Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Suicide - Combat Deaths Still Happening After All These Years.
PTSD- Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder...The description below is from the
National Center for PTSD
A National Center for PTSD Fact Sheet
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or violent personal assaults like rape. People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person's daily life.
PTSD is marked by clear biological changes as well as psychological symptoms. PTSD is complicated by the fact that it frequently occurs in conjunction with related disorders such as depression, substance abuse, problems of memory and cognition, and other problems of physical and mental health. The disorder is also associated with impairment of the person's ability to function in social or family life, including occupational instability, marital problems and divorces, family discord, and difficulties in parenting.
Like many of us, who served in Vietnam and have dealt in silence
with our memories, I have often contemplated suicide, even making one deliberate
attempt and many risk taking, who gives a damn attempts. If I had not met
my wonderful wife, when I did, I would have gone through with a carefully
planned three year journey to relief through a "drunk riding motorcycle
accident" . I thought I had handled the PTSD from Vietnam very well,
working 6 1/2 to 7 days a week, 10 - 12 hours a day at a job I loved, to keep
me from thinking about Vietnam. I did not notice the social isolation and
total loss of emotional response.
In the late 1980’s, while I was still suffering flashbacks and anger over the war in Vietnam, I wrote this poem....
Damn all the good reasons the Army gave me to “fight communism”!
Damn all the strangers I killed in hate, but never knew!
Damn all the civilians, whose vote sent me to kill for them!
Damn all the apathetic citizens, who didn’t vote to stop the war!
Damn the memories, that twenty years later still bring nightmares!
Damn us all to HELL!
Will you be DAMNED on judgment day?
God knows I surely will.
Homer R. Steedly Jr.
Bravo and Delta and HHC Companies
1st Bn 8th INF
4th Infantry Division
Some of the symptoms of PTSD I personally experienced are as follows:
I wrote the poem because of the rage I felt bottled up inside of me. My life was deadpan emotionally, simply because I felt that if I let my emotions get to the surface, this murderous rage would be unleashed and people would die! When anger did get out, it was often totally out of proportion to the offense.
Emotional Numbness or Detachment:
My family says I never smiled or laughed. I felt feelings of love for no one and was for nearly thirty years, totally uninterested in the opposite sex. I often walked down the street feeling as if I were an alien walking among the innocents. I was different from normal people, who were not aware of the realities of combat. I lived and functioned fairly well, but the joy seemed to have vanished from my life. Knowing the realities of combat and trying to live among those who do not understand the total change in world view that I experienced as a result, has done more damage to my psyche than the war itself.
This is not the way to learn from war. The knowledge we veterans have must be shared with the larger society, if we are to ever feel comfortable again walking among the rest of you. It is only by listening to our stories, that you may truly learn from our experiences. Together, we may move society forward towards the day, when such tragedies are no longer necessary.
I always checked out a room for all possible exit/entry points, even windows and false ceilings and sat with my back to a wall, when possible. I noticed everyone around me, even pedestrians while driving and shopping in stores. I saw every single person with a weapon, security, police, even those with concealed weapons and never took my eyes off them. For the first decade after I returned from Vietnam, I had a pistol within easy reach at all times, even when visiting relatives. I slept with it under the mattress, took it to work, had it between the seats in the car, in my tackle box when fishing. In my world, death was always still only a heartbeat away. After a cocky young state trooper stopped me for speeding in Tennessee and put his hand on his weapon, and I found myself a heartbeat away from drawing my pistol and firing in "self defense", I finally got rid of all my guns out of fear that my combat reflexes would lead me to kill someone I really did not mean to injure. Another form of my hypervigilence was the startle response. Waking me out of sleep could be dangerous. If I was reliving a combat memory, touching me could get you attacked, before I realized you were not an enemy soldier. Once as I walked down main street, heading to the news stand to pick up a paper, a vehicle backfired and before I realized it, I was on the sidewalk, low crawling towards a parked truck for cover. Imagine how I felt as I got up and saw the fear and confusion in the eyes of the pedestrians who had seen my actions.
In my case, waking up screaming orders, stumbling around in the dark, at first confused as to where I was, believing I was in a firefight. My heart would be pounding and I would be sweating profusely, so pumped up on adrenalin, that getting back to sleep would be impossible. The next night, I would often have difficulty getting to sleep, fearing another flashback. These breaks in reality take us back to traumatic events in such a totally lifelike way, that it is very upsetting.
Other symptoms of PTSD may be found at HelpGuide.org.
Coping with PTSD can become too much to bear. I included this page after a good friend Wayne Karlin, sent me an email about Robert "Doc" Topmiller's untimely death nearly forty years after his service in Vietnam. We will never know what personal demons drove Doc to take his own life, but the stress of his combat service is undoubtedly directly responsible for this tragedy.
I guess what scares me so much about Doc's tragic death, is the fact that through his writing, personal journey back to Vietnam, and helping other veterans, I would never have expected it of him. Like myself, I thought he had come to terms with the war and made it a positive motivating force to drive his life forward. It scares me, because I know deep down, that all veterans are capable of such a tragic meltdown. I can only pray for the survivors and hope they will reach out to those of us, who are still on patrol and willing to help. I'm here to talk to anyone who needs me. No promises...just understanding.
I recently attended the 4th Infantry Division's National Reunion in St. Louis. If you haven't attended any of your old unit's reunions, come join us at the next 4th Infantry Reunion. The sense of belonging we combat veterans shared, comes to life very quickly at these events. Here we find others, who know what we have been through and with whom we may talk openly, without fear of being judged. The shared bonds spring up again and you no longer feel so all alone. It has helped heal my soul so much. I urgently implore you to find that bond again. It really was and still is a thing of wonder.
These guidelines came from
http://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention/ Contact information can
be found on this site to help veterans.
Watch for these key suicide warning signs...
•Talking about wanting to hurt or kill oneself
•Trying to get pills, guns, or other ways to harm oneself
•Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide
•Rage, uncontrolled anger, seeking revenge
•Acting in a reckless or risky way
•Feeling trapped, like there is no way out
•Saying or feeling there's no reason for living.
If all else fails, email me....I know what you are going through...been there myself. Use the Swamp_Fox address at bottom of page. Don't let the war kill you after you have survived this long. There is peace still out there...you just need to reconnect with it.
Another good guide and resource site, LearnPsychology.org, has just published an expert-driven guide to understanding and preventing suicide. You can view the guide here: http://www.learnpsychology.org/suicide-depression-student-guidebook/
This is John's heart wrenching account of the suicides of two of the men from his unit 69th Armor.
The Winter Solstice, Christmas, and Suicides
The darkness, the long nights, it is a period of increased suicides. The winters in Scandinavia and Canada, in particular, take their toll. Christmas is a time of joy and celebration for so many, but for those alone, without a family, it can be a time of depression. Likewise, for those without a meaningful place in society, and this includes viable employment.
There have been at least two suicides, and almost certainly more, of men who were once in the 1/69th Armor. This is an appropriate time to consider their fate, perhaps in order to undertake some constructive steps to prevent others from reaching the ultimate point of despair. The following two individuals had very different upbringings, served in quite different roles in the unit, and their suicides were almost 40 years apart. But there were similar contributing factors to each final decision, and these include the trauma they experienced in serving our country in Vietnam, and the lack of meaningful employment and a viable place in society after their service.
I didn't know Dwight H. Johnson. He had DEROS'ed (as we called it, that acronym derived from "Date Eligible for Return from Overseas Station"), which meant that he had gone home to America a few months before my arrival in the unit, in September, 1968. In fact, although our battalion was composed of approximately 500 men, as are most battalions, I was never able to talk to a fellow unit member who personally knew Dwight. We were simply too spread out; and there was the constant flux, the coming and going, the replacement of the "short-timers" by the "cherries." But Dwight was already a legend in the unit. For he had won the Medal of Honor. Only 3471 awards have been granted since its inception in 1861. The events for which he won the Medal of Honor occurred in January, 1968, "on the road to Dak To." Five tanks were ambushed, and a common account in the unit was that everyone else on those tanks, some 15-17 people, were killed or wounded. One tank supposed burned up, with its crew. President Lyndon Baines Johnson personally placed the Medal of Honor around Dwight's neck. If you read the official citation which accompanied the Medal. Experience has taught most of us that such accounts have been "tidied up." No mention of the fate of the rest of his platoon, in terms of the dead and wounded. No tank on fire; no exploding white phosphorous shells. Maybe only 5-10 people alive today could present an accurate account of those other details. But the essential truth of what happened that day is there in that official prose. Dwight lived through what was probably 30 minutes of adrenalin- pumping terror. He fought hard, as his experience, character, and training had taught him. He did what he could to help his buddies. He killed North Vietnamese soldiers, at almost point blank range; an experience very few American soldiers in Vietnam had. He survived, physically unwounded. And his courage and achievement were recognized by his comrades, as well as the military hierarchy.
And for years, that was all I knew. Dwight's story revisited me in the most unexpected way in 1976. I was in the Civic Center in Atlanta, GA., attending a concert by the folk singer, Harry Chapin. Chapin's most famous song was perhaps "Cat's in the Cradle." But there was another song, "Bummer." It was about a black kid, growing up in the ghetto: "He was a laid back lump in the cradle, chewing the paint chips that fell from the ceiling." The song conveyed that his economic circumstances and education offered him no choice but service in the Army. Then, like a 10,000 volt shock, Chapin "hit" me with the line: ". and there were 5 tanks, on the road to Dak To." This was Dwight's story, in song, and that is how I learned the ending, via the poetic license of a folk song. Dwight returned to the States, had troubles adjusting, couldn't find work ("the Army had only taught him how to kill."), and so he tried to rob a convenience store and was shot and killed in the effort. The song concluded, again with poetic license, that when the two cops turned him over, and the Medal of Honor fell out of his hand, one asked the other: "Now where do you suppose he stole that from." (Note: the published lyrics today vary somewhat from the recording that I have - typical of songs with improvising artists.) In those "dark" days, long before Google, it took me over a year to verify that Dwight Johnson was killed, in a robbery attempt, in Detroit, in 1971.
The concluding statement in the Wikipedia article seems to have captured the essential truth of the matter, as his mother relates: "Sometimes I wonder if Skip tired of this life and needed someone else to pull the trigger".
The other suicide was my friend, and fellow medic, Irvin Harper. I first met Irv in the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku. He arrived in Vietnam in January, 1969, and within a month had contracted malaria. He was being transferred to the 6th Convalesce Center in Cam Ranh Bay, for about a month of "treatment," which, word had it, was to make your life unpleasant enough so that you would want to go back to your unit as soon as possible. He read books; we became friends, and we helped each other out from time to time, even though we were usually not in the same place or company. Before arriving in Vietnam he had already been married and divorced; on his R&R to Hawaii he gave his fiancé a diamond ring. I was leaving four months prior to his "DEROS", and he asked me to visit his family and future wife, in Forest Lake, MN, on my way to my brief 85 day assignment at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver. I did; we had a pleasant dinner, with the ultimate question dancing in the background: I had survived Vietnam, would he?
He did. And like some other veterans of that war, he sought solace in the natural world, in remote rural areas. He had gone to university at Bemidji State, in northern Minnesota, garnering a degree in Philosophy. A limited job market, for sure. He had different talents, and was a natural card- player. He won approximately $2000 in poker, in Vietnam, almost as much as he earned as a medic. And with that two thousand, in those much gentler times, he bought a log cabin, and 40 acres of land, about 10 miles north of Bemidji, in a place called Turtle River, just off Hwy. 71, on the way to International Falls. Yes. COLD. And for $2000, you don't get all the "amenities," like running water, only a hand pump in the yard. But he assured me that the coffee, which was prepared over a wood stove, really did taste better. (Was it because you had to wait so long until it was ready?) No other house was visible from his; he was immensely proud of his "virgin" pines. He had a garden, raised some pigs, hunted deer and ducks. A woodsman. An entirely different world for a city boy like me, and he was always generous, and never patronizing when he brought me into his world. Turtle River became a place of "pilgrimage" for me throughout the `70's, `80's and `90's. Going to an entirely different country, but never needing a passport.
He took steps to "regularize" his life. Income would help, for example, of the steady variety. Based on his college degree, and his medic experience in Vietnam, he was able to complete a one-year program to become a licensed physician's assistant. He landed an excellent job working for an ophthalmologist in Bemidji. He became a specialist in the eyeball. He even modified my personal behavior, for he always drove his car with his lights on, even during the day. He told me if you only knew how many people drove their cars to the clinic, and were legally blind. Gulp! A little extra visibility wouldn't hurt. And he "regularized" his water supply, and more. Too many trips to the pump at 40 below. In 1976, he bought a prefab "kit", for $25,000, which contained the essential elements to a gorgeous cedar log, A- frame house. A few kegs of beer, and on one weekend, the "community", when we had such things, put the house up for him. Electricity and plumbing followed within the month, and that "little brown shack," which was the outhouse, was no more. He had a sign at the edge of his property, on the road in, that said "Harper's Last Stand."
The glories of the natural world, to someone who thoroughly appreciated it, and steady income. A most positive life trajectory. Save, for the problems. One of which was the malaria, a "weird" kind, not the normal variety, but one which seemed to haunt the Central Highlands of Vietnam, as most recently recounted in Karl Marlantes excellent book, "Matterhorn." It was dubbed "plasmodium." Treatment? From the VA? Come on. "You have to prove that you contracted the disease in Vietnam," a familiar opening gambit heard by many other veterans. Each year the fevers would come back, in the summer, and haunt his body. Other matters did too, and they manifested themselves in some self-abuse: drinking to excess, and smoking. His "women situation" never got "regularized," really. He was married and divorced four times.
But he had shared with me so much of his world, and I only thought it appropriate to reciprocate. I showed him mine, at the time, which was France. In 1989 he had not been outside the United States or Canada since Vietnam, and I talked him into visiting me and my family in France. Like many Americans, he had been exposed to much Franco phobia. you know, if you don't speak the language perfectly. blah, blah, and the snooty waiters. He too found a different world in which none of that was true.
In 1992 he visited me in Atlanta, and I was stunned by a confession. The cold weather bothered him; he intended to leave "Harper's Last Stand" permanently, and considered retiring to Belize. But he also loved Alaska (in the summer), and on his second drive up the ALCAN, he stopped in White Horse, the Yukon, chatted up the bar maid, who would become his 4th wife within a month. Canadian citizenship followed soon thereafter. They were divorced within a year; and he found some work with the EMS. Marsh Lake News story about Irv. (no longer online) ... Link to slower Cached Copy ...
The games of life were running out before the life was; his body was failing; depression predominated. I feel I tried in my way to pull him out of the downward vortex. It was not enough. He told me on several occasions that he did not intend to "linger." One time before he had called me, saying that it was the end, and then called the next day to apologize. Approximately 15 months ago, in September, 2009, I was not home when the message was placed on the voice mail. It was a 30 second, drunken ramble that was hard to decipher, but ended with that point of contact, the bit of French that he had learned: "Au Revoir."
It took almost two weeks, of returned phone calls to a phone that only rang, before the flat affect of a taped Canadian telephone operator confirmed my fears: "This number is no longer in service." My wife's sleuthing on the Internet yielded a contact with his 3rd ex-wife who confirmed the details, and unlike Dwight, he used his own hand to pull the trigger. White Horse would prove to be "Harper's Last Stand."
Dwight H. Johnson and Irvin Harper. Two very different life trajectories, linked fleetingly in the Central Highlands of Vietnam by their unit, the 1/69th Armor. Common endings, one with his own hand, one used another. Both, to some degree, continued casualties of the war, though their names will never be on The Wall.
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