Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Walking the razor's edge

It was just another mission. The young corporal, a seasoned veteran, commanded the first squad and had been in the country long enough to suppress any nervous energy that might overwhelm his confident, professional exterior. The soldier walks a tightrope that teeters between sanity and insanity. One survives by walking the razor’s edge.

The Marines of first squad stared at the corporal’s eyes; they would find their strength and confidence by what they saw there. His eyes were steady; they would be all right and make it back.

The lieutenant briefed his squad leaders. The platoon would conduct a reconnaissance by force, make contact and close with the enemy. It was a mission not unlike the others, and the corporal was up for the task. However, something happened on that patrol that would change his life forever.

Many veterans pass through my office. They come to see the old lieutenant. I listen intently to their stories. They often leave me with a broken heart.

There is a world of silence that often sits within those who have seen unspeakable acts of violence. We tell soldiers, “Welcome home,” but to some the battle never leaves them, for they return to the conflict every day of their lives. For many veterans, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an ongoing struggle affecting every aspect of life.

PTSD is an emotional illness that develops as a result of surviving a terribly frightening, life-threatening experience. Living in the shadowy interior of the brain's limbic system, and invisible to the untrained eye, PTSD tortures its victims for a lifetime. Soldier's heart, an early reference to PTSD, delves into the lives of otherwise normal veterans who, seemingly for no reason, display lasting patterns of bad choices and erratic, self-destructive behaviors.

The effects are devastating and consequential to the sufferers’ medical and emotional functioning, their relationships and families. Depression, isolation, rage, alienation, anxiety, sleep disorders, flashbacks, guilt, paranoia and thoughts of suicide erode the psyche on an occurring basis. The surgeon general has cited that approximately 30% of those who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq are inflicted with some form of PTSD.

My dear reader, these thoughts are meant to let you know what some of our soldiers go through long after we forget. Dirt, death, misery and guilt are heavy burdens for anyone to experience. Let’s shoulder it with them. For them to know that you remember they fought and bled is payment when they come home. Simply, our soldiers need to know that they mattered to you as much as you mattered to them.

Reports of battle-related stress appear as early as the 6th century B.C. Perhaps the first literary reference to PTSD was Homer’s account of Achilles’ war experiences in the Iliad. Likewise, Shakespeare deals with this infliction in the character Hotspur in “Henry the lV, Part 1.”

Let me return to my story of the young corporal.

The mission soon became unlike any other. The first squad was at the point when suddenly withering fire exploded from the jungle. Quickly, the corporal gave the lieutenant a situation report and was subsequently ordered to flank the enemy’s position and lay down suppressive fire to cover the advance of the Marines.

Tennyson speaks of an unyielding devotion to duty in his classic “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” and so it was for the corporal; the first squad was in a dogfight, and its leader performed meritoriously.

He was never the same after that experience; something had changed and no one knew or understood why.

The young corporal is not so young anymore. He suffers from PTSD and hauntingly lives a reclusive life in the wilds of New Mexico. His life teeters between insanity and insanity—no longer does he walk the razor’s edge.

I worry about him and visit often. I was his lieutenant.

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at doctorjoe@ymail.com.

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