“Everyone acted like they knew so much about the war. But none of them really knew anything besides what they had learned through Internet searches or shady half-truths political pundits spouted from the comfort of their news desks. Nothing could ever be flushed out because nobody bothered to ask the troops or look at both sides of the story.”
― Clint Van Winkle, Soft Spots: A Marine’s Memoir of Combat and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is something that torments a great many people who have lived through or witnessed a terrifying event such as war or serious natural disaster. It results in distressing flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety attacks. More troubling is that PTSD does not just go away with time.
Most soldiers returning from the battlefields of Viet Nam, and those who lived in those battlefields, continue to suffer from PTSD even today. Unfortunately most of our communities and even the families are not sufficiently equipped with information and the skills needed to understand and give needed support. Many of these people are left to struggle on their own with the nightmares, not because others do not care but because they may have no idea how to care. For this reason, many end up on the streets. Policy.Mic (http://mic.com/articles/20461/ptsd-and-homelessness-form-a-vicious-cycle-that-plagues-many-young-veterans-from-iraq-and-afghanistan) reports that in 2009, over 130,000 veterans were living on the streets of America’s cities. With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the numbers have surely increased. The threats to end food stamps and social welfare assistance most likely cause even further stress on these veterans as their ability to hold down a job or even develop healthy relationships is limited by the psychological issues they are struggling to live with.
In desperation, some of those suffering from PTSD have found their way back to Viet Nam in search of healing. This is not always an easy step to take. Fear of facing a vengeful people, anger at what the “enemy” did to them and their friends and uncertainty about whether or not they will find healing increases their stress even more.
What they do find is often a sincere welcome and an acceptance they find hard to fathom. Several years ago while visiting the DMZ (the division between North and South Viet Nam during the war), I met a young man who gives tours along the DMZ to visitors who want to learn and understand more about the war that affected so many lives. He, himself, suffered much from it. His parents were both killed. His home and community destroyed by bombing. As a small boy he moved from refugee camp to refugee camp, learning how to survive. He has every reason to hate those who brought the war to his village. Yet, he has devoted himself to meeting with returning US veterans and helping them find healing. He told me, “Some veterans want to visit the battle fields where they fought. I take them there. Some just stand and cry. I give them space to cry. Others curse the Vietnamese for killing their comrades. I give them space to curse. And some plead for forgiveness. I understand their need for healing. I want to help them find it.”
While many come as tourists for brief visits, some decide to stay on and help in rebuilding the country they helped destroy. Through these actions, they begin to find healing. One such man is Chuck Searcy. Chuck first came to Viet Nam in 1967 as a soldier. Many years later he returned and began working in areas near the DMZ to help clear unexploded mines and bombs. Even after more than 50 years, this unexploded ordinance continues to maim and kill farmers and their children. Chuck established an organization called Project Renew (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/u-s-veteran-leads-clean-vietnam-wars-lethal-remnants/) which helps clear land of these unexploded weapons of human destruction. Project Renew also holds special classes for school children to educate them about the dangers of unexploded ordinance and how to recognize it in the fields and playgrounds.
The area near the DMZ where Project Renew is most active was very heavily bombed during the war. It is believed that more bombs were dropped in this relatively small area than was dropped in all of Europe during World War II. About 10% of these bombs and related munitions did not explode on impact. They remain deadly, waiting only for a child to pick them up thinking they are toys, or for farmers to accidently strike them with their hoes as they prepare their fields for planting.
Healing through helping is one way veterans try to deal with PTSD. Groups of veterans return every year to Viet Nam to help build schools and clinics in areas where they once saw only battle. They often join hands with Vietnamese veterans who may well have been on the other side shooting at them. New relationships are formed and because they are all trying to deal with the pain they unwillingly inherited from a war they often did not want, they find a common bond that opens doors for a healthier life.
Even if we cannot understand those suffering from PTSD, we can commit ourselves to listening to them without judgement, thus perhaps giving them some safe space to unload a little of the burdens the war heaped upon their hearts. And that should help us become more committed to ending war so that young men and women will no longer be forced to live a life controlled by PTSD.