Note: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD (and other past stress) which has become part of our ethos or basic belief system. November investigates gratitude.
One of the happiest anniversary dates of my life is DEROS, my Date Eligible to Return from Over Seas. I left Vietnam on 1 November 1970. It has been on my mind, especially since I planned this blog series and I have been helping organize Military and Veteran Appreciation Week on campus. This should be a joyous time, right?
“Some of the reactions those affected may experience as the anniversary date nears include difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, irritable outbursts, nightmares, difficulty falling or staying asleep, and feeling detachment from others.” (APA)
Except for the loss of appetite, I have had all of those symptoms the past couple of weeks, including this morning. First, I looked for physical causes such as a virus, heart problems, or worse. Then, I blamed it on work.
I had been confused.
Time generates anxiety. All I had to do in Vietnam was stay alive for 362 days and I could go home. The closer I came to that date, the more I worried about getting shot down as I visited A-Team camps by helicopter, or a rocket attack on our compound (one hit my building about three weeks after I left). I was holding my breath. Maybe that was what I was feeling on my DEROS anniversary.
Sunday, November 2nd, after I expressed gratitude for getting home forty four years earlier, I had an epiphany. Since my deployment had been for one calendar year, this was also the anniversary of the day I patted my baby in her crib, hugged my wife, said goodbye to my parents, and went to war. The dual nature of this anniversary date had eluded me all these years.
I am grateful that my baby did not have to grow up without her dad. I am grateful that my second daughter was conceived almost a year after I got home. After decades of guilt, remorse, and anger, I am grateful to be alive.
“The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.” (Thornton Wilder)
Perhaps there is no more compelling feeling among survivors than a need to make something of the life spared, a life of gratitude, as expressed at the end of the movie, Saving Private Ryan.
My first visit to “The Wall” was an unplanned escape from pain. I came away knowing that it was okay that my name was not there. Knowing it deep down, inside. I had been told.
When my friend went to Vietnam to be an airborne brigade recon patrol team member, he was still a teenager. He has never been to the Vietnam War Memorial. I suggested, once, that he should go, but he told me that he couldn’t until he had made something of his life.
It can be difficult to feel grateful for something we do not believe we deserve, something we have not earned.
The bad news is that like other PTSD symptoms, date reactions will never go away. The good news is that as long as we are still alive, we have opportunities to turn from habits of grief to practice of gratitude.
May you find the embers of gratitude in your heart, and may humility fan them into flames. Gratitude is in you—you just have to find it.