Here is my latest column on PTSD. It is in today’s North County Times:
In my last column, I wrote about the differences in perspective regarding Combat Operational Stress Injuries and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The civilian world has come to accept that COSI and PTSD exist, and has largely embraced the inevitable truth that not all scars can be seen. In the military, however, there is a very real and tangible stigma against the perceived weakness that accompanies the admission of psychological trauma.
What those in and out of uniform agree on, though, is that psychological injuries are real.
But who suffers from these injuries? Is it only those who carry rifles and do the killing, or are others affected by their experiences in war?
The answer may surprise you.
At the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, there was a young Israeli soldier home on leave when his nation was attacked —- and as any soldier would do, he went to the sound of the guns. Unable to link up with his armored unit, he gave aid to the wounded until a recently repaired tank came available for him to take into the fight. Over the next 20 hours he fought nonstop, destroying more than 20 enemy tanks while having a half dozen shot out from underneath him. When his tank was destroyed, he would jump from the burning hulk and find another so that he could remain in the battle.
Time and time again he cheated death. He fought and killed and watched his crewmates die, and still he went back into the fight. He fought until he could fight no more; climbing from his tank, he fell to the ground, muttering “I can’t anymore …” as he collapsed. He could go no farther.
For a soldier to experience savagery on such an intimate and visceral level leaves him with scars that only he sees. He still carries those scars, decades later, and deals with them by sharing his experiences with the youth of his nation.
But what about veterans who have not killed for their country? What about those who don’t carry a rifle or fight in a tank?
Let me tell you about a young Marine who spent seven months at an airbase in Iraq. He worked on the flight line from which his squadron’s helicopters flew casualty evacuation missions. Day in and day out they came and went, and at the end of the mission the aircraft would be parked and serviced.
This Marine’s job was a simple one —- all he had to do was clean out the back of the helicopter. Day after day he washed blood and brains and bits of shredded uniforms from the back of the helicopter so that it would be ready to fly.
Now, years later, he cannot close his eyes to sleep without seeing the bloody decks he scrubbed. Although he left that base in Iraq, it never leaves him.
How about the young Air Force radio operator who hitched a ride with some soldiers in an armored vehicle? As they traveled across the Iraqi town of Ramadi they were ambushed, and the airman watched the crew burn to death after an IED ripped through the fuel tank and sparked an inferno before they could bail out.
And then there are the doctors and nurses who worked in Charlie Med. On one particularly bad night, a squad of Marines was hit by a tragically effective attack in which a devastating IED literally cut them down at the knees. The surgical team amputated more than a dozen legs and feet that night, and the coming dawn found them huddled outside the door, shaking as they smoked cigarette after cigarette next to a pile of shredded limbs.
Do these people have psychological injuries?
Yes. I know because I was there, and like them I have my own burdens.
And like the tank commander, I will share them, too.