"Not Alone" A single step in PTSD recovery

Not Alone

[VA Group Therapy - a single step]

—AW Schade USMC 1965/69

Before my fourth group session, my psychiatrist motioned me to his office. He said, “It’s time you reach another stage of healing.” I realized what he meant. In previous sessions I joined discussions but shied away from revealing my history.

I sat in silence to absorb what he suggested. Fully aware counseling with him differed from engaging peers and exposing my conflicts with war, manhood, and God. I told him I would try. 

I rarely discussed Vietnam, lost buddies, or the atrocities we encountered. Nor sought to reconnect with Marines I fought beside. I struggled to block out everything about the war, but nightmares, depression, and guilt ensured I never would.

I first imagined group therapy as guys telling ‘Rambo’ stories. Old men, touting what they did, how life might have been, and blaming everyone else for their missteps. I was wrong.

In our bunch, all but one veteran saw conflict. Several lived with physical impairments, others spent periods in and out of psychiatric care. Most hoped to purge their anguish, but only a few proved resilient enough to succeed.

After friendly prodding, the vet who didn’t experience warfare explained that he regularly unloaded hundreds of black body bags from choppers. He was plagued by memories of clutching lifeless soldiers’ bodies, or scantily packed body parts. 

I peered at the aged man, groping for words to release his repressed guilt. Tears blurred my vision as I recalled the companions I inserted into similar bags. I understood then that PTSD is not reserved to only those who fought in battles.

Piercing the ghostly stillness, the psychologist asked if I wished to say something. Saying no would have been sufficient, but why not now, I thought.

I began by recounting what I considered our accomplishments; protecting defenseless people from rape, torture or savage death. The real shit never played on the nightly news.

Suddenly, I sharply stated, “And we did not give a shit about politicians or college students protesting back home. We lost the war because we didn’t have the chance to win it. We left families to die!”

“Damn, let it all out, brother,” one veteran said with sincere compassion.

After a moment, I continued. “Like when on a night patrol we heard gunshots from a small village we often visited. Over time, we got to know the villagers, who simply wanted to farm in peace.

We headed toward the village, but arrived too late. Villagers laid dead; men bound with throats cut, mothers raped, children screaming, traumatized. I would never be late again.

With the survivors guarded, we tracked down the Vietcong, resting and giggling as if mutilation was common. In a brief firefight, we killed them all. I had no remorse. At eighteen years old, I knew why I was in Vietnam, to protect and kill.”

A young vet from the Gulf Wars interjected; “Hey

Marine, I don’t want you to quit telling us about the evil shit, it’s needed, but how did that crap screw up your life?”

The question wasn’t easy. I gained a degree of success many of these brothers hadn’t. So, not to seem like a pompous ass, I told them the shortened version.

“After four years I left the Marines. Young and confident, I thought depression and anxiety were part of manhood, and nightmares temporary. I was determined to look forward, and not back to the war.

Like most of you, I had many jobs but felt out of place. Compared to combat, jobs were child’s play. I was prepared to return to the military, but started repossessing cars for a bank.”

“Yeah, mine!.” an Army lifer chimed in.

I smiled and proceeded. “Then worked my way up to Branch Manager. After a few years I got bored, and quit for an entry-level job in IBM. I progressed quickly and spent twenty-nine years in executive positions. By many standards, I did damn good.”

I did not need to talk more about my achievements, but felt compelled to share that I had far from a wonderful life.

“Still, my world was filled with anger, mood swings and depression. In my mid-50s, I lost control during the Gulf Wars. To me the carnage shown on television wasn’t in Iraq, it was Vietnam. Wretched memories consumed me. I succumbed to PTSD, and could no longer handle it alone. I was forced to retire ten years earlier than I planned.”

“Amen Brother! It screwed me up too.” Someone remarked. Others nodded in agreement. My story had reopened common wounds. The vet’s melancholy mood shift was amplified

by their silence.

I finished by adding; “Over four decades of denial, and treatment by VA psychiatrists, I’m sitting here with you guys sharing segments of my soul.”

Well beyond our two-hour time schedule, the session ended. A few of us hugged and reinforced our support for each other, then departed.

I had taken a modest step toward recovery, but knew my demons wouldn’t hesitate to ambush me. However, for a few hours each week, I spoke with people who understood and didn’t judge me.

I was not alone.

AW Schade

[AW Schade: Marine, Vietnam 1966/67, retired corporate executive and author of the award-winning book, Looking for God: within the Kingdom of Religious Confusion. Also: 'The demons of war are persistent;' a suspense story, ‘If I fail; what doom awaits the children;’ a satire, 'The greatest father;' and “Note Alone.” awschade@gmail.com www.awschade.com]

AW Schade
Orlando , United States Of America


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