This essay is the full comment I left on the Passive Guy’s website regarding the NPR piece on Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” a collection of memoirs and short fiction about service in Vietnam. I recognise that PG may need to edit it for length or not use it if it seems too off-topic. I was taken aback by some of the comments people left on PG’s website and felt a response was necessary and perhaps helpful.
The Passive Voice website reported on National Public Radio’s (NPR) interview with author Tim O’Brien about his “The Things They Carried.” O’Brien mentions the guilt and sense of responsibility he still carries due to his military service in Vietnam. His writings can help those who are in or have survived the deployments of the last 10 years.
I concur with O’Brien’s mention of carrying a responsibility and a sense of guilt as a result of his military service. Many of us do. One commenter on the Passive Voice site claims there is no such guilt. He asserts that a government program will save veterans if they need help. This individual is hopefully well-meaning, but remains factually wrong.
Many soldiers do carry a sense of guilt and shame. Whether we are in a “Good War” or a “Bad War,” we will deal with a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) aftermath.
Guilt can come from many types of traumatic actions, including those we feel justified committing and result in saving lives. One example: If you kill a kid because he is wired to explode, you still carry some guilt even though shooting him or her saved your life and the lives of your buddies. Some soldiers feel guilt for killing enemy soldiers who were trying to kill them.
PTSD can result not only from combat, but also from other forms of trauma (sexual assault, clergy abuse, etc.). It has a physical component and a spiritual component. Yet, not everyone will react to a given trauma in the same way. Why not? Because we are individuals and not machines.
Even survivors of the famed “Band of Brothers” dealt with PTSD both while on active duty and in the decades after the war. Audie Murphy, the most highly decorated American combat soldier, also suffered from PTSD and tried to help others heal.
PTSD remains an often “invisible wound” as we usually don’t bleed from it until we slash our wrists, shoot ourselves, or die as a single vehicle fatality.
Many of the military veterans, active duty troops, their spouses and children are endeavoring to cope with the effects of PTSD. Due to trauma’s alienating affects, PTSD disrupts families and can lead to various addictions (drugs, alcohol, porn), enhanced anger, reckless behavior, and promiscuity.
The Veterans Administration (VA), while vastly superior as compared to only 4-6 years ago, remains a hit or miss organization according to the vets I have spoken with and in my own personal experience. The “tremendous resources” that one commenter claims are employed to help vets often fail to trickle down to helping the women and men who need them. More than one veteran has gone home and killed himself after being spurned by the VA.
Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” remains a classic, his other fiction is also first-rate. Writing is one of the ways a PTSD-survivor remains a survivor and not become a PTSD-induced suicide victim.
Part of what makes the legacy of “The Things They Carried” so vital is that it spurs the conversation about not only how do we help veterans cope with PTSD, but also how we can help any trauma survivor cope with the physical and soul wounds that make up PTSD.
Thank you to Tim O’Brien for mustering the courage (and the talent) to write “The Things they Carried,” to NPR for their interview, and to the Passive Guy for providing the forum for this conversation.
If you suffer from PTSD, know there is hope. The painful existence that PTSD can impose on us does not have to be a life sentence. There is a degree of healing we can experience. Remember, your life always has value.
Semper Pax, Dr. Z