War on Iraq

Reflections of a Vietnam War Widow: It Doesn't End When They Come Home

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.

What the Defense Department and the VA don't want to acknowledge is that there is no cure for PTSD. Disheartening as it is to say, the new psychiatrists and social workers that the army is now promising to hire are simply too little, too late. The young men and women now coming home will suffer the effects of their combat experience for the rest of their lives. Every day. They will continue to have memories, and nightmares, and flashbacks. Many will continue to be hyper-vigilant and have "startle responses" that are often violent. Many will have trouble managing their anger and their relationships--for the rest of their lives. Many will try to self-medicate to help them forget, and far too many will die by their own hands. This destruction is never limited to an individual; it ripples out, through families, communities and society as a whole.

But that sad truth cannot be used as an excuse for inaction. There is another truth that might at first appear to be contradictory, but assuredly is not. These kids need all the help they can get as soon as possible. Their psychic injuries may not be curable, but their lives, and the lives of their families, can be made infinitely less difficult if they are given the care and support they have earned. They can be assured that their suffering is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation; they can talk to other vets and practice compassion for themselves by feeling it for others; they can be taught techniques for managing their stress and anxiety; they can be relieved of the added burden of financial worry; and they may, at least in the short run, be dissuaded from suicide.

I find hope in the fact that public attention and better knowledge of mental health issues have helped legitimize the psychiatric injuries soldiers sustain in every war. Though government apologists still shamefully spin and distort the numbers, and though military culture still encourages stigmatization, and even punishment, for what they insist on calling weakness or malingering, there is still far more information about posttraumatic stress injuries available, and that makes it less likely that this generation of soldiers and their families will experience the same degree of isolation on top of their grief that we felt. The difference is that we are talking about it now.

I believe that Daniel came back from Vietnam with an injury that finally and directly caused his death. I know almost nothing about his experiences in Vietnam because, like most vets, he refused to talk about them. What I do know is that he was a sensitive, thoughtful, honorable man. Whatever it was that he learned about himself in Vietnam, it was something that caused him an unbearable amount of pain. I believe that the face of the man who daily returned his gaze in the mirror was that of someone he judged to have suffered either too much or not enough. It is easier for me to understand his death, and those of tens of thousand of other psychically injured veterans, either as mercy killings, or executions, or some combination of the two.

Last year, a friend of mine, a Vietnam veteran whose ravaged appearance shocked me, answered my worried questions with a simple truth: "War is hard on veterans." All the images and stories in the media are reminders, triggering uninvited memories, perforating whatever scar tissue they have managed to grow over psychic wounds that have never really healed. I would never presume to put myself in a similar category, but living with a PTSD vet is its own traumatic experience.

I read about the Omvigs and the Luceys and the Schulzes, and all the others now numbering in the hundreds, who tried and failed to bring a soldier all the way home, and I imagine that I have some understanding of what they are going through. It's all the more painful because a public acknowledgment of my generation's veteran suicides might have made a difference in the choices that we, as a nation, made this time around. That both saddens and angers me because there was an opportunity to attach some meaning or value to the deaths of the men we loved and lost, and that chance was forfeit. We owed them more.

Penny Coleman is the widow of a Vietnam Veteran who took his own life after coming home. Her latest book, Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War, was released on Memorial Day, 2006.
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