War takes toll on soldiers that can’t be easily repaid | TheUnion.com

War takes toll on soldiers that can’t be easily repaid

Michael Schwalm and others have effectively outlined why a U.S. invasion of Iraq is a bad idea, so I’d like to approach the matter from a different perspective. This has to do with a hidden cost of war – a cost most civilians never see.

For a fair portion of my professional life, I operated a psychotherapy treatment program for combat veterans. Since 1982, I have personally treated more than 100 veterans still suffering physically and emotionally from their war experiences. Some were three-war vets (WWII, Korea and Vietnam), some two-war, while the majority were from the Vietnam era, and the rest represented our military incursions after 1975.

Most of these vets suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to their war experiences, but many also suffered pain and physical damage caused by combat wounds or injuries. Their stories were as varied as their personalities, but two common themes pervaded the collective experience that brought them to my office: love of country and a profound grief over loss of comrades, health and human relationships. To illustrate what my wife calls society’s “instant amnesia” toward veterans after treaties are signed, I’d like to introduce you to one of them.

Patrick is a gentle, kind-eyed, soft-spoken man rated as 100 percent disabled for combat wounds and PTSD. A Vietnam vet, Patrick was highly decorated for his actions in several firefights. He suffered nightmares for several years, in which he re-lived the loss of his entire squad in a NVA ambush. This valiant man was also haunted by another “worst memory,” a time he picked through the remains of a hamlet that was napalmed, following the cries of an child from somewhere deep in the hamlet’s burned remains. The sights and smells of that experience so traumatized Patrick that, to this day, he is barely capable of shopping for meat at a supermarket or staying in the same room with a crying child.

Patrick was eventually wounded in the neck and shoulders, and discharged from the military. At first, he seemed to adjust fairly adequately to civilian life. He married a heroic, steadfast woman who stood by him despite his nightmares, anger and reclusive behavior designed to avoid all situations that might ignite the chaotic emotions smoldering in his tightened guts. He had children and a successful career as a house painter (until the arthritis in his shoulders made it impossible for him to lift even a 10-pound bag of sugar). But always, something was missing.

For one thing, gentle man he was, Patrick could simply not tolerate the routine tears and bickering of family life. As the years progressed and his physical and emotional pain increased, Patrick withdrew further and further from his family as his children grew. Then, his 17-year-old son surprised him at the kitchen table one day with a boisterous “Hi, Pop!” and Patrick – startled from some private nightmare – lunged at his boy with a carving knife.

This was the occasion that brought Patrick to therapy. For two years, he worked courageously to disinter the unspeakable memories festering in his heart for almost 30 years. Over time, he came to peace with his past and family, and I didn’t hear from him.

Then he called. Something had happened, he said. Something bad.

The night before, he and his wife were baby-sitting their only grandchild. The baby was sleeping, so Patrick’s wife had run an errand, leaving him alone with the child. Suddenly, an outside noise startled the baby awake with a shriek. Patrick rushed to the crib, then realized he was physically incapable of picking up the screaming infant, whose cries were a heart-rendering echo from his violent past.

With tears running down his face, he stood helplessly, cooing to his grandbaby yet unable to offer physical comfort. Finally, Patrick’s wife returned, and the crisis was solved.

This story symbolizes an essential truth. If we can’t hold future generations in our minds and hearts when devising foreign policy, we serve the oil magnates occupying the Oval Office, not the welfare of our country.

Up to 30,000 U.S. soldiers are estimated to die in an Iraqi invasion, with untold more injured in body and spirit. For what? Oil! The alternative technology to gasoline is already here, needing only a concerted national effort to end our dependence on foreign petroleum. Moreover, an invasion would greatly INCREASE the likelihood of further terrorist attacks on American soil, exacerbating the present danger for years to come. Surely, the promise of freedom is far greater than this.

William Larsen lives in Nevada City and writes a monthly column.

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