No veteran wants Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In fact most will fight it for years, and when things really get out of hand, they have to go through the embarrassment of asking the Veterans Administration for help.
If you Google for a definition for PTSD, you find there are 677,000 pages on the subject. Here is one of the first ones I found:
A debilitating condition that often follows a terrifying physical or emotional event causing the person who survived the event to have persistent, frightening thoughts and memories, or flashbacks, of the ordeal. Persons with PTSD often feel chronically, emotionally numb. Once referred to as “shell shock” or “battle fatigue.”
I can remember when I first thought about getting some help with the problems I was having after returning from Vietnam. I was going to Arizona State University under the Vocational Rehabilitation for Disabled Veterans Program, after a tour in the Republic of South Vietnam with the Marines.
Basically, I was okay as far as I was concerned, but I was having nightmares and almost constant thoughts about Vietnam.
So I sought help at the student health center. I wasn’t the first vet they had seen with these problems. They had the answer all ready for me. That would be a big bottle of 10-mg. pills of valium. The pills were nice, and they did take Vietnam off my mind, but they also took everything else with it. Since I was trying to learn something at school, after a really crazy week I flushed the rest of the bottle and decided to just stuff everything into the back of my mind.
Like so many other vets, I stuffed that stuff; and every time it popped back out, I would stuff it in again. Some vets from World War II have been doing that for more than 60 years. The problem is that you can’t keep everything hidden. They might not know what is wrong with you, but your loved ones know that something is terribly wrong, and usually they are the ones who tell you that you need help.
There are lots of places to get help. Many vets used alcohol and others smoked lots of pot or snorted their problems away. In the end, though, most vets go to the VA for help, and that is where “scary” comes into play. First off, it is pretty unanimous that vets with PTSD don’t trust the Veterans Administration.
I still remember my first time at the Minneapolis VA looking for some help. The Nam vets at that time distrusted the VA so much that the building for PTSD was down the road about a mile. You couldn’t even see the VA hospital from there.
That first day was very scary. To begin with, I was totally embarrassed because real Marines wouldn’t need help, or at least that is what I thought. Then, to set the tone of the day, the first two vets I saw there were waiting for their “tune up.” Their tune up, as they called it, turned out to be electric shock. After hearing that, I was ready to bolt.
I should back up a bit here. Before I started going to the Minneapolis VA looking for help with my wartime traumas, I was living on the bank of the Big Fork River, about seven miles from the Canadian border … in the woods. I started out trying a program set up by the VA to get rural vets from the Vietnam War some help. They would send a guy out to my house from the St. Cloud VA Hospital, and he and I would sit around my house and talk. At that time I was too scared to tell anyone what was really going on in my head. Before every visit, I told myself that I would open up this time, but I just couldn’t. I didn’t really know what was wrong, and to tell you the truth I don’t think the guy from the VA knew anything either.
After several visits my counselor and I decided that that type of help wasn’t going to do me any good, so I went back to stuffing everything into the back of my mind. It actually took a few more years before I got up the courage to go to the VA.
Meeting another Marine was the real reason that I finally made it to the VA to find some help. I was down in St. Paul, and I met a former Marine who had been in Vietnam about the same time as I had been. This guy was a mess, and we hit it off like old friends.
Confronting my PTSD
Remember how I said PTSD vets don’t trust the VA? This guy told me his experience with them. While in Nam, he decided to send his younger brother a finger from a dead gook. You know, like a souvenir. I think we became closer then because when he told me that, I said, “Cool,” like he was talking about a hot rod he had built. Heck, I might have done the same thing, but I didn’t have a younger brother. You don’t send severed fingers to your sister.
Somehow this guy’s mother learned about the finger, and she flipped right out. The VA was waiting for him when he got off the plane from Nam, and they put him in the psych ward and started him on Thorazine. Veterans refer to Thorazine as “liquid straitjacket.”
He said they kept him in there for six months, and he was able to get out only because his dad worked on it. What he remembered best was regularly walking to the nurse’s station when a bell rang. The bell rang when it was time for his next dose. He said there was a long line of Nam vets waiting for their pills. Also, he said it could take him several hours to get his shoes and socks on.
Needless to say, thinking about going to the VA freaked me out after that. Like I said, this Marine and I became good friends. He had kids the same age as mine, and a time or two his family drove the 250 miles north to visit us. I didn’t have a lot of friends; in fact he was the only one.
One day he and I were having coffee together, and he got all serious and said, “Man, you are screwed up.” He wasn’t talking about being stoned, and I knew that, but I said, “Well you are screwed up, too.” To which he said, “I know.”
It is one thing to know in your heart that you are messed up but it is another thing when your best friend knows it, too. We both knew that we had to do something, and the VA was the only game in town. He knew if he went for help, he would be drugged again. The VA figured that if you were sending fingers home in the mail, you were dangerous. So I was elected to be the one to check things out. The vote was 1 to 0. I abstained, but lost anyway and, like I said, this guy was my only friend in the world; and looking at the bright side of it, maybe they had better drugs now.
Seriously, I had this guy’s blood oath that if I didn’t come back after a few weeks, he would do a special-operations mission and break me out. I had every confidence that he would do whatever it took to get me out of there if I needed the help.
Entering the VA Hospital
There was no Internet back then, so there was no way to Google up the question about what they were doing to Nam vets at the VA. I was going in cold, and I was scared.
As with everything else in the government, you start off with lots of paperwork and tests. They had one multiple-choice test that lasted hours where they asked many inane questions, such as how I felt after I heard a sad song.
I must have passed the test because they kept having me come back and I started having interviews with doctors. Now that I look back at it, I have to laugh because those guys had no idea what they were doing. I could tell they were thinking that at any minute I was going to freak out and go nuts. Because they were on edge, I was on edge.
I must have passed with those guys too because I was then sent to the PTSD Unit down the road at Fort Snelling. Fort Snelling was an army fort about 100 years ago. Since then, it was made a historical site, but they did have one building off by itself that housed the VA’s PTSD clinic. Fort Snelling sits on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, and if you walked to the edge of the bluff, there was a retaining wall you could look over. It looked to be about 200 feet straight down to the river. I wondered how many guys thought of taking a dive off there.
Just as an aside, all through my active time getting help at the VA, there were guys doing themselves in. One day a Marine did a header off a footbridge onto the concrete below while a bunch of us were having a smoke across the parking lot. Here is how it went back then. They called in counselors for all of the VA employees, and they sent us home after canceling all of the day’s appointments. The people working at the VA didn’t see this guy take his dive, but we all did. He was dead when he hit, and he left a real mess behind to clean up. Today they have a wire screen on that bridge so you can’t dive off.
I always thought they should have had a plaque there saying, “Corporal John Smith took a header off this bridge, October 23, 1987,” or something to that effect. Who knows, he might have saved some other guy who was thinking of doing the same thing, but couldn’t now because they put up that wire barrier.
That first day at the Minneapolis VA PTSD clinic, I met the two guys waiting for their electric-shock treatment. The sad thing about that was that one of those two guys had his 70-some-year-old mother drive the two of them out for their appointment. These guys were way past having the ability to drive a car. That guy’s mother looked so frail and sad. Over the next couple of years, I kept seeing these guys around the VA, but after a few years they couldn’t carry on a conversation anymore.
I was a bit early for my appointment, and I was talking to the guys who were waiting for their appointments too. They explained to me that one doctor was into using psychotropic drugs. Not that he used them himself but that he had the vets he was working with use them. The other doctor, they explained, was Harry Russell, who didn’t like the idea of using drugs. As worried as I was, I figured that I needed a clear head in case I wanted to skip out of there quick. It was a good choice.
A few years later the doctor who believed in prescribing drugs was forced to retire by the VA. He was a World War II vet and was past the age the government lets you work. I saw a lot of guys break right down and cry when they learned that he was not going to be there to help them, and he had helped a lot of veterans. In truth I didn’t know the guy. The only time I talked to him was when I had a bad headache, and he gave me some aspirin.
Dr. Russell started out slowly with me. I saw him about twice a month for a year. That was about 1,200 miles a month driving back and forth to the VA. There is no magic cure for PTSD, and right from the start Harry was up front with me, saying I would get worse before I got better. Sure enough, the longer he and I talked, the sicker I got. PTSD is a horrible ordeal.
One really great thing Harry Russell did was to have a program for the vets’ families, where he would tell them about what was going on with their loved ones. My oldest daughter went to his talk, and I think she learned a lot.
After a year of talking to Dr. Russell, he told me that it would be best for me if I went to an “in house” trauma-treatment program at Tomah, Wisconsin. He said it would last eight weeks. He could recommend that I go down there but I would have to have an interview first, and the people in Tomah would decide whether they thought I was sick enough to enter their PTSD Program.
This article originally appeared in the October 2007 edition of Freedom Daily.