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The Psychological Trauma of War

by Margot Adler

HereticsheartIt's not something you read in a newspaper or hear on an ordinary news show; it's only on the comedy shows like Real Time with Bill Maher where you hear it whispered: the idea that John McCain has PTSD, and that it would be scary to have his finger on the button. Whether or not this is the same kind of slur we hear from those who say Barak Obama was schooled in a madrassa, it seems perfectly reasonable to wonder if anyone who spent five years in a tiger cage might have some remnants of PTSD - even decades later.

So when I heard it on Bill Maher the other night, it reminded me that we are living in a society where thousands of young men and women, our very future, are returning home every day scarred from battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of those scars are painfully visible; many others are not. Few people are really looking deeply at what this means for families and relationships, even what it means for our daily lives as Americans. Only one person that I know of in the mainstream media has delved deeply and movingly into this issue. For more than a year, in a series of searing pieces, Daniel Zwerdling at NPR has chronicled the plight of military personnel to get the mental health care they need. In many cases, veterans with PTSD have been kicked out of the military for bad behavior and are unable to access mental health services.

Ten years ago, I wrote a book called Heretic's Heart about my own life during the 1960's. Several chapters of that book were letters between me, as a twenty-year-old University of California - Berkeley student and activist, and Marc Anderson, a soldier fighting in Vietnam whom I met through the mail after he wrote a letter to the campus newspaper that could only be described as a cry from the abyss.

In his opening letter on April 23rd, 1967, he wrote:

I've heard rumors that there are people back in the world who don't believe this war should be. I'm not positive of this though, 'cause it seems to me that if enough of them told the right people in the right way, then something might be done about it, or someone might consider doing something about it, or someone might consider thinking about doing something about it. ...I've been waiting for you to organize. I guess that'll be a long wait... You see, while you're discussing it amongst each other, being beat, getting in bed with dark-haired artists... deciding who should really run the school...some people here are dying for lighting a cigarette at night, or 'cause the NCO in charge was drunk. I haven't understood the other reason yet, you know the one in the songs. Some of them are ugly though and some are fat. There have been fellas die who used to scrape barnacles off barges, etc. so. What can I say about a guy who's lying in the mud and stuff with his cetoplasm and cellulose torn and running out of small circles in his head. He'd rather be eating hot buttered popcorn on one of Chicago's beaches - probably. You've got the right idea, anyway.

With just a few word changes, this cry for help could be from any of our soldiers fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan.

I wrote to Marc. I fell in love with him, and we wrote back and forth for 6 months until he came back and we met. But the war was too big a presence for us both, and our relationship didn't hold, although we are in contact to this day. He fought PTSD that came back with a rush twenty-five years later, and after a long haul managed to banish many of his demons. A few years ago he took his daughter with him to Vietnam, a very healing visit.

The other day, I received a letter from someone who had just read my book. He told me he had joined the Navy just one year after Marc went to Vietnam. He said he voted for Nixon twice. He wrote:

I started your book not knowing whether I would even finish it because I would describe myself as a conservative. But the further I read the more interested I was. I was reading descriptions of events that I was alive during, but knew only through the major news outlets. Your correspondence with Marc reminded me very much of some of the writings about the current conflict (war?)... The guide for living with a soldier returning from battle seems timeless to me.

Most of us, including me, don't think much about death, or pain or injury, or psychological trauma. It is so easy to put it aside. But every day young men and women are coming home from the war so terribly scarred, thousands of them, and we all should think deeply about how we can connect with them - how we can help them have the time and space and love to heal. This country's future may well depend on it.

Margot Adler is a National Public Radio correspondent based in NPR's New York Bureau as well as the host of NPR's Justice Talking, a weekly one-hour show that takes an in-depth look at the cases and controversies that come before our nation's courts and go the heart of what in means to live in a democracy. Her work as a correspondent can be heard regularly on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.  She is the author of the book, Drawing Down the Moon, a study of contemporary nature religions and Heretic's Heart, a 1960s memoir. She is also co-producer of an award-winning radio drama, War Day, and a lecturer and workshop leader.