Before I begin, let me say, I am no expert in PTSD, by any means. This is a second-hand opinion, and may not be in line with what science or your psychologist can tell you. These are just my thoughts on the subject after a 9-year relationship with my husband, a war veteran.
PTSD has long been regarded as a negative diagnosis, particularly among our veterans. Over the years it has had many names—shell shock, soldier’s heart, combat exhaustion, combat fatigue—and now some are trying to change it to PTS, dropping the D in hopes of dropping the stigma associated with it. I suspect in 20 years the combat-related PTSD will have a different name, as labels are always changing in the psychology world.
A little back story: My husband and I have been together for 9 years. He served honorably in the Marine Corps, and was twice deployed to Iraq. From what I can tell, the first deployment didn’t cause much change in him.
But the second deployment was different.
I have watched my husband change from war; I saw a boy when he left and a man with a heavy heart when he came home. Gone was that beautiful smile I fell in love with, that innocent guy who would shake anyone’s hand. Now he was a man weighed down by the world, who had seen things no one can imagine. He now trusted no one…not even me.
To give you a small idea of what war is really like and what is seen, imagine dogs eating human remains. I studied conflict/military history for many years and never once was anything like that brought up in any book or a documentary. But just imagine going to war and this is one of the first things you see. While seeing the remains of the dead is by no means pretty, you expect it. You don’t, however, expect to see dogs eating those remains.
I asked a few more people about the dogs. An Army friend of mine once shared an experience when he had to guard his friend’s body for over 2 days, and then drive back to base with that body in a bag on his lap to keep dogs from eating it. I don’t think many people visualize that kind of thing going on. I know I never did.
I could go on about the things people see in war that very few talk about, but I am not writing this to be graphic. I can’t imagine how I personally would respond to such experiences. All I know is that the weight of war is one I pray no one feels—but if some must, I pray it is only a few.
Now, imagine coming home from experiencing those terrible things to a life where your girlfriend’s biggest problem is passing school, your brother’s is having enough to buy the newest shoes, and people get mad because you messed up their “Grande blah blah blah latte.” I can’t help but think of the anger and frustration that would generate inside someone. Watching so many people take life and the wonderful things we have for granted is enough to make any combat veteran mad. To them, it must feel like all that is supposed to be “normal” in the world is pointless, and in a lot of people’s priorities are backward.
So many of our veterans say they now feel “cold” and “emotionless.” But chances are, if you are a vet, you are just the opposite; you feel so much. In fact, you probably feel so much that you put up walls and barriers. You’ve most likely become afraid to show emotion, because during battle that is considered weakness; afraid to love, because you know the pain of loss; and cold toward people, because that is how you cope with the things you had to see and do. All of this is normal.
Ernie Pyle once wrote:
“A front line solider has to harden his inside as his outside or he would crack under the strain.”
The human body can only endure so much. The mind is the same; while it can withstand far more than what most people think, it still has to protect itself somehow. So you build these walls to protect yourself in combat, but then it becomes hard to take that step–or two, or three–back to civilian life the way the world expects you to. It isn’t easy to go backward or to take your emotions and adrenaline from a 10 to a 5. Once you build those walls to protect yourself, it can take a long time to peel them back.
I know, because nine years later, my husband is still slowly knocking his down. And we are still rebuilding our relationship after the damage inflicted on it by the last deployment. I have often said that he built the Great Wall of China around him– because it feels like you could see it from space. That is a heck of a lot of bricks to tear down!
Ultimately, though, I guess what I want to say is that PTSD is a natural response to an unnatural situation. This response makes you human, and more importantly it makes you normal. It means that beneath all those walls, there is still a man with a big heart. It means that you still have your humanity; your body and mind have simply done what they had to in order to see and do what was not humane. PTSD doesn’t make you a bad person—it makes you a human with a heart.
You did what your nation asked of you. You filled a role many are unwilling to fill, but that is desperately needed. You are a hero–not only for risking your life, but for sacrificing your heart as well as your mind.
You are not alone. You are not broken.