Every Memorial Day, I pay respect to the men and women who lost their lives for our country.
I also pay respect to my father.
My father survived a tour of duty in Vietnam and earned a Silver Star for his valor. He was only 23, and a newlywed, when he was drafted into the war. I was born about a year after the war ended, so I never knew the person he was before Vietnam. I cannot compare the father I know and love to the young man who left for war, but I do know one thing. He did not return home as the same person. He lost a part of himself on the battlefield, a former self that has never been recovered.
When one enters a war zone, it will be impossible to leave the same. Profound or traumatic experiences will do that to people. No one leaves war unscathed. And, for some, the psychological trauma will sustain long after physical wounds have healed. Like thousands of soldiers who have lived through war, my father deals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I will not go into more specifics out of respect for his privacy, but I will say that he has been doing exceptionally well despite it.
Not everyone is so fortunate.
PTSD is a serious anxiety disorder that can develop after any traumatic or life-threatening experience. Studies indicate that about 25% of veterans of heavy combat and 75% of prisoners of war will develop PTSD. The younger the person, the more likely they will develop symptoms. About half of the patients will recover within a few months. The other half can experience years, or even a lifetime, of symptoms. It is important to know that PTSD can also be diagnosed in people who learned about a severe trauma suffered by someone they are close to – children, spouses, partners, or other close relatives. This is crucial for families of veterans because, in many cases, members of the family may also require counseling services.
Wars will change people but, in some cases, for the better. A few studies of World War II veterans found that some soldiers left war with a new purpose and value in life as well as new tools to help cope with adversity*. The new self is a more positive self. If only all veterans could claim that to be true.
This Memorial Day is a bit different for me this year. My younger sister has been working in Afghanistan for nearly a year in a non-military position. She is doing incredible work to help bring more stability and hope to their country. My younger brother, a psychologist, is set to deploy there in a matter of weeks. He specializes in PTSD treatment and I expect that he will be doing wonderful work there as well. I am beyond proud of my baby brother and sister. And I am also scared for them. They may not see and experience the carnage and destruction that my father saw in the battlefield of Vietnam but there is no doubt that they, too, will return home changed. I can only hope that theirs is a more positive change.
This Memorial Day, please take a moment to honor our fallen soldiers. Take a moment to pay respect and give thanks to all veterans who have passed away, on or off the battlefield. And take a moment to appreciate the sacrifices that our soldiers must endure while fighting for our freedoms and the freedoms of others. They may return home whole, but they will leave a part of themselves behind.
Need more information, assistance, or resources for psychological counseling for veterans and their families? Please contact these organizations:
Coming Home Project – a non-profit organization that works with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, service members, and their families. This organization is based in Northern California but can provide referrals and resources around the country.
The Soldiers Project – Free, confidential, and unlimited counseling to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families.
*Human Adaption to Extreme Stress: From the Holocaust to Vietnam, Elder, G.H., Jr. and Clipp, E.C. (1988).