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It is a shadow that follows you. You don't ever really see it fully. Every time you try to look at it, it disappears around a corner and you're left with the sense that something's not right.
I've known this feeling. I used to wake up in the middle of the night with vivid nightmares of being under fire, not in Vietnam, but in my own hometown, as if the war had followed me home. Or that there would be a knock at the door, and when I answered it, it would be the Military Police or the Shore Patrol coming to get me and take me back to Vietnam. Although these anxieties and dreams left me a long time ago, I can still remember their potency and feel their effect on me these many years later.
The experience of war, for all of its presence in history, is really only known intimately by very few. The families of veterans come to know about it when their veterans return to them haunted by the memories and psychological effects of what they saw and survived. Returning veterans have not yet had the time, or the distance, to address those issues for themselves. And their personal experiences of war, more often than not, cannot be adequately expressed in words. Those who our veterans come home to cannot comprehend what their returning veterans have seen and survived. But we owe our veterans the dignity and respect to try to understand, and to be sensitive to them for their good, for the good of their families, and for the good of the nation.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, has become a part of our language. We understand its sometimes debilitating symptoms, and we must be responsible for it as a society. Growing numbers of our veterans are coming home burdened by the manifold effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
PTSD can manifest itself in something as vague and seemingly insignificant as nervousness in crowded situations, bad dreams, excessive reactions to loud noises, and irritation with what seem to be minor problems, to serious social and relational problems, even moments of irrational rage. Homelessness among our veterans can be one of the most debilitating effects of PTSD. The experiences encountered in war can overwhelm the individual. Confusion, depression, and feelings of negative self worth often arise, and immediate, caring attention is needed to salvage the well-being of the veteran suffering these things. The VA and the military have begun to be more sensitive and supportive of veterans in the clinical sense, but we individuals also need to recognize the symptoms, and the ways that we can help these veterans.
Relationships save everything. By this, of course, I mean healthy, loving, and forgiving relationships. My healing came about as the result of my relationship with the woman who would become my wife of the last 37 years. For some reason, she had the love and the commitment to be patient with me, to challenge me, and to forgive me back into self-esteem and psychological well-being. For that alone, I will never be able to thank her enough.
In this time of economic uncertainty, many programs designed to help these veterans may be threatened because of the desire to get the budget balanced. But we need to recognize that, treated clinically and addressed socially among friends and families, we can help our veterans get through it faster, and to reenter civilian life productively and healthily once again. This is not only good for them and their families, but it is good for the society as a whole.
Let us commit, then, to caring for our returning veterans: for those who have come home with horrendous physical injuries, and those who come back to us seemingly unscathed, yet truly wounded by the psychological effects of war.