"Dad, tell me about the war."
How often, in my youth, had I pestered my dear father about his World War II experiences? Certainly a score or more of times.
My father was always emotionally available to me. He'd pause and patently take time to reminisce. As I recall, he's start with humor: "Well, Bob, do you really want to hear about when I took the grand tour of Europe with Gen. Patton?
His stories varied and they were extremely amusing. Dad, it seemed, could always come up with some incredible tale of how he and his driver Cpl. Skelton, a cousin of the famous comic-actor Red Skelton, would find themselves lost on a dusty back road and ended up at some rustic French farmhouse sampling Cognac and enjoying the local cuisine. Liberating French towns and villages from the grip of Nazi oppression was a heady business for a young small-town Indiana lad. Fond memories, indeed.
But there was another side to my father's involvement in the war, a darker side. Mom called them "his night sweats." After his return from war, my father also exhibited some frightful reactions to his prior combat-related experiences. He'd been shelled, bombed, shot at and nearly killed several times. Worst of all, for any combat veteran, he'd seen a young buddy take his last excruciating breath. My mother was compassionate, and usually successful in calming his tormented soul.
But I still have vivid memories of my dear father's nightmares, and his cries in the night. My father had returned to us a whole man but he still possessed emotional scars, just below the surface.
Such feelings, and related reactions, are devastating to the sufferer's life as well as to the well-being of his family. Today, we call their reaction to the stresses of combat post-traumatic stress disorder. This disorder was as common then as it is today. In World War I, we called this psychological disorder "shell shock." By World War II, it was described as "combat fatigue" or "combat neurosis." Today, we classify it as PTSD.
In his illuminating book, Achilles in Vietnam, Dr. Jonathan Shay demonstrates that the veteran's reaction to combat has dogged soldiers since the beginning of recorded time. Shay cites passages from Homer's poetic masterwork, The Iliad, which clearly demonstrate that PTSD was present in the Greek warriors who stormed the gates of Troy.
PTSD is the widespread experience of most combat veterans. The symptoms include loss of authority over mental function; persistence of combat survival skill behaviors; chronic health problems; social distrust; anti-authority attitudes; alcohol and drug abuse; despair; estrangement; suicidal thinking and, most tormenting of all, feelings of survivor's guilt.
I once heard a savvy PTSD counselor proclaim, "Post traumatic stress is a normal human reaction to the abnormal chaos of combat and war."
Today, with two wars under way, we need to support our returning veterans and their families. With war's end still not in sight, it appears that we will continue to have military personnel returning from countless fields of battle. We shall be tested, and we must endeavor to understand and support the gallant Americans who have born the burden.
Our returning troops suffer the strains and horrors of mortal combat; yet they willingly do this for us. I sincerely hope that we will be helpful in facilitating their successful return home to their families and our community.
On this Memorial Day weekend, it is time to stop, take stock and remember all our honored combat veterans. We must pause, with heads bowed, and recall that they have had life-shattering experiences. And they did this to save and protect us and our American way of life. It is now our solemn duty to help them to begin the healing. We owe them that. We owe them our eternal support, respect and love.
Bob Loring lives near San Antonio and heads the USMC Toys for Tots of East Pasco.