Tag Archives: STAR

Pain o’ Past

“…We vividly relive a combat experience or see the world that we are in, in the here and now, as if it were somewhere in the combat zone.” (Hart, 2000, p. 109)

Reminder: For the next few weeks, this blog is dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.

We sometimes forget what we want to remember and sometimes remember what we want to forget. Forgetting is an important part of the human mind. We need to forget some things to make room for other things and to make sense out of senseless things. But there are memories we never forget.

We remember snapshots, like the first time we saw our spouse or child. Such memories return as flashbulbs providing vivid pictures of bits of our past and allowing us to relive the feelings of another time. The first time I jumped out of an airplane and my parachute opened. Gratitude—and surprise at the sudden quiet after that noisy old flying boxcar. It was exhilarating and pleasant.

Combat memories are not so pleasant. They can also flood upon us not just as flashbulb memories of little snapshots, but as full production movies we call flashbacks. We are suddenly overwhelmed by the sensation of living the experience all over again in the here and now. Fortunately, this is a rare occurrence for me—although, not so rare for some of my brothers.

Memories elicit feelings, and that can be very pleasant, instructive, and helpful. Big memories like flashbacks can also elicit emotions. Such memories may not feel good, but the emotional consequences feel worse. What is the difference? Emotions exceed feelings because they include physiological responses.

Flashbacks produce feelings and emotions. They produce chemical changes, such as adrenalin, that cause many more changes in the body. Our breathing and heart rates change. We perspire. We may get weak—or, unbelievably strong. Such physiological changes may be exhilarating, but as they continue for three or four days, they hurt.

Combat Veterans would not usually choose to have such memories. We have ways to avoid them. We repress certain memories. We think about other things. We stay busy with work and/or hobbies. We drink. We focus anger on certain people or things. We refuse to talk about them or be around people who do.

None of these things work forever. Memories percolate to the conscious mind at the most inopportune times. In nightmares. While we are driving. At a funeral. When we are hunting.

Sometimes it is a sight, sound, feeling, or smell that triggers the memory. Smells are especially effective. Many of my Vietnam Veteran brothers cannot stand the smell of nuoc mam, a sauce made of fermented fish and used like soy sauce. Because I lived and ate with Vietnamese as an advisor, I actually like the smell. Nor am I triggered by the sound of tonal languages or the look of Asian faces. Americans who fought in the jungles in isolation from the Vietnamese people have more difficulties.

The human mind has another avoidance mechanism. When powerful memories emote physiological responses, part of the mind goes away. We dissociate, meaning we lose time. It may be for only an instant, or it may be for frighteningly long periods of time. Some of my friends have reported finding themselves at their safe spot in the desert far from home and hours later than their last conscious memory. I am, again, fortunate to have little experience with this phenomenon.

Two points about dissociation: First, it is a protective mechanism to shield our minds from reliving our trauma and is, therefore, useful; Second, it is a cue to us to take action (breathing, EMDR, talking left brain to right brain, calling our psychologist, talking to a friend) to cope with our emotions. We cannot forget everything—nor, should we—but, we need not let our memories destroy our present and future.

There are methods to cope, but we must learn and use them, and for that, we must have help. Our Veterans need our support after they come home. Support Troops After Return (STAR).

Rising STAR

It was amidst student protests and 1968 Vietnam Tet offensive, with acceptance to graduate school and a research assistantship in hand, that I saw the writing on the wall. No more deferments for graduate school and no fatherhood deferments for anyone who had ever had a student deferment. I dropped out of school and enlisted in the Army.

November 1st, 1970, I left Vietnam without a scratch. With the magic of the International Date Line, I was back in Wisconsin November 2nd, home with my wife, daughter, and extended family. By mid November, I was in the Nort’ Woods hunting deer with family and friends.

Late in January of 1971, I was back on campus, enrolled in my final semester and working for the same Genetics professor in the same laboratory class I had left three years earlier. It had seemed to me a seamless transition, but something went wrong.

I had everything going for me, and the records show success—until you look more closely. I earned my Masters degree in Genetics in 1974 and got a job in the same building with the Agronomy Department. My plan, however, had been to be a Genetics professor. I left without my PhD when my major professor confessed that he thought the Army had ruined me.

He did offer me a job with the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru. We now had two daughters two and five, and I wanted to stay home. So I remained on campus as Academic staff.

Four years later I was separated from my family on the way to divorce. During that time I also abandoned the Wisconsin Army National Guard halfway to my 20 years for retirement. My ex-wife told me she always thought I lost my soul in Vietnam.

The record shows that I never lost a job, never had a health crisis, never had a legal problem, never even had a traffic citation. The record does not show that I lost one PhD, two careers, a farm and seed business along with my marriage, and years with my daughters. And, I had everything going for me when I came home.

Many of our troops, today, do not. Reduction in Force will eject thousands from our services against their wills. Most will not be returning to a life simply placed on hold for a few years. Many will not have the family support I had. They are in trouble.

Many of our returning troops will have symptoms of post traumatic stress even though they may not qualify for help. Their symptoms will not meet the criteria set out in the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Combat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They will have symptoms, however—just not intensive or extensive enough to qualify as a disorder.

They need our help.

PTSD is a learned condition. Sights, sounds, smells, and feelings that preceded a bad day at the war taught us to respond instantly and subconsciously, like Pavlov’s dogs or Skinner’s cats. When these stimuli are perceived, again, they immediately trigger a fight or flight response. Our primitive brains trigger release adrenalin that our body fails to process. We experience physical, mental, and emotional discomfort for 3-4 days before returning to our normal.

Our normal is some level of chronic anger. It is safer than vulnerability that leads to depression. Survival means maintaining constant vigilance and an edge of low grade rage. It’s why I still wear a mustache. I have no upper lip. I closed it in 1970, and I don’t know how to open it, again—even with Angelina Jolie pout exercises.

We have a learning disability. Besides all the social distractions of returning students, we have diminished working memory capacity related to reduced hippocampus volume in our brains. Our brain amygdalas are enlarged to steal perceptions of certain sights, sounds, smells, and feelings away from our smart brains. We react subconsciously.

Our troops are returning to a society that many never knew, jobs they never experienced, and schools they never planned to attend. They will have to learn fast while they have learning disabilities and social impediments. We can help. How?

Anybody can wear a yellow ribbon, but our troops need much more than lip service. Yes, we need to say, “Thank you for your service and welcome home,” but we must reach out, offer our hands and our strengths.

My dream is the formation of community consortiums, kinds of meta-groups that coordinate schools, churches, Veterans organizations, community service groups, businesses, etc. We must have one place they can go to get the support they need—especially the help returning troops don’t know they need. For now, I call it STAR for Support Troops After Return.

I get ideas, but I am no organizer. Some of you are. You may begin at www.ErvBarnes.com. Together, we can Support Troops After Return. Together, we can all be Rising STARs.