My Soldier's Heart
During the American Civil War there was a condition called Soldier’s Heart. Say it out loud and listen to the sound of it. Soldier’s Heart. What a sad but beautiful name for how the horrors of war can affect the human soul. Of course naming it this wasn’t supposed to be poetic. The name came from the apparent heart murmurs many of the combat veterans shared. The medical professionals named it with indifference like they named Legionnaire’s Disease, the Black Lung, or Tennis Elbow, but looking at it now I don’t think there is a better description for what a soldier goes through after combat.
The army sent me home after I was blown up. It took a years or so before the gunshots and mortar impacts faded while sleeping. Every time I jumped up out of bed I stopped for a while and stared into the dark to let the fear drain away, like forgetting a dream. Even today I still check all the doors and windows to make sure they’re locked every time I wake up. It’s been ten years and I have almost complete range of motion, but all my scars and the places where the bones mended ache when it rains and this is a pain in the ass because I live in Portland, Oregon. But that’s okay. I love the rain.
I hate the term PTSD and try to never use it. I hated the term PTSD since first getting home even though my roommate would introduce me at parties as the dead guy, the guy who was blown up in Iraq. People would automatically assume I had it. This would usually get some good-looking girl in her early twenties over to me to hear about the war and pop her gum while staring at me with sympathy in her big eyes. Many times these girls would tell me something like they have a friend with a family member in the war, maybe I knew him. I’d lie and say the name sounded familiar. I let her have what she wanted and I’d talk about the bad stuff in the war. This would last ten minutes or so before she’d cut it short by saying something like all soldiers are heroes, she’d say it’s a shame what we go through when we get back.
She doesn’t know me, or the jerk who stole my one comfortable pair of boots from my trailer while I was out on patrol, or the creep who served in my unit who was arrested in a sting a few months ago in a Taco Bell parking lot for trying to meet underage girls. Is he a hero? Would she still think I was a hero if she knew I was staring at her cleavage every time she looked away during our entire conversation? Would she think I’m a victim if she knew the government paid for most my college and my healthcare? Fighting in the war doesn’t give someone permanent hero status and it doesn’t make us all victims.
Many of the harder soldiers I know don’t believe in PTSD, at least they say they don’t. It doesn’t matter if they have the same symptoms as the guys who do. Some of these hard guys say the people who claim to have PTSD are the ones who are abusing the system and scamming disability money by faking it. Unfortunately they’re not all wrong, this happens. It really does, but that doesn’t mean combat doesn’t affect the soldiers who fought. There’s fraud and abuse in every system, but frustration doesn’t make blanket statements true. I don’t like the term PTSD, but it’s a fact that combat veterans sometimes have difficulty coming back home. It’s been documented since Soldier’s Heart. Greek plays had hoplites throwing their shields in bushes, weary of war.
Okay, so it exists, now here are my problems with the term PTSD. First off, this condition about how the human soul, or whatever it is that makes us who we are, is changed by intense and horrible events, has been reduced to a cold and mechanical acronym. The humanity has been bleached from the condition. We need to deal with human not the disorder.
Secondly, the term is used for everything. If a soldier has nightmares from the dead he or she had seen they have PTSD. Anger issues – PTSD. Irritable Bowel Syndrome, numbness in their fingers, drinking problems, can’t feel safe, wants to go back, all of this equals PTSD. Placing all these problems under one disorder can lead people to believe there is one solution. Not only that but society says PTSD so often it’s lost its meaning. PTSD has now become a blanket some combat veterans can get comfortable in, an excuse not to make the effort to transition back.
The term PTSD has all these problems, but it definitely exists. I had difficulties when I got back, and I still have them today. Part of my solution is to help other veterans. I meet with combat veterans all the time from different deployments and different wars who have either gone through what I went through or they’re going through it: anxiety in public places, difficulty with processing experiences, emotional issues, and so much more.
A few days ago I met with a marine at a pub called Saravesa in NE Portland. We’d never met before except as combat veterans on Facebook. He and his wife recently moved to Portland and he was looking for a sense of community so he reached out and found me. Within minutes we were telling each other about our service, the combat we went through, and the problems we’ve had since coming back. We were digging deep and dealing with some incredibly emotional events in our lives and healing by speaking about it with someone who truly understands, but when the bartender came to ask us if we wanted another round, from her perspective it looked like two big lugs crying their eyes out on a Tuesday afternoon for no apparent reason. She backed away slowly and didn’t return for a while. In fact, I remember a different bartender served us for the rest of the night.
I met another friend at one of my readings a year back who joined the Israeli Defense Force after graduating from high school. He experienced some pretty horrifying events in the Gaza Strip and he told me he isolated himself after getting back. I told him about the week or so I was hole up in my bedroom pissing in gallon jugs, only leaving for more alcohol. This time in my life is embarrassing to bring up, but he understood. Bringing up these uncomfortable and embarrassing moments with other veterans let’s us all know we’re not alone. I talk about how bad it was for me in hopes to show others they can get through it, to show that their problems are just part of a difficult transition and not a permanent state, to show their symptoms are manageable.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has all the passion and meaning the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV can muster, which is to say none. I don’t have a disorder. I have completely understandable issues from experiencing some horrific combat; this is soldier’s heart. Two manly men who fought and bled for our country, who chewed barbwire and pissed napalm, an infantryman and a marine crying over their half-filled pints of good local beer; this is the soldier’s heart. Having an intense longing for doing something incredibly dangerous, for being someone who was undeniably a part of history, this is soldier’s heart. What I’ve gone through and the difficulty I see other combat veterans going through are real. They’re there and documented. They have been at least since the American Civil War. To say these problems don’t exist or to say that they’re only for the weak is just a form of denial, but to lump them all together with an impersonal acronym is just as bad. Leaving the acronym behind and understanding there are multiple difficulties, will put the human back into this equation and give us all a more accurate description of this complicated issue. Say it one more time: Soldier’s Heart.
As I continue my life with PTSD, I will share my challenges and discoveries on this blog.