Are you missing your time in the service?
U.S. Air Force Security Police in combat at Ton Son Nhut Air Base during the Tet Offensive in 1968. Enemy troops had breached the perimeter and made it onto the runway. After intense fighting that lasted through the night, the Security Police, along with other U.S. and South Vietnamese troops, repelled the enemy. U.S. Air Force photo.

The Science of PTSD

By Mary Tendall, VietNow National PTSD Chairperson

As a soldier you were trained to be loyal and to be part of a unit in order to live through a battle or any other aspect of a combat-zone experience, and this resulted in a biochemical and emotional bonding and often even a sense of well-being. You were part of a real team. You really belonged. But when you got home, that all disappeared, and maybe you were alone.

Several months ago Dan* left me a phone message saying, “I want to talk to you about a dream I had about Vietnam.” That was all he said. I expected this could take some time for me to hear, so I waited until I had that time, and called him back.

Dan’s wife answered (Dan never answers calls), and was excited to hand him the phone. Dan explained that he had one of the best dreams he ever remembered having. Although he couldn’t remember details, he reported that he woke up with a feeling of deep connection to the men in his unit. “I don’t ever remember feeling that connected to anyone before or since Nam. Ironically, while dreaming, I was feeling emotionally secure and calm with those guys, and I don’t even remember all of their names.”

It’s not unusual

It’s not unusual for the experience of combat deployment to provide soldiers with a deeply intimate connection that might never be experienced again. It was puzzling to Dan’s wife when he shared the dream and the feelings it evoked. He later confided that he has not felt like that even with his own family. He was relieved to find that I often hear that when veterans are talking about men with whom they served. Dan’s dream illustrates what many call, “The Lure of Battle” or “The Intimacy of Combat.”

It’s not unusual for the experience of combat deployment to provide soldiers with a deeply intimate connection that might never be experienced again.

Connie,* who was a nurse in Vietnam, once shared with me that in spite of all of horrific experiences she dealt with in Vietnam, coming home was a letdown, and she experienced bouts of depression that lasted for several years. “I went from feeling actually jazzed in Nam to feeling empty inside, and void of a real purpose.”

So why is it that some soldiers signed up for several tours when one was all they were expected to serve? And why did Dan finally have a longing for the feelings he experienced in that dream of Vietnam? There are many answers to those questions, however it is certain that war-time experiences offered them something that one rarely finds available at home in the modern world.

A sense of belonging found

In his book, Tribe, Sebastian Junger points out that a sense of belonging and participating in the greater good of the group creates a body chemistry better than that which any medicine can provide: Increased levels of el dopa, oxytocin, and other hormones, which then leads to loyalty, self-sacrifice, and approval – as well as a sense of well-being. Negative behavior such as dishonesty and inappropriate behavior is frowned upon, and can be experienced as betrayal. Soldiers are trained to be loyal, and know that they must cooperate in order to survive. That training evolves into a biochemical and emotional bonding.

Military training and deployment to a combat zone are ideal for creating an environment that offers the elements often missing in our modern lives. As mammals, we are social beings wired for cooperation, loyalty, and bonding. In some areas of the world, the survival of small communities is often dependent on those elements.

Dwight* said, “None of us wanted to be there…we felt like we were giving a lot…and it felt like it was us against the world. Most of us knew our families cared about us, but we felt that really no one else did…so we really stuck together.”

In humans, lack of social support has been found to be twice as reliable in predicting PTSD as is the severity of the trauma itself.

Woody* told me that he came from a family of “comfortable means” at the time he was drafted. “I didn’t want to be there.” He said that after a few months in the bush, “I felt like I belonged in a way I never had before in my so-called privileged life. It was tough, and I hated Vietnam, but I never hesitated to put my life on the line for my guys, and they did the same for me. I still miss it.”

And then lost

Junger says, “Virtually all mammals seem to benefit from companionship. In humans, lack of social support has been found to be twice as reliable in predicting PTSD as is the severity of the trauma itself.”

As a country, we seem to have fallen short in this area. Many Vietnam veterans will say that the homecoming was worse than anything that happened during their time in Vietnam. Not only was there often a lack of community support, but many soldiers faced verbal and physical abuse as soon as they landed back in the U.S. To compound that situation, the support of their unit was no longer available, and they experienced the elimination of any sense of cooperation and trust.

The sense of purpose

The sense of purpose ended as soon as they left their unit – separated from friends, no mission, and with the fear that their old identity back home might never be reclaimed. That initial yell at the point when the plane hit safe air space was often followed by an empty silence of confused soldiers facing an uncertain future in a “foreign” homeland.

For many returning soldiers, the re-entry into society caused many of the symptoms we associate with PTSD – such as isolation and depression. It’s not always the actual war experience that causes symptoms of PTSD. It’s often the loss of the connection to the group with whom the veteran has shared many unique experiences.

The wish to return to that time

I’ve heard from veterans, including younger veterans with young families, who say that they would return to the combat zone “in a heartbeat.”

That longing to return is especially true in young veterans who were not subject to the draft. The collective goals veterans experienced during combat now become individual goals filled with uncertainty. It’s no wonder that many veterans become policemen, firefighters, and EMTs. During a catastrophe, they once again feel at home in their sense of purpose, and are flooded with feelings of well-being.

Family and community connections make the difference

Although effective individual treatment can and should be transformational for a veteran, working only with the symptoms can alienate war veterans, even from each other. If the focus is on family, and we create a community ready to receive them with support, education, and job opportunities, it becomes a collective community for all of us.

There was a time during our Civil War when our citizens fought against each other. And we now listen to political rhetoric with the liberals and conservatives attacking values and decisions. How does that create strength? For a soldier coming home, a sense of pride in one’s country is often contaminated by the political, racial, and financial chasms. The veteran may feel pressure to choose sides and continue the conflict without the cohesive goal shared by the whole.

Sebastian Junger from his book, Tribe: The beauty and tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the common good.”

Tribe: On Becoming and Belonging. Sebastian Junger. Twelve Hachette Brook Group, 2016.

Get PTSD help online from the VA

Whatever kind if help you need with PTSD, and no matter what you’ve tried before, be sure to check out The National Center for PTSD – one more part of the VA’s constant efforts to help with PTSD.

PTSD Coach Online is for anyone who needs help with upsetting feelings. Trauma survivors, their families, or anyone coping with stress can benefit. Online self-help tools can help with problems such as sleep, trauma reminders, anger, and more.

http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/treatment/cope/index.asp

Read more stories like this one.

 

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You are invited to contact Mary Tendall with comments and/or questions regarding PTSD. Her e-mail address is maryten@jps.net.

*The names of any veterans and/or family members mentioned in this article have been changed for privacy reasons.

 

Mary TendallMary Tendall, MA, LMFT, serves as the VietNow National PTSD Chairperson. She has worked for over 20 years with combat veterans and their families, specializing in PTSD. She also works with groups such as Soldier’s Heart, Train Down, and America’s Heroes.