War and Finding Peace
Hal’s therapist asked him whether she did indeed return to her home. He replied, “Yeah, she left almost the next day. I remember her crying when she said good-bye to me the day she flew back, and I never saw her again.”
“You never saw her again?” his therapist asked.
“Nope, she didn’t have a phone and couldn’t write and didn’t have e-mail. The last I heard about my grandma was about two years after she went home. My mom told me she had been diagnosed with cancer and died.” Hal lowered and shook his head. “I should have stopped her from leaving. If I had, she might still be alive.” When asked what he meant, he replied, “If her cancer was diagnosed here in the States, she could have gotten treatment here instead of Nigeria, which could have saved her life.”
He went on to express his guilt for not intervening between his mother and grandmother and preventing the rupture in the family ties. When asked how he thought his grandmother and the elderly Iraqi woman might be connected, he gazed ahead and said, “I never realized that before, but she was about the same age as my grandma, and in both cases I felt responsible for their deaths.”
Hal was asked to concentrate on the stomach sensations and to let his mind go back to the earliest time in his life where he felt those sensations along with feeling responsible or guilty about someone getting harmed. Almost immediately he recalled an outing with his younger brother when he was around six years old and his brother was four. They were walking on rocks near a pond when his brother slipped and hit his head. Hal’s hands began to tremble as he told about being “scared” and guilty as his brother cried out loudly with his face covered in blood. He ran home to get his father, who yelled at him and later beat him for not watching out for his brother. This memory and the one with his grandmother were processed to completion. He was able to recognize how young he had been, and that at six years old he had done his best by running for help. At eight years old, there was nothing he could have done to prevent his grandmother from leaving.
At that point the experience in Iraq was targeted and processed. At the end of the session the SUD was checked, and Hal registered a 1 rating. When asked what kept it from being a zero, he replied, “An innocent old woman died and it will never be a zero. Even though I know I had something to do with her death — I also know that we had no choice. All we saw was a car speeding right toward us that didn’t respond to our warnings. If we didn’t fire, a lot more people could have been killed. It’s one of those tragedies that isn’t right, but is a fact of war.” As I’ve said before, processing incorporates what’s useful and releases the rest. Veterans don’t lose their humanity or the “edge” they might need to survive. But they can let go of the pain of what they’ve been forced to do in situ ations they couldn’t control.
Another thing to remember is that we all have experiences in our childhood that can make us vulnerable to different kinds of problems. All it takes is some accumulation of later experiences to tip us over. These types of experiences are most notably found in wartime. In fact, the kinds of events that occur during war can be sufficient to deliver a body blow that becomes impossible to recover from alone. Combinations of fatigue, exertion, responsibility, relationships with those who have died, horrific images — the list goes on and on. Wrong time, wrong place, luck of the draw. Whatever the reason, the research is clear — after three months, PTSD is considered “chronic.” Symptoms can persist for life if they are left untreated. There can also be delayed reactions where years later something triggers the negative feelings or self-judgment. The bottom line is that the symptoms can emerge at any time. Our enlisted men and women may be returning home with visible or invisible wounds — and deserve our help, understanding and respect. Who among us could have withstood these experiences intact?
PTSD makes life unmanageable. It pushes people into trying to do something to survive the chaos within them. Some people turn to drugs or alcohol, which only makes matters worse. The people who come in for help should be honored for their bravery and willingness to confront their demons. Whether or not there are intrusive thoughts, nightmares or flashbacks of a specific event, if any of the symptoms that SSCT Walters had are part of your life, consider your options. You can keep trying to fight it alone or reach out for assistance, just as this veteran chose to do. You don’t have to talk about what happened in detail, and relief may be as quick as 12 sessions away. Please reach out for help.