With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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I responded with mixed feelings to Poe Ballantine’s essay “These Dark Woods” [June 2008]. I sympathize with the author as he navigates the serpentine road of learning about and accepting his child’s special needs — whatever they may be — but I’m offended by the tone he uses, referring to autism as a “plague” and making stereotypical comments about how autistic patients “tore the waiting room’s magazines and boxes of Legos to pieces.”
Autism now engulfs the lives of one out of every 150 new parents in this country, including me. No adult should demean a child who lives with autism, whether that child be verbal or nonverbal, mentally challenged or genius, his own child or someone else’s. Never have I considered that my son might have a disease as horrific as the plague, nor imagined him to be anything less than the loving, gregarious, funny, naive, obsessive, anxiety-ridden, beautiful boy he is. To use Ballantine’s own delightful simile, my son’s autism is but a “speck of pepperoni on a veggie pizza.”
In David Kupfer’s excellent interview with Edward Tick [“Like Wandering Ghosts,” June 2008], Tick speaks about soldiers who employ various strategies to retain their humanity. I would assume that the veterans he works with are a self-selected group who either did retain or want to regain their humanity. I’m interested in Tick’s thoughts on another sort of solider: the commander who issues the illegal orders, the sociopaths who are a part of every war. As a culture, what do we do with those veterans? What is the right way to regard those warriors, and can we bring them back into the fold?
My dad, a World War II veteran, spent twenty-two years in a VA hospital, initially due to a psychiatric diagnosis. I grew up hating him for abandoning my mom, my four siblings, and me. He died on the ward from a heart attack on Thanksgiving Day, 1980.
In 2005, close to the twenty-fifth anniversary of my dad’s death, I was going a little nuts myself: approaching fifty, raising a son of my own, working in the near insanity of the public schools. And then I discovered Edward Tick’s War and the Soul.
Tick’s book helped me to see that maybe my dad wasn’t crazy after all; maybe he was just dealing as best he could with the trauma he’d suffered in the war. I finally found some understanding, forgiveness, and healing. I’m convinced I would never have achieved this without Tick’s writings.
I put off reading your June 2008 issue because the themes seemed to be war and patriotism — two of my least favorite subjects. Then I discovered the interview with Edward Tick about his brave work with our country’s ever-growing veteran population. I’m a case manager for people living with HIV/AIDS, and in one sentence Tick summed up my philosophy: “It’s either dive into the pain or die from refusing to face it.” In helping to heal our veterans, maybe we can heal ourselves.
As someone who opposed the Vietnam War and now vigorously opposes the war in Iraq, I was eager to read about Edward Tick’s treatment and support of returning soldiers. As a clinical psychologist, however, I am troubled by Tick’s incorrect statement that substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual promiscuity, child abuse, and other behaviors are “symptoms” of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The symptoms of PTSD are recurrent and distressing recollections and dreams of the traumatic event, the feeling that the event is reoccurring, and intense psychological and physiological reactions to external cues that resemble the traumatic event. These symptoms can result in a range of related difficulties, including significant sleep loss and irritability. Some people with PTSD may turn to substance abuse as a way to reduce these unpleasant side effects, and there may be individuals with PTSD whose existing impulse-control or antisocial-personality disorders become worse, but those behaviors are not symptoms of PTSD.
Edward Tick is doing honorable work. War veterans, like everyone else, deserve compassion and healing. But I can’t help feeling that Tick, despite his stated opposition to war, unwittingly legitimizes it. In our modern American context, it is simplistic of him to claim the warrior’s role is to “preserve and protect.” Haven’t enough sincere men enlisted believing this, only to be sent to fight wars of aggression?
Tick says, “It is our responsibility as citizens to heal those who have put their lives on the line for us,” but I bristle at the claim that soldiers died in Vietnam for me. We should all, including vets, face the bitter reality that our troops in Vietnam killed and died for nothing. They were tricked, pawns in the power games of politicians. If we had acknowledged this, perhaps more young people would have chosen other paths — or even chosen prison — over military “service.”
Thanks to everyone who wrote. We must have a national discussion about this subject so loud and unrelenting that our leaders will be unable to continue practicing war the way they do.
To Ken Kimes: We have several groups in our culture who stand outside the wish to heal and regain their humanity: There are politicians and military bureaucrats and technocrats for whom war is about power and profit. There are corporations for whom war is big business. And there are sociopaths who seek instinctual satisfaction through war. This last group can sometimes be treated. I have worked with several former secret operatives who committed horrible atrocities but finally felt anguish decades after the fact. To successfully reach the hearts of such people remains a challenge, but surrounding them with responsible, aware, caring community members can go a long way.
To Bob McGrath: Your response touches on a controversy regarding whether large numbers of our returning service men and women have PTSD, or whether they have other, preexisting conditions that became worse due to their combat experiences. It is true that domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual promiscuity are not listed in diagnostic manuals as symptoms of PTSD and do not necessarily accompany it. Rather, they are common behavioral responses to the unpleasant and difficult symptoms of PTSD that are recognized. There’s been much research documenting that divorce, physical illnesses, domestic conflicts, criminal activity, homicidal and suicidal acts, child neglect and abuse, employment instability, and drug and alcohol abuse are more prevalent among veterans than among civilians, and more common among combat veterans than among noncombatants. This does not mean that every veteran with PTSD will behave in such ways, only that, as a group, they do so more often than their civilian counterparts. It is critical that the general public and mental-health communities know and respond to such behaviors as possible signs of PTSD.
To John Spiri: Veterans hate to be told that they fought for nothing. At the very least they will say they fought for the lives of their fellow soldiers. Telling them it was all for naught does not lead to healing and will likely ruin any chance we have for a relationship with them.
Many military people do in fact subscribe to a warrior’s code, and they often do not realize until it is too late that they are betraying it. They may learn during their service or upon reflection afterward that they were pawns in the big power game. This disconnect between traditional warrior values and modern power politics causes anger, despair, and what I call “moral trauma,” the ethical and spiritual wound that’s at the heart of PTSD.
Many of us who oppose war hurt our veterans by not realizing the depth of devotion with which they served. In order to help our vets, we must affirm their original motives and help them see how they might reembrace those values. I lead annual reconciliation journeys to Vietnam, where our veterans are welcomed back with honor and forgiveness. The Vietnamese people I’ve worked with understand that U.S. soldiers, too, were victims of the war. The only people the Vietnamese hold accountable are the political leaders. Consequently, our veterans usually feel more welcomed in Vietnam than in America.
We have all inherited the challenge to be both utterly against war and utterly in support of our people who serve.
As I read the Readers Write on “Patriotism” [June 2008] I thought it is possible that some of those who chose not to sign their name did so because they feared retribution. I grew up in communist Eastern Europe and had the local brand of patriotism drilled into me there. After I came to the U.S., I realized that my childhood suspicions were true: the patriotism I’d grown up with was based on a pack of lies.
It’s dangerous when politicians of any persuasion try to divide the people and control dissent using the idea of patriotism. The citizens of a country need to be informed and allowed to voice their opinions without fear of retribution from their neighbors or government.
In his letter in the June 2008 Correspondence, Ed Crowell uses the terms “conservative” and “Republican” interchangeably, as if they were synonymous, but this is misguided. Neither Dwight Eisenhower nor Barry Goldwater, both true conservatives, would recognize today’s Republican Party. There is nothing conservative about recklessly and unjustifiably invading a sovereign nation, suspending habeas corpus, and amassing the largest debt in U.S. history — all of which President George W. Bush has accomplished with support for six years from a Republican-led Congress.
If Crowell is sincere in his advocacy of conservative government, he must abandon the Republicans. They abandoned him years ago.
I was moved by Dana Wildsmith’s essay “Survival Guide” [June 2008], especially by the way she got in touch with the subtle signals of her body. After she was bitten by a snake, it must have taken incredible courage to stay with the pain so that she could understand her body’s needs. Although I pride myself on my own ability to transcend pain, I might have freaked out in a situation like that. Wildsmith’s encounter with a doctor who approved of her approach gave me hope for the future of medicine.