WACO, Texas, Aug. 14, 2015 – My best friend in high school volunteered for the Army after graduation. He deployed to Vietnam. He returned with two Purple Hearts, but was never again the same carefree guy. He could not function around others. His wife left him and took their daughter. He went to live with relatives, but they couldn’t handle the stress of having him around.
Finally, he shared his stories with me. He talked about the first man he killed, the first time he was wounded, the second time he was wounded, the painful helicopter escape from the battlefield, thinking he was dying. It was the stuff from which movies are made.
He sometimes could not sleep indoors, so he would bed down on the concrete driveway. Fireworks petrified him. One day we played pool. A car backfired. I saw him freeze and grip the cue as if his life depended upon it.
I didn’t know what to do or say. I hoped he would get over it and get on with his life.
The next time I saw him, he was in a hospital after trying to take his own life. I was shocked. I spent some time with him, said a prayer and then flew back home to south Texas.
We were separated by distance. Should I have done more? I could have offered him a job in my company. I hesitated because we handled hazardous chemicals, and with his mental state, it seemed a risk. I could have done a lot of things.
My friend, like so many other veterans, suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a debilitating and poorly understood condition.
Several months ago, I met with a currently deployed Navy SEAL. He was to leave the next day for D.C. to pick up new orders and head overseas. During our meeting, he shared some thoughts he had about PTSD, which is a mental condition triggered by either experiencing or witnessing terrifying events.
He told me that, for the victim, just sharing his/her story is the most therapeutic thing to do. But for many victims, this is difficult.
Some soldiers are afraid that loved ones will be traumatized by their stories and do not want relatives or friends to know the details. Others try to simply bury the memories, unwilling to even vocalize them. For some, guilt is the issue.
My friend had shared his experiences with me, but I failed to stay in close contact. I believe now that I should have been there for him much more than I was. I had never experienced what he had and could not identify. He eventually died in a car crash.
Anyone who has experienced traumatic stress can be affected. This includes assault victims, crash survivors, victims of abuse and, of course, battlefield veterans. Even those who face sudden financial collapse are vulnerable. During the 1929 market crash, some brokers and bankers committed suicide.
Sometimes PTSD is obvious and easy to recognize. Some victims are afraid to drive. A few will not leave home. Many sit with staring, empty eyes, as deep depression takes hold. Some must be institutionalized. Others’ symptoms are not so recognizable, but can lead to addictions.
Many people do recover and lead normal lives. These are usually individuals who interact with others on a regular basis, but interacting is no guarantee of complete recovery.
If you suffer from PTSD — What to do? What not to do?
If you are a victim, the worst thing you can do is isolate yourself. We are built to interact. It isn’t cowardice or shameful to need someone — “Your prison is walking through this world all alone.”— Desperado, The Eagles (1973)
Reach out to another who also suffers. Let them know you care, and that you feel the pain, too. Offer to listen. Share your story. Many receive inner healing by simply being the bridge over someone else’s troubled waters. I happen to believe God honors one who will lay down his or her life for another in this way — “Whatsoever a man shall sow, that shall he also reap. (Galatians 6:7)
Tuesday nights, I drive to Mart, Texas, to spend time with the boys in CDC Unit of the Texas Juvenile Correctional Facility. The guys in CDC are offenders, but they carry secret scars — they are victims of abuse. Some cut themselves. Some hear voices. You get the picture — ugly. They need someone who will listen; someone to tell them they are loved. I shake hands, bump fists, pat them on the butt and tell them God loves them. This time, I want to be there. No more looking the other way.
Next week, I’ll suggest things you can do if your loved one suffers from PTSD.
For more on PTSD — www.whoiscodymusket.com
James Miller is the author of No Pit So Deep — The Cody Musket Story, to be released this fall.