As a 91-year-old World War II veteran, I am not the most obvious choice to help these Iraq and Afghanistan vets, some of them almost four times my junior. In many ways, we fought vastly different wars, and more importantly, we experienced vastly different homecomings. But I can persuade them to talk by being forthright about my own decades-long battle with PTSD.
PTSD is not particularly associated with WWII vets, partly because the term didn’t emerge until after the war in Vietnam, and partly because we downplayed its effects. We’re “the greatest generation,” the ones that lived through the Depression and returned home as heroes. But war is war. When my father returned home with his Army unit after they defeated the Germans in World War I, veterans with psychological problems were termed “shell-shocked.” My generation’s issues, described as “battle fatigue,” were famously dismissed by Gen. George Patton. The rate of PTSD among WWII vets is difficult to ascertain, but one study put the number at 26-33 percent.
The vets I meet are surprised to learn I’m a weightlifter who does interval training on the treadmill and that I can make it through a conversation without nodding off. I tell them how PTSD has affected me: I avoid elevators, crowds and July 4th fireworks; I’m claustrophobic from the 12 days I spent in a lightless cell at the Luftwaffe interrogation center in Germany, and I won’t fly unless I have an aisle seat.
Survivor’s guilt is still my strongest stressor. I make them privy to my emotional baggage to show them that they are not unique or weird. I tell them about my bombing missions with the Eighth Air Force during WWII and the day that my B-17 exploded over Berlin. How I am plagued with guilt over the loss of four of my crewmates that day. What it was like being a POW for a year and how exhilarating it was to see Patton lead his troops through the barbed wire gates of our Stalag to liberate us.
I also tell them that I have been an out patient at the hospital for more than 25 years and that the care I received has changed my life.
Today’s veterans face arguably much more challenging circumstances than my generation did. During WWII, ground troops had the valid expectation that victory would bring them home for good. Today’s military members face multiple deployments. Living with the imminent possibility of another deployment can play dangerous games with a soldier’s mind. Most of us veterans of WWII returned to an economy that was about to burst into one of the most flourishing periods in our nation’s history. Factories converted from producing war products to turning out in-demand goods for civilians. We went back to school on the GI Bill. We got married and bought homes with low-interest VA loans. We bought cars, lawnmowers, clothing and baby furniture.
For those of us who recognized that we had a problem, a trip to a VA hospital for help quickly convinced us that they didn’t have a clue as to what was wrong with us. So we went back to our jobs and self-medicated with alcohol at night and on weekends. Lucky for us, recreational drugs were yet to become widespread.
Today’s volunteer military members return home to a place where they no longer fit, as people who make friends uncomfortable. (Americans are increasingly less likely to have a relative in the military; in our post-draft era, only a third of young adults have a family member who has served.) The tepid “thank you for your service” a man or woman in uniform hears at the airport can sound more like a condolence. One study of Iraq and Afghanistan vets has put the rate of PTSD at 14 percent, the rate of alcohol abuse at 39 percent, and drug abuse at 3 percent, though my experience indicates that those numbers are low. A 2008 survey revealed that 11 percent of military personnel abuse prescription drugs, compared to 5 percent of civilians. The number of veterans who suffer from varying degrees of PTSD but never seek psychological help from the VA is too vast to project. The suicide rate for veterans in the United States remains at a staggering average of 22 per day.
The slumping U.S. economy has created a huge obstacle for veterans seeking jobs. Post-9/11 veterans continue to experience higher rates of unemployment than both the general population and the wider veteran population. The awareness of PTSD today among potential employers might actually make job-seeking more difficult for veterans. Some legislators, such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, have pushed legislation to incentivize hiring vets and to help veterans translate their military experience into assets in the civilian job market.
When I talk to these vets, a box of tissues is always present. In the 10 years I’ve been assisting service members with disability claims, I’ve heard haunting stories: seeing buddies step on I.E.D.s during foot patrol; having to shoot and kill a child with a gun who had opened fire. Almost every vet I see has had suicidal ideation, and I know of several patients who have committed suicide. I am not a professional counselor and have to be careful when discussing suicide. I give them my mantra — always have faith in the promise of tomorrow — and I tell them the reason I will not attempt suicide. If I shot myself, it wouldn’t be my finger on the trigger. It would be the finger of some Nazi who mistreated me in my POW camp. He couldn’t kill me then; I’ll be damned if he’ll take my life now.
After a claim is filed, the veteran stops by whenever he or she receives a request from the VA for more information, and we help him or her respond. With medical attention and PTSD counseling, the veteran may begin to show some improvement over the ensuing weeks. The change in demeanor is often amazing.
A perfect day in the office is when veterans are notified of their award (which could happen in three months, or more likely much longer). They’ll come by to thank us. We wish them well, and hope they will not regress.
My joy helping veterans file VA benefits claims is not entirely selfless. Making life a bit easier for disabled veterans is the most effective remedy I know for reducing the pain of my survivor’s guilt. Each time a submission is approved, I look upward and tell my four crewmates, who died when our B-17 was shot down, “This is for you guys.”