Soldiers and PTSD

Recently, while visiting Old Town Sacramento with The Kid and some of our friends, we were approached by a young man wearing camo pants and combat boots. He walked up to us and said, “Somebody say ‘Red Light’!” The Kid obliged, and the man stopped and stood stock-still. We watched in silence, wondering what would happen next. Time stretched. Finally the man, ventriloquist-style, said, “Somebody say ‘Green Light’!” Once released from his pose, the man asked if we’d like to see how well he could impersonate a character from Mortal Combat. Without waiting for our answer, he promptly froze in a fighting stance for perhaps a minute. When he unfroze, he told us he had done three tours in Iraq, quickly rattled off his rank and company, and gave a sharp salute.

I had no ready response. I wanted to thank him for his service, but though he was affable, it was also clear that he was troubled—he was slightly unkempt, sure– but really it was the way he approached us. Complete strangers. Two women and their young children. Later, my friend and I were both admitted we were afraid if we said anything, things might become less pleasant. Instead, we said nothing, which felt wrong too. In the face of our silence, the man asked our kids if they wanted to see how fast he could run, and he took off in a full sprint. Later that night, remembering our trip, my son said, “That guy was really nice. And he could run really fast.”

A few days later, my dad handed me a copy a friend had made of an article from The Smithsonian, written by Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic (see below), entitled Did Civil War Soldiers Have PTSD? It’s an intriguing—if very sad—look at recent scholarship that has uncovered what happened to some of the soldiers who survived the Civil War but were unable to return smoothly to civilian life.

It’s a subject I thought about often as I was writing I Shall Be Near To You. The more I studied the Civil War, and watched soldiers coming home from the Iraq War as I wrote, the more I wondered how any soldier is ever able to return to domestic life and put aside the memories of combat. How does a soldier go from a battlefield to a grassy field in the park, sitting with women and children on a gorgeous Spring day? It’s a heavy expectation.

Civil War era physicians had almost no ability to help soldiers address that challenge. Today it still seems like we are often unable to effectively help soldiers return to the lives they left behind or pursue the dreams they once held. All too often, I feel like our collective response is the same as my friend’s and mine. The reality of a troubled soul is distressing and so very sad, and yet we’re left speechless and unable to offer anything of use. And even if we managed to say “Thank You,” it would never, ever be enough.

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