have courage. take heart. bear witness.
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not only a combat injury. It can follow in the wake of any harrowing experience, arising in response to intense fear and helplessness in the face of extreme threat to yourself or someone close to you. Children can develop PTSD if, for example, they grow up in a family where violence is common and where there is a continuing threat of harm. If children then experience further life-threatening events as adults, it is possible for symptoms of PTSD to last a lifetime.
Such was the case with Cindy Towne's brothers, Michael and Tim, whom she talks about here with her husband, Fred Towne. The three siblings shared a childhood darkened by their father's threats and violence and, likely as a result, Michael and Tim eventually sought relief in drugs and alcohol as young teenagers.
Their later adolescence coincided with changes in US foreign policy when, in the mid-1960s, President Lyndon Johnson escalated the undeclared war in Viet Nam, prompting a rapid increase in the number of troops. Draft calls tripled to thirty thousand a month. Recently out of high school, and without any likelihood of entering college and obtaining a deferment, Michael was one of those called up for combat.
Tim's induction took a more circuitous route. Although the pool of draft-age men had suddenly expanded as the earliest group of baby boomers came of age around that same time, the US Selective Service System (SSS) still had to scramble for recruits, having previously established a substantial number of deferments and exemptions from military service.
Pressed to achieve desired quotas, the SSS changed its rules and considered some individuals who earlier would have been rejected—such as those convicted of minor crimes. Apparently, SSS Director General Lewis B. Hershey believed that military service had rehabilitative powers and would set wayward young men on a straighter, narrower path. Many judges concurred and offered some offenders the choice between a jail sentence or induction into the Army. Appeals courts eventually ruled against this practice, but until then, thousands of young men, including Tim, had "chosen" military service over incarceration.
Both brothers served in the Army Infantry—the group most exposed to ground combat and which suffered the highest casualty rates among those serving in the US military. Neither young man had entered the war "whole." As experts now know, certain individuals are at higher risk of developing PTSD in response to fearsome events. Factors include age (younger individuals are at greater risk), previous exposure to physical assault, prior incidence of trauma or chronic stress, family instability, lower levels of education and income, and a history of behavioral or psychological problems, especially substance abuse.
As Cindy relates, Michael and Tim's personal and family histories included all these elements, and they, like thousands of other young veterans of that war, suffered lifelong struggles with PTSD. In 2003, researchers analyzed data from the National Vietnam Veterans' Readjustment Study (1988) and the Matsunaga Vietnam Veterans Project (1997). They found that "a large majority of Vietnam veterans struggled with chronic PTSD symptoms, with four out of five reporting recent symptoms when interviewed 20-25 years after [their service in] Vietnam." Relatively few of these veterans had sought psychological help.
And when Cindy mentions that her father was also "pretty damaged by war," she reveals an even earlier source of the family's troubles. (He had fought in the Battle of the Bulge, World War II's largest encounter for US troops and one in which nearly 80,000 Americans were killed, maimed, or taken prisoner.)
As this account makes clear, war's violence can wreak havoc in the lives of veterans and their families long after a soldier's return, and continue to do so as the sorrows of one generation are inflicted on the next.
Recorded in Corvallis, Oregon, December 2008.
"You know, I think I came from the same place that my brothers did. I lived in the same family. But one of the differences that I see is that I wasn't sent off to another war zone when I was eighteen, like they were. And my life has been so much better, or peaceful and serene because of that. And I realize that we all grow up and we do change, but I think war just changes us in such a different way."
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"When I started talking about my brothers, I was a little bit hesitant to talk about their experiences, because they were so negative, and I wouldn't want people to believe that I love them any less. I had never thought about that before, so just speaking made me understand that a little bit better that they made the best decision that they could have made at the time. And I don't at all judge them for that, and never will."