It is a sad fact of war that combat experiences change us all, forever. We generally go to war as naive youths, inexperienced with life, yet full of dreams of heroic romanticism. No matter how intense or good the training is for preparing us for combat, the shock of the reality of it gets seared into our memories. They are like tattoos. They are always there, they never go away, even though we may forget about them for a while, they catch our attention at the oddest moments and they come alive again, with surprising intensity.
We do not come home from that experience the same people we were before we left.
Some of us, for lots of different reasons, can move those memories into the pages of our unfolding lives as part of who we are. Others can not seem to be able to turn the page and move on. The memories remain alive, just under the surface. The pains of loss, of the physical, mental, and worse, the soul wounds they experienced somehow don’t get resolved completely, without real and difficult effort and real, relational care and support.
It is hard for those who have never had to experience those combat realities to comprehend what it might be like for some of our combat veterans trying to come back into “The World” after such experiences. War related PTSD has become a well known term due to the numbers of returning veterans who suffer its effects, yet it remains a mystery to the 99% of Americans who have not served in a combat situation.
I have known so many of my brother Vietnam veterans, and now so many of my younger brother and sister combat veterans from our Post 9/11 wars that have faced or are facing the issues of combat stress. The following is a poem I wrote about the phenomenon a while back. It is simply an observation. My hope is that it will help others understand and have some empathy for what it is like to suffer the open, as yet unhealed wounds of combat memory.
The Vietnam Veteran With the Thousand Mile Stare
He seems a feral man,
To those he meets on the street,
Unwilling to be civilized.
Rather than deal with the
Demands of civilization,
He prefers to go out to the woods
And the wild places, alone,
As a believer would go to prayer
Or to Church.
Only in the wilderness does he
Sense himself whole.
The wild wastes where
Few dare to go,
He visits gladly
Even on the worst of days.
When he speaks to others,
He stutters profoundly.
His speech, limping over
The broken ground of memory,
Hesitates over each word.
He fears the ambush of memories
That each phrase might scare up.
Communication often becomes
An enemy too heavy for him to bear.
So, he goes into the forest,
Tries to enter Eden again
For its cool silences,
Its embracing solitudes
And finds that though
He can never escape himself,
He can, for a time,
Feel somewhat at home.
Our military and our veteran communities are one of our greatest national assets. Let’s keep them all in our minds, our prayers. Even more importantly, may our government, the DOD, the military services, the VA, and our society honor them with our thanks by taking care of all of their needs as a result of their service, especially those who have met the enemy on the field of battle. Semper Fi!
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.