Not Broken, Just Human. (addressing PTSD from combat)

” I haven’t written anything about the ‘Big Picture’, because I don’t know anything about it. I only know what we see from our worm’s-eye view, and our segment of the picture consists only of tired dirty soldiers who are alive and don’t want to die…”
– Ernie Pyle

Before I begin, let me say, I am no expert on PTSD, by any means. This is a second hand opinion and, may not be in line with what science or psychologists will tell you. These are just my thoughts on the subject after 9-year relationship with my husband, a combat veteran.

PTSD has long been regarded as a negative diagnosis, particularly among our veterans. Over the years it has had many names-shell shock, soldier’s heart, combat exhaustion, combat fatigue-and now some are trying to change it to PTS, dropping the D in hopes of dropping the stigma associated with it. I suspect in 20 years that combat-related PTSD will have a different name, as labels are always changing.

A little back story: My husband and I have been together for 9 years. He served honorably in the United States Marine Corps, and was twice deployed to Iraq. From what I can tell, the first deployment didn’t cause much change from the man he already was.

But the second deployment was different.

I have watched my husband change from war; I saw a boy when he left, and a man with a heavy heart when he came home. Gone was that beautiful smile I fell in love with, that innocent guy that would shake anyone’s hand. Now he man weighted down by the world, he had seen things no one can imagine. He now trusted no one…not even me.

To give you a small idea of what war is really like and what is seen, a book calledGeneration Kill made a simple observation, dogs eating human remains. I studied conflict/military history for many years and never once was anything like that brought up in any book or a documentary. But just imagine going to war and that is one of the first things you see. While seeing the death is what you can expect in war, and by no means pretty, as Americans you don’t expect to see dogs so desperate for food they eat human flesh. I asked a few more people about the dogs. An Army friend of mine once shared an experience when he had to guard his friends body for over 2 days to keep the dogs from eating the remains, and then having to drive back to base with that body in a bag on his lap. I don’t think many people think about that, I know in my many studies, I never did.

I could go on about the things seen in war, and if you are a veteran you already know, but I am not writing this to be graphic. I can’t imagine how I would respond to such experiences. All I know is that, the weight of war is one I pray no one feels-but if some must I pray it is only a small and strong few.

Now going from that to coming home in a week or two later, to a life where your girlfriends biggest problem is passing school, and your brothers is having enough money to buy the newest shoes. Where people get mad because you messed up there Grande “blah blah blah” latte. I can’t help but think of the anger and frustration that would generate inside someone. Watching so many people take life and the wonderful things we have for granted is enough to make any combat veteran mad. You start to think that maybe, in some way, your what is supposed to be “normal” and “right” world no longer makes sense, and in a lot of ways you are right.

What I want to say is, to any Veteran who feels weak for experiencing that heavy heart, that ache and that pain that comes along with war. Who feels frustrated back home, or feels bad for actually missing the rush of combat, and emotionally detached. You are normal.

I once asked a councilor at the VA who she is more worried about, those with PTSD, or those who have no problems at all with what they saw and did. She said the latter. This is the way I see it as well. So many of our Veterans say they are now “cold” and “emotionless”. Chances are you are not, but that you are the opposite, you feel so much. You feel so much that you put up walls and barriers. You are afraid to show emotion because in the battle that is considered weakness, you are afraid to love because you know the pain of loss, you are cold because that was your body and minds only way of handling what you had to see and do. That is normal. Ernie Pyle once wrote:

” A front line solider has to harden his inside as his outside or he would crack under the strain.”[1]

The human body can only endure so much. The mind is the same; while it can withstand far more than what most people think, it still has to protect itself somehow. So you build these walls to protect yourself in combat, but then it becomes hard to take that step-or two, or three-back to civilian life the way the world expects you to. It isn’t easy to go backward or to take your emotions and adrenaline from a 10 to a 5. Once you build those walls to protect yourself it can take a long time to peel them back. I know because 9 years later my husband is still slowly knocking his down. And we are still rebuilding our relationship that was damaged by the last deployment. I often said that he built the Great Wall of China around him, considering you can see it from space, that is a heck of a lot of wall to tear down! But we keep moving forward.

Ultimately, though, I guess what I want to say, is that PTSD is a normal response to a not normal situation. This response makes you human, and more importantly it makes you normal. It means beneath all those walls, there is still a man with a big heart. It means that you still have your humanity; your body and mind recognizes what it had to see and do was not humane, and acted in self defense (A good thing!). PTSD doesn’t make you a bad person-it makes you a human, with a heart.

You did what your nation asked of you. You filled a role many are unwilling to fill, but that is desperately needed. You are a hero for not only risking your life, but for sacrificing your heart and mind as well. You are not alone, you are not broken. You are our sheepdogs.

[1] Ernie Pyle, Brave Men (University of Nebraska Press, 2001), 5.

This is a piece I wrote in January 2014, and was published in Seth Adam Smith’s blog Forward Walking. This is a second re-write of this blog, I left some things in this edition that were important to me that had been taken out in the original blog posted on Forward Walking.

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