There were times, though, that I felt nothing but numb. Another term for this numbness is emotional detachment. With so much trauma we had to detach ourselves and eventually we felt nothing. “Numbing” is a skill learned in extreme situations, where fully experiencing one’s feelings would be dangerous. To keep our sanity, we had to numb up and put our trauma to the back of our minds. When people are emotionally numb, they see, hear, and understand what is going on, but do not experience the emotions that go along with the action. Often marines were killed during a combat mission, and some of us were close friends of those killed. It would have been easy to become depressed, experience sorrow, cry and really take the situation to heart, but to survive and function as warriors we had to become emotionally numb. After the battle, we went back to our Command post (CP) and carried on as if nothing had happened.
Becoming numb was an adaptive skill during the trauma. Being numb helped us to survive the experience. Also, the “fight, flight, or freeze” response can deplete chemicals in the brain that are associated with feelings. The problem with this “numbing” response to trauma is that it can be as destructive in the long run as the horrific emotions one is trying to suppress. People often stay numb long after a trauma because they are afraid to have feelings associated with the trauma, such as anger fear and dread. Numbing is a learned behavior and we got pretty good at it in Vietnam. I remember when I returned back to the world (USA), it was several years before I could cry. My attitude was still, “it don’t matter".
In Vietnam, we had to adapt to survive. We had to put our personal feelings aside and accept the situation we were in. It was not easy for a 18 to 20-year-old with a mind of a boy to accept a warrior’s role. A year or so earlier, we were in high school enjoying sports and just starting to date. Our minds were not conditioned to the trauma we were now experiencing.
As a combat corpsman, I stitched many wounds. Before I closed those wounds with sutures, I administered Novocain to numb the area. In a matter of speaking, my mind was filled with Novocain, too. I became numb, and all feelings of my emotional world ceased to exist. Numbing for me was merely an adaptive survival skill I employed to face my daily trauma.
Most of us in combat zones in Vietnam were incapable of feeling emotion, or at least deficient in emotion and feeling. Numbing caused us to lose all touch with reality. Most warriors experience this. For example, if somebody were to call my name while I was “numbing,” I might not respond, because I was experiencing the “thousand-yard stare.” In other words, I was in la- la land, which was a euphoric dreamlike mental state detached from the harsher realities of life.
Deep inside my brain I wanted to keep all of my trauma dormant and keep it stored in the back of my mind. Today, combat remains the private world of my warrior self, a world I don’t want to visit. To expose my emotions causes pain. Emotional numbing over time became second nature when dealing with day to day stressors in a war zone, and now, over fifty years later, the numbness and detachment persist.
Due to my trauma in Vietnam, over the years I have experienced an anxiety disorder called post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. I have suffered from low self-esteem and several anxiety attacks. The last time I experienced one of these attacks, my mind went blank. I was unaware of my location, feeling exhausted and depleted of energy.
Almost all of the members of our PTSD group in the Mt Vernon VA medical facility suffer from emotional numbness. It is a natural defense for those of us who have experienced indescribable trauma in our lives. It can be difficult to imagine if you haven’t experienced it yourself. Some warriors describe it as a feeling of emptiness, while others describe it as feeling isolated. I connect with both descriptions.
As Sigmund Freud so aptly said, “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”
HMCM Ronald C. Mosbaugh
Master Chief Corpsman (E-9)
USNR (retired) 31 years
As a 8404 marine corpsman in Vietnam, I often experienced many emotions all at once during combat. I lived on a daily rollercoaster of emotions which were masquerading my life. I had to give the appearance that all is well, and I was in control. However, I was a nervous wreck. So many times, I wanted to pull the cord and stop the ride; I wanted to get off. To experience fear, fright, sorrow, sadness, depression, just to name a few emotions, day after day, month after month, often caused psychological problems for a life time. They were much more than we could process.