I recently served as a panelist at a veterans’ symposium on post-traumatic stress disorder. I had sought to decline, saying that I never had PTSD and had no qualifications to talk about it. I was told that I represented an earlier generation of combat veterans and that my views and experience would be interesting. So I accepted.
Three other panelists had personal family experience with the traumatic aspects of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I restricted myself to the Korean War. As background for my views, I explained the generational context of my experience as follows:
I grew up in a working-class neighborhood of the Bronx during the Depression. Sympathy was not a hallmark of the time; stoicism was. Whenever I complained to my mother about a hurt, she told me to offer up my suffering to “the poor souls in Purgatory.” In short, facing life as it was was characteristic of my generation. Just get on with it.
All of the neighborhood kids a year or more older than I went into the service during World War II, including my brother. Many were in direct combat. They were coming home just as I was going into the Marines as a 17-year-old. I envied their wartime experience.
To me, the returning neighborhood boys were normal, just as crazy as they were before they went to war. Very little was known of what was called “battle fatigue,” although it was widespread. Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of the war, suffered the rest of his life from what today is PTSD.
When discharged, veterans received $20 a week for 52 weeks as they transitioned to the civilian job market. It became known as the “52-20 Club.” In my neighborhood, the 20 bucks were spent on Friday nights in a gathering at Manion’s Bar & Grill on 164th Street and Ogden Avenue. There, the “boys” would drink 10-cent beers and tell lies and war stories to one another. I digested their wild stories, most of them outlandish and funny, though there were a few grim ones. Over time the ritual waned. They got the war out of their system with the telling. They went on to jobs, wives and new lives.
A few years later, it was my turn to go to war and experience combat as an infantry platoon leader of 40 Marines in Korea. Nothing really surprised me. I internalized my experience and got on with it. As far as I know, my contemporary Marine friends were equally unaffected. Passive acceptance of life as it was dealt had its merits.
Of course I had the “willies” when I came back to the States. I experienced apprehension when, on homecoming leave, I was playing center field in a pick-up softball game. I felt uncomfortably exposed in the open field and subconsciously feared land mines beyond second base. But my anxiety lasted only about two weeks.
I knew the war was behind me when I drove past a serious automobile accident. Police were pulling bloody victims from the wreck as I went by. It shook me up for the next hundred or so miles. A few weeks earlier, in the outposts of Korea, the sight of carnage wouldn’t have bothered me. But I was back in the civilized world, where such things were not expected.
I continued my Marine Corps career as an infantry officer with two more years at war in Vietnam. Maybe deep inside me, there is a malevolent-memory genie, wanting to get out, but for a lifetime I have kept him corked up without any trouble.
It was with that background that I responded to the panel moderator’s question about my views on how today’s combat veterans can deal with the PTSD “genie.”
To some degree, the genie probably exists in all of them. As Homer wrote in the Iliad, “Even the bravest cannot fight beyond his strength.” Acknowledging that, I drew on the experience of my generation and my Marine band-of-brothers culture. It took the form of compare and contrast.
When we went to Korea, all ties with home were cut except for mail, which we usually received weeks after it had been posted.
We lacked the questionable benefit of the Internet, Skype or telephone contact with loved ones. As much we would have cherished today’s instant communications, there was nothing to distract us from the job at hand. What happened at home was history by the time we learned of it. We were submerged in the war and the companionship it engendered. We were isolated from the world we had known.
Another difference is how we returned from war. Most troops of the Greatest Generation and Korea came home by ship. It was a slow journey with others with shared experiences and nothing to do but look at the sea. The long voyage home allowed all hands to talk with one another and decompress.
Today, troops fly home with the smell of the field still on them. They are plopped down into an unfamiliar environment with loved ones who had learned to live without them. It is often an uncomfortable and strained experience for both parties.
In the days of the draft, home turf was replete with others who had served. Today’s all-volunteer soldier is alone; very few of his peers have served in the military, much less gone to war. Rarely are there guys to hang out with at a Manion’s. Earlier, the American Legion, the VFW and reunions were a refuge of comradeship. But those are dying institutions, and today’s veteran is not a joiner anyway. He is largely isolated, with only his iPhone as a comrade. Wounded or whole, modern veterans speak of yearning to be back with their units, no matter how unpleasant it would be. Many feel alone, no longer a member of Henry V’s “band of brothers.”
All of this adds up to companionship. Medications, therapy and counselors are important for those who suffer from the visible and invisible effects of war. But as earlier generations know, often the best medicine for bruised bodies and psyches is communion with those who have supped from the same bitter cup.
From the dawn of civilization, hunters and warriors shared danger in packs. Through the ages, comrades have sustained each other through the heat of battle. Comrades play the same role when the war is done.
Bernard E. Trainor is a retired Marine lieutenant general who served in Korea and Vietnam. He wrote this for The Washington Post.