Thoughts from Dr. Joe: The ongoing tragedy of PTSD

My sophomore English teacher, Brother Raymond, once asked, “What do you want to become?”

“A writer,” I replied.

“Joey, boy,” he said, “you couldn't write the alphabet if I spotted you the first 25 letters.”

I think of his words each morning while I struggle to write the great American novel. James Joyce said, “Before I write, I stare at a blank page until my ears bleed.” I know what he meant.

Currently I'm working on a story about Seamus O'Grady, Elijah Bravo and Ophelia Hawkins, three kids growing up in the hill country of South Texas circa 1965. Seamus and Elijah join the Marines and find themselves in Vietnam, engulfed in the hill fights of 1967. Ophelia, a National Merit scholar, becomes a leader in anti-war movement. She's the girl with the purple ribbon, which she wears to memorialize the dead of the Vietnam War.

It's a story about friendship, loyalty, commitment and love. It's a platform for expressing the insanity of war, the flawed tactics, the backlash against the soldiers, and the ill-conceived political philosophies of the time. It's also about post-traumatic stress, which destroyed so many lives.

To write this story, it became essential to understand the evolution of post-traumatic stress. I needed to get into the mind of the soldier. What happens when darkness extinguishes the spirit and soul of the soldier, causing him to take his life? I couldn't garner insight from my memories, so it had to come from another source.

In a serendipitous meeting, a La Cañada neighbor visiting Starbucks overheard a conversation I had with a prospective editor. She offered suggestions relative to my story and said, “I have something to give you that might help.”

The next morning, she brought three years of letters written 44 years ago by a young man chronicling his service in the Army from enlistment through Vietnam and the war's aftermath.

People write things in letters they wouldn't say in person. They write feelings and observations using emotional syntax more intimate and powerful than speech. These old and dead letters took on amazing intimacy. I read every word and studied every hop and skip of the pen, trying to understand what made him end his life.

In this soldier's letters I saw that wanting to love and wanting to be loved is our greatest quest and that the absence of love creates despondency. During the Vietnam War, the lack of purpose created a disconnect between the soldier and the horrific circumstances he endured.

In “Man's Search for Meaning,” Victor Frankel tells us that without a distinct purpose, our resiliency to cope with difficulty is diminished. This soldier was listless, he had no understanding of why he was there, he exhibited no purpose, no altruism to either his comrades or his mission, and he exhibited callousness toward enemy and friendly dead.

He withdrew within himself and that's what caused him to end his own life. He's another casualty of the Vietnam War who died because of the political assumptions of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is an encompassing tragedy of enormous proportions, with massive repercussions inflicting our Iraqi and Afghan veterans. Soldiers who served their country live constantly with the war inside them. Folk wisdom is filled with ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves until their stories are told. We should listen.

I don't know how I will end the story of Seamus, Elijah and Ophelia. However, Seamus and Ophelia will find each other and Elijah will fill the hole in his heart caused by hate. I must write a happy ending. I couldn't bear to create any more sorrow associated with the Vietnam War and add to the tragedy of the boy who wrote the letters and ended his own life.

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at doctorjoe@ymail.com. Visit his website at doctorjoe.us.

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