It’s important to note that I am not talking about the traumatic event itself, but how the event becomes a catalyst for positive change. PTG is the process after the traumatic event. This is taking a traumatic event and creating something positive from that experience. This is not easy to do; it has taken me years to get to this phase in my life.
To begin with, this is not an easy article for me to write. Writing down topics that I want to mention has already brought tears to my eyes.
I have dealt with PTSD for over 48 years! You might say that I have had a life time of PTSD. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of Vietnam. In 1966 and 1967 I was attached to the First Marine Division, Second Battalion, Hotel Company as an 8404 field corpsman in Vietnam. I personally treated over 200 causalities and was wounded twice. I truthfully feel that a front line war veteran suffers trauma to the fullest! I was exposed to heavy and direct combat on a daily basis. I suffered multiple traumas day after day for 13 months! This suicidal waltz was known as “doing your duty”. (The only break from combat was a five day R & R in Thailand.) That many days of constant combat is above and beyond the call of duty! Many of us who were in combat have purple hearts but not all wounds are visible! There are NO unwounded soldiers in war. We all suffer from PTSD.
I read a quote the other day from President Ronald Reagan that I really appreciated, “some people live an entire lifetime and wonder if they have ever made a difference in the world, but the Marines don’t have that problem” Be proud marines and pat yourself on the back, job well done!
I took one day and elaborated on the different emotions that we encountered during a battle in Vietnam. Seeing that on paper reminded me why soldiers have PTSD: fear, grief, hyper alert, anxiety, overwhelming, fight or flight, survivor’s guilt, hysteria, despair, alienation, helplessness, shock, anger. All were horrifying, and the list goes on!
We can’t process what we experienced; it is too overwhelming! Our mind and body were definitely affected. We were 18, 19 and 20 year old kids, just barely out of high school. Coming into a war zone we were so innocent and naïve. It was a culture shock beyond description! Everything I held sacred was shattered, life was upside down and our innocence was taken from us. The shock was so great that the boy I was died of fright! I ran a patrol on my very first day in country. That day I treated two marines’ wounds; one was a KIA the other was a WIA. The KIA was an 18 year old marine, the same age I was! This was his third patrol as he was only in country for five days. Thinking about that situation later, he was probably one of the lucky ones. He didn’t have to endure the trauma day after day for 13 months. He could have been killed on his last day in Vietnam; 1,448 warriors lost their life on their last day in Vietnam!
Making something positive from the trauma that I endured in Vietnam seems almost impossible! How can you create something positive from the memory of marines being killed or wounded standing next to you? Or treating a marine in the rice paddy and he gets shot again while I’m treating his abdominal wound. I have no doubt in my mind that bullet was meant for me, as corpsman and medics were prime targets for the enemy. What about the search and destroy mission where we were overrun and lost over 60 marines in one battle! I can personally give you countless stories of multiple battles where marines were killed, wounded or wished they were dead.
I have been living with PTSD for all these years and it has created many problems for my family and me. The weird thing is that when I was younger the trauma didn’t bother me as much as it has later in my life. I know when I was young and with a family, I was too busy to think about it. I learned to put that trauma in the back of my mind, the personal “black box”. After work I had hobbies that filled my spare time. I also attending ball games my girls participated in. When they left home and I gave up all my hobbies, I had time to reminisce. My mind was like the black box on the aircraft; it kept my entire trauma tucked away. After the crash, the black box was found and downloaded to expose all the demons that inflicted me; I hope you understand the analogy.
I understand that when we get older our conscious mind gets weaker. Our unconscious mind gets stronger. That has huge significance. The conscious mind no longer has the strength to keep those memories boxed up anymore. Our war trauma memories start seeping out. For too many years we’ve been fighting to keep a lid on our black box.
Several years back I was the county coroner of Jasper County in Missouri. I noticed that several of our suicide cases were older people, many of which were Vietnam veterans. Since 1975 nearly three times as many Vietnam veterans have committed suicide than were killed in the war. According to the Veterans Affairs Department, nearly 70 percent of all veterans who commit suicide are age 50 or older. This is double the suicide rate for the same age group in the nonveteran community. Fifty-eight thousand plus Americans died in the Vietnam War. Over 170,000 have committed suicide since the war ended. This figure is very alarming! What about the ones who were rescued? What about the ones who died in a vehicle accident, Some of these committed suicide but as a coroner I had to list the cause of death as a accident. By the way, at the present time, 22 veterans are committing suicide each day!
Now let’s talk about Post Traumatic Growth (PTG). I want to pursue this topic because I am tired of setting with my back to the wall or constantly looking over my shoulder. I am tired of the low self-esteem and anxiety attacks. I am tired of all the other negative symptoms that PTSD gives me! I have been attending PTSD sessions at the Mt Vernon, MO VA facility for over five years. I have also been an inpatient at the PTSD treatment facility in Topeka, KS for seven weeks. I feel I am ready to evolve to the next level; it is time for healing!
It is crucial to understand that PTG does not make everything all better. It does not make all the stress disappear. But it can bring true meaning to a person’s life. PTG forces us to focus on bigger questions — questions and concepts about wisdom, virtue, and values. Positive things you can do to have growth.
• Write about your trauma and other problem areas.
• Give a talk to a group of people on Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day; simply tell your story.
• Go to a high school and tell your story.
• Go to a Veterans’ home or Daughters of the American Revolution group to give your story. You don’t have to be a great speaker, just be yourself. If you cry, don’t worry about it; they will know you are sincere.
• Attend a group PTSD session and enjoy the camaraderie. Listen to their stories and tell them yours. Encourage one another and let them know you care. They will do likewise.
• Get involved in Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) at your VA facility. You learn skills to better understand how a trauma changed your thoughts and feelings. It will show you how you have gotten “stuck” in your thinking about trauma.
• Be a role model and take command.
• Make your family proud of you and help yourself. You deserve it!
Creative Writing has helped me to deal with PTSD. Don’t get me wrong, I will always have PTSD; but now I have an outlet to help make me be a better person. This has also helped me to be more aware of some of my triggers, a sound or sight that causes me to relive the events. I deal with it at that moment. I write down my stories and concerns and look at it on paper or the computer screen. My trauma seems to come alive. I can process it and figure out a way to win the battle of the demons.
This past year I have written eleven stories of my exposure to trauma in Vietnam. I have cried a lot. At times I became very depressed bringing up memories that I would rather have kept tucked away in that black box. But in the process a strange thing happened. I found that at the end of the black tunnel there is light! Many of my PTSD patriots will not accept this way of thinking. For them there is no promise of growth at the end of their journey. They have lived Vietnam for so many years that it has become part of their makeup. I am sorry to say a few of them exhibit a self-pity attitude and this interferes with a big part of their lives. Many have accepted this role in life and they will continue to play out their story. I have also noticed that some of my PTSD friends are not content unless they are with other combat veterans. This in itself is good. I have been friends with these guys for so long that I understand their trauma. At times in our PTSD sessions I feel I can be a positive mentor. This helps me with building self-esteem. In short, PTG is not for everyone; it only works if you want it too. If you want healing, you have to apply yourself and work toward it. The only way to go forward is to go to prayer! You cannot handle this on your own; you will need divine intervention and help from your friends and family.
Going back to my creative writing, I have found that people enjoy my stories and they are well received. This has helped my low self-esteem and my negative attitude. It has actually changed my perspective on life. This has helped me to grow and to be a better person. It brings great healing to the body, mind and soul! When the Second Battalion First Marine website gave me my own webpage, it gave me a way to tell my stories. I have been getting so much positive feedback that I am encouraged to write more stories.
I remember when the webmaster, Vinnie Burdziuk, was posting my Vietnam pictures on the 2/1 website. I was sending him 15 to 20 pictures at a time. After sending several groups of pictures, I apologized to him for all the work I had created for him. He had to touch up most every picture as they had been in the closet for close to 48 years! He texted me right back and said that I should never apologize for the pictures and stories I sent. They are history! I had never thought of it that way.
This past year my life philosophy has changed. I now appreciate each day and don’t take for granted the blessings that GOD has given us. Today I am more grateful for what I have and for those around me.
Let’s face it, most of us Vietnam veterans are over 65 years of age. We really don’t have that many more years to go. This might surprise you, but over 60 percent of the Vietnam Veterans are already deceased! It’s time to move on patriots!
I, like many combat veterans, have suffered a lot of trauma. We have some great stories to tell both good and bad. Vietnam was a Hell on earth; it altered my life! But, it is who I am.
We can now cope with hardship. Not many guys have experienced what we have. Today we are better persons because of the sacrifices that we made for our country and family! So, stand up and be proud; mission well done soldier!
I read a story on the internet not long ago that said research is just now untangling a seemingly intricate dance between post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic growth. The story is about a shattered vase. “Imagine that one day you accidentally knock a treasured vase off its perch. It smashes into tiny pieces. What do you do? Do you try to put the vase back together as it was? Or do you pick up the beautiful colored pieces and use them to make something new - such as a colorful mosaic? When adversity strikes, people often feel that at least some part of them -- be it their views of the war, their sense of themselves, their relationships -- has been smashed.”
So many times the warriors who try to put their lives back together exactly as they were, remain fractured and vulnerable. But those who accept the breakage and build themselves anew become more resilient and open to new ways of living.
Will continue this article on “The Road to Recovery” for my next story.