Spring is filled with significant dates for America's military veterans. April 29 and 30 marked the 30th anniversary of the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam… May 12 was the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe… Memorial Day acknowledged all those service men and women who've given their lives in the service of their country… and June 6 was the 61st anniversary of D-Day, the pivotal invasion of Normandy.
|Distressed U.S. soldier (ITN Archive)|
If there's one thing veterans who've seen combat have in common, besides having put their lives on the line, it's memories of the horrors they experienced and carry with them for the rest of their lives -- a condition known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
PTSD is nothing new. Veterans who fought in the trenches of World War I and returned home changed men were referred to as "shell-shocked." Audie Murphy, America's most decorated World War II soldier, suffered from the nightmares and short-temper known as "combat fatigue" until the day he died in 1971. It took the Vietnam War, and a broader understanding of the effects of combat by the medical community a decade later, to establish that PTSD is very real, and not an excuse to avoid responsibilities.
Tuesday mornings, combat veterans in Hot Springs, South Dakota, who suffer from
PTSD get together for their weekly support group, working to help each other move past the horrors of warfare that they brought home with them.
Alvin Harris was married and the father of a 3-day old son when he was plucked from the serenity of life in his hometown and dropped in the middle of a war zone. He spent a year on the front lines in Vietnam as a truck driver. When he came home in 1969, life just wasn't the same.
"We got to the Denver International [Airport] and that's where my wife picked me up, and I didn't recognize her," Mr. Harris recalls. "I was sitting there talking to a sailor, and they had to kind of come roust me out of this conversation I was in because I felt more comfortable with the sailor than I did with anybody else. Maybe I knew what to talk to the sailor about 'cause I certainly didn't know how to talk to my wife anymore. I just didn't know how to deal with a lot of it. And I didn't know how to deal with it for a long, long time."
Jack Dean was already in the Navy when Washington increased the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam. He volunteered for combat because he thought it was the right thing to do. "Of course, in retrospect, I wish I hadn't," he says. " It was hot, humid, it was miserable...smell of carnage. The enemy didn't scare me as much as the...not knowing what was going happen next. When I came back, I would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat...scared, angry and not knowing why.
It took Jack Dean 20 years and the support of other Vietnam vets to start dealing with his issues from combat.
Charlie Andersen's issues date back 60 years. He flew 14 missions over Europe as a B-17 tail gunner before his plane was shot down on May 19, 1944 -- two weeks before the D-Day invasion. He had already experienced trauma from anti-aircraft fire and German fighter planes. That was almost minor, he says, compared to his time as a prisoner of war near Berlin. Mr. Andersen was one of 7,000 Allied POWs who were part of the "Black March" - a grueling 84-day journey along the Baltic Sea.
"February the 8th they said, 'Get your blanket...we're walking out.' And in this time, some of the boys froze their feet. And if they froze their feet, why the gangrene set in and in 4 or 5 days, why, they died," Mr. Anderson recalls. "And some gets pneumonia, and in 24 hours, why they passed on. And 80% of us got the diarrhea. The Germans would not let us drink the fresh water. We had to eat snow early in the march. And then the water in the ditches, if we wanted to drink we had to drink it. And most of that was water that came out of the barnyards, cow yards, hog barns and so forth."
The march didn't end until the prisoners were liberated by Allied troops on May 4. The 83 year-old rancher says he's suffered physically and psychologically ever since. "When I came home, my nerves was so bad, I'd get up at midnight and I'd walk for miles...until daylight...cause I couldn't sleep," he says. "And it's still there...it's still there. Two, three, four times a week...just a little 'bong' or something like that, I'll sit there real tense like. Then, all of a sudden, I'll get up."
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can be eased with emotional support and therapy, which is not yet a regular part of the military discharge procedure. But, as Veterans Administration therapist - and veteran - Mike DeFoe points out, addressing the needs of those who've fought in combat is essential for any country that sends its men and women to war.
"With as much as people have done for their country, their country can never do too much for them," Mr. DeFoe says. "I think it's basic and essential that all these people, and they have the right...if anyone has a right to something in this country.... it's people like those kind of people that protect us. Well, it also comes time for us to protect them, and what they've done, and, uh, we can't forget that. The morale is still very good. It's always high among these young heroes, as I refer to them. But, let's never forget our obligation.
Audie Murphy received 33 combat awards, including the Medal of Honor, for his service in World War II. He later gave all his medals away, and lobbied Congress to recognize and assist veterans who suffered with PTSD from their service in Vietnam. When asked what his secret was as a sergeant while fighting in Europe, Audie Murphy replied, "Lead from the front."
Mike DeFoe, and the Vietnam veterans of South Dakota are trying to do just that as they teach younger veterans that the best way to heal is to seek help.