by Allen Broach
In 1919, President Wilson proclaimed Nov. 11 as the first observance of Armistice Day, the day World War I ended. Today we honor our veterans on that day. As a veteran of the Vietnam conflict, Veterans Day has special meaning to me. I reflect on the horrible times in battle and when we lost men or were wounded. I also think of the good times, building such close bonds with those who fought with me. We were brothers.
Both my mother’s and father’s families have served in every war since the American Revolution up to Desert Storm. Because of that I have a special affinity for the men and women who serve our country in the military. One of my ancestors is Brig. Gen Francis Marion, known as the “Swamp Fox.” He was one of the fathers of modern guerilla warfare. The British reviled him as a terrorist, and Gen. Nathanael Greene praised his leadership.
I was drafted into the Army but today our military is all volunteer. There are some great benefits to serving, such as education, both in the service and after completing the tour of duty. But there are many hardships. There are months and years away from loved ones and there is always the one left at home to maintain the family.
Of course there are the risks while in training and in battle. Think of the thousands who have died protecting us, and many more who have been wounded and maimed for life. Think of their partners who will have to care for them.
Literary accounts offer the first descriptions of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder as far back as Homer in The Iliad. The American Civil War marks the start of formal medical attempts to address the problems of members of the military and veterans exposed to combat. In World War I people were recognized to have stress-related problems. It was then called “shell shock” to describe the trauma of battle. It was a reaction to the intensity of the bombardment and fighting that produced a helplessness appearing variously as panic and being scared, or flight, an inability to reason, sleep, walk or talk. Cases of shell shock were interpreted as either a physical or psychological injury, or simply as a lack of moral fiber.
In World War II, the shell-shock diagnosis was replaced by combat stress reaction, aka “battle fatigue.” With long surges common in World War II, soldiers became battle weary and exhausted. During the Vietnam conflict the condition became known as PTSD.
From my personal experience, I can say that no one goes through the horrors of battle without suffering at least some degree of PTSD. When I first returned home it was very hard to concentrate, loud noises made me jump and when walking in wooded areas I was on constant lookout for ambush sites. I had nightmares. I never dreamed about fighting in Vietnam, but during my tour I was always in a bunker fighting Vietnamese fighters. What I suffered was nothing compared to my fellow vets. Forty-six years later I still suffer some of the effects occasionally.
I was in Vietnam one day, and four days later back in North Carolina when my tour of duty ended. There were no discussions of how I was to adjust to civilian life or if I had a problem where I could get help. We were let go, and if we were to heal, we did it on our own. I hadn’t been in contact with anyone from those days until four years ago, when I received a letter from one of the men I served with. The group had been having reunions for about 15 years and had just found me. I went to one reunion. It was interesting to see these men who had been in their late teens and early twenties 40 years later. Of the 15 who I had served with, nearly half were still on disability because of PTSD.
Our government is still not doing an adequate job of caring for our wounded soldiers and veterans. The vets wait months to get care that they need and in some cases they have died waiting. We need to demand better care for those who served us. Although national tracking of veteran suicide rates is unreliable at best, the VA estimates that 22 veterans commit suicide each day. This means about 8,030 veterans kill themselves every year, more than 5,540 of whom are 50 or older.
When I returned from Vietnam, many people were very unkind about my having been there. There was no ticker-tape parade for us until nearly 30 years later. Now, when people find out that I served overseas they thank me for my service. It nearly brings tears to my eyes every time.
This Veterans Day, I will call and send e-mails to a few of the men I served with and thank them for their service. If you know someone currently serving in the armed forces or who is a veteran, make a point to contact them and thank them for helping to keep us safer.
Happy Veterans Day.
Allen Broach is the publisher of Triad City Beat