Violence Follows Iraq, Afghanistan Vets Back Home
“Now who … would you like … to say goodbye to?” my father panted into my face. The chords stood out on his neck, his face the piercing red of rage, just inches above my own. I was pinned to the floor, scrawny beneath his adult brawn. He held a lethal-looking hunting knife tight across my throat. He was threatening to murder me for refusing to drink a beer.
When my father returned from Southeast Asia forty years ago, he carried from the jungle a disease as sure as if he’d been carrying typhoid. That disease was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and he passed it along to our entire family.
When men who have been trained to kill, and have been mercilessly hunted, are dumped back into an unsuspecting family and community, very bad things often happen.
There aren’t enough newspapers published to carry all the stories of American lives destroyed by war. It extends well beyond the soldiers themselves, into family, community, even economics, productivity and health care costs. An internal Army review, published in 2009, demonstrated a marked increase in violent crime in the area around Ft. Carson, Colorado, directly correlated to the level of combat violence experienced by returning brigades. The more violent and sustained the combat experienced by the brigade, the higher the spike in local violence.
In the sufferer of PTSD, stress becomes a way of life – it is a necessary survival mechanism. One cannot let one’s guard down in a war zone; to do so means death. The individual learns to love the stress, to rely upon it, even to feed upon the physical ‘high’ of the constant rush of adrenalin. Fear is literally a drug, and it can be as addictive as heroin.
On the offensive side of battle, mercy, remorse, moral hesitation – these have no place in the planned killing of war. The most successful soldier – the soldier who stays alive and carries out his given missions – learns to do so in the same rush of adrenalin, sometimes translated into a gleeful sadism. My father recounted to me once a ‘cat and mouse’ game played with a Vietcong armored vehicle, caught in the open, and an American fighter jet.
“We’d fire on him, and he’d stop, and turn in another direction like a little bug, and we’d fire again, and he’d turn around again, trying to get away,” he laughed.
Once removed from the stimulus of war, the soldier, now an adrenalin junky, seeks to recreate the stress that gives him his fix. This is often accomplished through speeding down the highway, conflicts with police, or dangerous forays into drug abuse. In the family, conflict is result: Violent arguments among spouses and with children. In the worst cases, family and community members become the target of the rage of a trained killer. I watched my father run drivers off the road for small infractions and beat men bloody over college football rivalries.
Members of the family, caged in with such a person, develop their own PTSD. Spouses who eventually escape the abuse move on to new abusers, seeking to recreate the stress to which they themselves are now addicted. Children take inordinate risks, often ending up in conflict with the law or as drug abusers themselves. The pattern of the broken family is thus passed down generation to generation.
The young soldier going off to war doesn’t know any of this. Recruiters take pains to avoid the subject when talking to prospects. Soldiers accept that they may sacrifice their lives in service of their country, but it is not often mentioned that they may instead be left alive with crippling, permanent mental scars. And we need not be deceived that this is a singular sacrifice – the costs span the breadth of community and generations of the soldier’s own family.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a natural result of long-term stress and violent events. Veterans who have seen active combat, and affected family members, are encouraged to visit the website of the National Center for PTSD: http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/index.asp
Afterdeployment.org is also an excellent resource: http://afterdeployment.org/topics-post-traumatic-stress
Sean Shealy is the author of Corruption & Cover-Ups of the Bush White House Unmasked, an anti-war activist, and a beneficiary of PTSD — yes, the condition offers an often-valuable upside. He can be reached at SeanShealy@informationpress.net.