating it. It went from, 'I need to be angry enough to hurt people.' to 'I want to hurt people.' I needed to find this part of me that was capable of wreaking big violence ... and digging it.
"It was easier to create that kind of rage against [others] when they looked, acted, smelled different than me. I wanted to kill closer and closer. I really wanted to reach down the throat and grab the soul and rip it the f*** out with my bare hands. That's where I ended up when I left Vietnam."
He never again came as close to the enemy as he did that night. "I threw a lot of ammunition at things, and a lot of people were killed and wounded by ammunition coming my way, but I never had the one-to-one connection again."
Rudy was discharged in 1969. "I got out of the jungle on a Wednesday, I got home on Saturday, and started school on Monday. I had a 3-month-old son I'd never seen before. No gear-shifting time. I didn't have time to think."
"People would ask me what Vietnam was like and ... I remember one time being at a dinner. The family was there, and someone asked me to tell what Vietnam was like, and I started to tell them. About three sentences in, it occurred to me that this is not what people want to hear. I never, ever talked about it. I just covered up.
"So I'm being the anti-war guy. I'm being the peace guy, the take-acid-and-roll-around-in-the-grass guy. I'm being all these things, but I knew that I was faking it. I knew I was pretending to be that guy, because who I really was was the guy who wanted to rip the f***ing soul out of the Vietnamese with his hands. I knew that's who I was.
"I had a lot of problems. My marriage was f***ed. I was unbelievably promiscuous in everything. Consumption of alcohol and drugs and chasing women ... I mean, I had no morals whatsoever."
"My ex-wife ... I talk about my problems? Shoot, she had to have a baby by herself, right? I got no time for her trauma, she's got no time for my trauma. What did we know about this? We were still kids. We got married when we were 22. What did we know about trauma? We weren't even using the word 'trauma.'
"About a year and a half [after I got home], I get purposely, horribly drunk. I get in my car and went trying to wreck it. And I did. I can remember going around a corner, feeling it tipping over, and I remember standing on that accelerator. I woke up in the hospital. As I looked back on it, I realized it wasn't just a drunken car wreck. It was a suicide attempt. And I needed to get some help."
Rudy moved his family to Boise. He had three children by then and a marriage that continued to disintegrate. He agreed to marriage counseling but couldn't respond in the same way as his wife. Once, when asked by the counselor to describe what he was feeling, the only answer he could think of was, "I feel like I'm a tree. I have really good, thick bark on the outside, and if you get inside that bark, I got solid wood. This is what I feel."
Reluctantly, he agreed to attend a get-away weekend of intensive group therapy. "It's 3 in the morning and I'm tired as hell ... just get through listening to another guy cry about his mom ... and the counselor looks at me and says, 'Hey Rudy, when are you going to tell us about Vietnam?'
"It was like I'd been in a fist fight and I got tired and dropped my hands down and the other guy came over the top and hit me right on the f***ing kisser. I remembered about that soldier throwing the C-ration can at that kid, and that was the first time I told that story. The first time, ever, I felt that grief. I cried and sobbed and broke down and goddamn could hardly f***ing breathe. I saw that counselor for 50 bucks a month, which I could not afford ... I saw him for a year and a half. And it changed my life. It saved my life."
His first marriage failed, but his second lasted. "I don't know what's left of it, my PTSD. But you ask what I did to dial down that rage? I think fundamentally, specifically with my [second] wife, I let her love me. This isn't some purposeful thing I started out to do, but looking back, I let myself be loved. And over time, I wanted to be worthy of that love."
The three veterans who have told their stories herein have led successful and rewarding lives in spite of what they've experienced. They are three entirely different men—different backgrounds, different politics, different world views. But beyond having lived with PTSD for the largest part of their lives, they have another thing in common. They all sought out and received treatment.
Hundreds of thousands of veterans from America's current wars have returned, or will return, home having faced the same tribulations as Steve, Dave and Rudy. The level and intensity of their trauma may even, in some ways, be worse, given the length and recurrence of their deployments. But the VA, according to Dewey, is striving to be prepared for them.
"Luckily, in the last two years, Congress has radically increased the amount of funding we're getting for mental health programs at the VA ... We have now, more or less, enough resources here at the Boise VA to take care of the people who are presenting to us right now. But by our best estimates, only a modest percentage of the people who need to see us are actually coming to see us."
For guidance in how to approach the problems of this younger generation, Dewey turned to his oldest patients. "When I describe these young vets to my older vets, they say. 'That was us right after World War II. That was us right after Korea. That was us right after Vietnam.'
"I've asked them [older vets] for their advice on how I should deal with the younger vets, and we've actually developed this little message. Older vets would want to say three things: 'Don't drink and do drugs. It just makes it worse.'
"They would say, 'If your family says you've changed and you're messed up, then you have changed and you are messed up. And you need help.'
"And they would say, 'The treatment works. It's actually helpful to get into treatment.'
"What a lot of the younger vets are hoping for is that the problems they're having will just go away. That could happen to some degree. It certainly has happened to previous generations. But, I tell you, it works a lot better to get help sooner rather than later."
For veterans of any war who may have recognized something about themselves in this article, the Boise Department of Veterans Affairs branch invites them to register in Building 85-A, or call 208-422-1108 for further information.