The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.

RESILIENCE |

August 27, 2012

Name: MAJ Ben Tupper
Returned from
: Afghanistan
Hometown: Syracuse, NY

Once a year I have the good fortune to attend a national reunion with veterans of the 42nd Infantry Division. It’s a great chance to join up with my buddies who, like me, have served in combat and find it therapeutic to gather around and chat about our times at war.   

But what makes this annual reunion unique is that while I am still serving in the 42nd, and am a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, the vast majority of the men attending these reunions fought their war over 60 years ago against Nazi Germany. Normally, this forty-plus-year age gap would preclude our socializing, but as all combat veterans can attest, there is a bond among warriors that transcends  generational differences.    

My time spent during these reunions with members of the “greatest generation” reveals a lot of what changed in Army life between WW2 and Afghanistan. One of the most substantial changes is the difference in how each war generation has handled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The standard line you get from most of these WW2 vets is that they came home with a stiff upper lip, and moved on with life unaffected by the traumas they had experienced in the war.

So when we gather, the discussion will eventually return to the disparity in how the greatest generation and the latest generation of veterans cope with the after-effects of combat. The WW2 vets wonder why they could go off and beat Hitler with his tanks, Luftwaffe, and naval vessels, and come home emotionally fine. Why, they ask, are my peers, who are fighting a ragtag band of Taliban with rusty rifles and homemade booby traps, coming home with PTSD and other mental health problems in much higher numbers?    

It was during one of these very discussions that a regular attendee at our reunion, a WW2 vet we call Shorty, put a big crack in the stoic mythology of WW2 veterans unencumbered by the ghosts of war.

Shorty confessed to our group that he had been plagued by nightmares for years when he came home from WW2, but had kept it a secret. This news was a surprise to everyone present, because Shorty had never mentioned this before to the group, and despite his diminuative nickname, he was nothing short of a combat decorated hero. I think we all had always taken Shorty to be one of those stalwart guys who successfully packed away his traumatic memories when he came home from war. 

Shorty shared a story of how in 1945, as the American Army was driving deeper into Germany, his squad came upon a farm cellar that they believed German soldiers were hiding in. Shorty and his men had heard noises coming from the cellar, so they approached it cautiously with weapons drawn. One of the American soldiers issued the order for those hiding inside to come out and surrender or the cellar would be blown up, but no one came out.  

Shorty crept closer to the cellar entrance, removing  a grenade from its carrying pouch, and prepared to toss it into the cellar. At the very moment, like the proverbial “bat out of hell,"  a German woman  came vaulting out of the dark cellar, followed by her children. 

Shorty’s memory of the woman he almost killed was intimate. He described her tears that mixed with the farm cellar’s dirt and painted her cheeks a shade of muddy brown. He remembered the grey trousers she was wearing, and the smell of urine as she ran past him. A long wet stain spread down her thighs as she fled with her terrified children.      

Had she lingered just a moment longer in that dark farm cellar, it would have become her family’s tomb. And judging by how Shorty’s voice was trembling at this point of his story, that was an outcome he never could have gotten over.       

While his encounter with the woman only lasted seconds, his relationship with her lasted for years. The terrified children and the woman in the urine-stained pants would return to visit Shorty in his dreams. Nightly, his mind would be take him back to the German farm, and force him to make that split-second decision again and again and again. In this cruel nightmare, the outcome was always in flux, and the explosion of the grenade would sometimes wake him in a cold sweat.   

We didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the last story Shorty would ever share with us at a reunion. He passed away this summer at a ripe old age that too many infantrymen from our division never lived to see.

We knew Shorty had been battling a handful of debilitating medical ailments for years, and it impressed everyone that he still had the stamina to travel across the country every year to reunite with his wartime buddies. But for me, what stood out most was Shorty’s example of resilience; a man who stared down terminal illness, the German Army, and the equally formidable ghosts of war, and lived to tell the tale.

Comments

Yeah, yeah. The greatest generation. Both my parents were in armed forces: USMC and WACs. So, how come my father, who served in S. Pacific for two years and was in first brigade into Nagasaki, came home and molested and sexually abused me every chance he could get? While my mother did nothing to see it or stop it?

All that aside, what this narrative does is overlook the fact that "you didn't build that" by yourself--that resiliance--the current fave buzzword. There was a world of difference in the social/cultural context of the 1940s vs. Korea, Vietnam and our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Frankly, I do not believe that the ostracism of social abandonment (which I endure for having "told") is what will lead to an outbreak of greater good. Or are we, after all, the Dark Ages with more advanced technology only?

The short answer is that there really wasn't much of a difference. There are more where Shorty came from -- a lot more. They lived in a different time and expressed themselves differently, but they went through the same shit, just with different names.

Even back in the Civil War they apparently called it "soldier's heart," instead of the more modern "PTSD," but it was the same thing. They didn't have a name for it for no reason.

And anyway after World War II, all of American society basically became one gigantic post-traumatic therapy community, emphasizing continuity, predictability, nothing surprising or startling. Have you ever seen those 40s and 50s era handbooks for women on how to behave around their husbands, so as not to freak them out?

They may say they just sucked it up. Some of them may even believe it. But it's not how it actually was.

During the Gulf War when the civilian population was told to shut up and support the troops or they would feel abandoned by us, I realized how we were being manipulated the same way as a child would be manipulated by the trusted family member who was actually the child molester.
"Now don't tell Mommy, because she would feel really bad if you did. Just let this be between the two of us."

Ever after, I have thought of the sitting President of the time as "Uncle George the Child Molester". Maybe it wasn't about sex and maybe we weren't children, but we all were betrayed and screwed over just the same. Regardless of our proximity to the front, we suffered while others profited.

And this abuse continues to this day. Our American society is still suffering from PTSD.

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