“PTSD is going to color everything you write,” came the warning from a stepmother of a Marine, a woman who keeps track of such things. That was in 2005, when post-traumatic stress disorder, a.k.a. PTSD, wasn’t getting much attention, but soon it was pretty much all anyone wrote about. Story upon story about the damage done to our guys in uniform — drinking, divorce, depression, destitution — a laundry list of miseries and victimhood. When it comes to veterans, it seems like the only response we can imagine is to feel sorry for them.
Victim is one of the two roles we allow our soldiers and veterans (the other is, of course, hero), but most don’t have PTSD, and this isn’t one of those stories.
Civilian to the core, I’ve escaped any firsthand experience of war, but I’ve spent the past seven years talking with current GIs and recent veterans, and among the many things they’ve taught me is that nobody gets out of war unmarked. That’s especially true when your war turns out to be a shadowy, relentless occupation of a distant land, which requires you to do things that you regret and that continue to haunt you.
Theoretically, whole countries go to war, not just their soldiers, but not this time. Civilian sympathy for “the troops” may be just one more way for us to avoid a real reckoning with our last decade-plus of war, when the hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown up on the average American’s radar only if somebody screws up or noticeable numbers of Americans get killed. The veterans at the heart of this story — victims, heroes, it doesn’t matter — struggle to reconcile what they did in those countries with the “service” we keep thanking them for. We can see them as sick, with all the stigma, neediness, and expense that entails, or we can recognize them as human beings, confronting the morality of what they’ve done in our name and what they’ve seen and come to know — even as they try to move on.
Sacred Wounds, Moral Injuries
Former Army staff sergeant Andy Sapp spent a year at Forward Operating Base Speicher near Tikrit, Iraq, and has lived for the past six years with PTSD. Seven if you count the year he refused to admit that he had it because he never left the base or fired his weapon, and who was he to suffer when others had it so much worse? Nearly 50 when he deployed, he was much older than most of his National Guard unit. He had put in 17 years in various branches of the military, had a stable family, strong religious ties, a good education, and a satisfying career as a high-school English teacher. He expected all that to insulate him, so it took a while to realize that the whole time he was in Iraq, he was numb. In the end, he would be diagnosed with PTSD and given an 80% disability rating, which, among other benefits, entitles him to sessions with a Veterans Administration psychologist, whom he credits with saving his life.