The War That Comes Back Home

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Ask any consumer of contemporary cop or war shows what television has led him to believe about veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Chances are that you’ll hear something about their irascibility, how they cannot be controlled or expected to behave normally. Television and movie producers, of course, favor such sensationalism over fact, making it ideal for them to churn out characters prone to violent outbursts and little else. With their crazed eyes and deficient consciences, these war-scarred heroes become both superhuman and not very human at all, and the audiences of these popular programs are exposed to dangerous misinformation.

Society’s and the media’s portrayal of war and veterans is important, argues Dr. Glenn Petersen in his manuscript, Everyday War. A 500-page memoir recalling Petersen’s naval experiences as a flight radar technician in the Vietnam War and the PTSD that resulted from his service, Everyday War recounts the numerous ways in which the movies and television of Petersen’s youth helped shape his early perception of war. Exposure to cultural ideals and the media of the time trained Petersen from boyhood to believe the societal misconception that the best heroes come back with legacies of glory and unscathed overall.

Contrary to today’s media depictions of PTSD as characterized by irrational, rage-charged, and even homicidal behavior, the films of Petersen’s boyhood -- such as the stories of Davy Crockett, the TV series GE Theater, and See Here, Private Hargrove -- made no reference to the disorder at all. At times, they almost seemed as if they were designed to glorify war. Furthermore, when the Vietnam War broke out and the potential to be drafted into battle became a pertinent concern, the general expectation was that boys would instantly become men, gallantly going off to die for their country without letting themselves express or feel any fear.

The expectation for stoic bravery could not accommodate the numerous psychological injuries that would be incurred in Vietnam, so countless veterans returned home wounded, some without recognizing that their personality changes, mood swings, and upsetting memories were manifestations of sustained trauma. As a result, Petersen repeatedly questions the validity of his own diagnosis throughout his manuscript. “The problem of knowing about—of being aware of—what happened to me in the war doesn’t come from one specific place or another,” he posits, “it comes from all sides.”

“My mother made it clear that we did not talk about this sort of thing. That is, that [my war trauma] should be ignored.”

There was no one telling Petersen that it was okay not to be okay; indeed, at the time of his discharge from the Navy in 1967, it seemed as if society at large could not fathom that Petersen and other veterans might have been struggling at all. “A psychiatric diagnosis has serious consequences,” writes Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., in his bestseller on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score. “Diagnosis informs treatment, and getting the wrong treatment can have disastrous effects.”. Earlier in the book, van der Kolk discusses the difficulties he faced when treating veterans during a time before post-traumatic stress disorder was included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. “We labeled our veterans with all sorts of diagnoses -- alcoholism, substance abuse, depression, mood disorder, even schizophrenia -- and we tried every treatment in our textbooks. But for all our efforts it became clear that we were actually accomplishing very little… We were not only failing to help [many of the patients] but [were] also sometimes making things worse” (p. 19).

After the First World War, van der Kolk says, some literature made reference to “shell-shock,” the now antiquated, non-medical term for soldiers scarred by war. Several countries began to recompense soldiers for emotional trauma, but many times, however, veterans who had been diagnosed with shell-shock were often considered to have been predisposed to the condition. After some debate,  it was determined that veterans were to blame for their own traumatic memories and that maintaining the diagnosis of shell-shock would be unhealthy for the mindsets of the next generation of soldiers. The brief attention that had been paid to disturbed veterans dissipated, and the little research on the condition vanished with it (van der Kolk p. 186-187).

Twenty years elapsed before Petersen began to consider the idea that perhaps he was not, in fact, unscarred by his experiences. Like many other veterans, he had been self-medicating unknowingly, using alcohol to alleviate symptoms that otherwise would have pointed more strongly toward the emerging diagnosis of PTSD. Even so, the expectation for veterans to be dispassionate and fearless had been ingrained in Petersen early. Even after PTSD became a valid diagnosis half a decade after the Vietnam War ended, he remained blind to the reality that he suffered from the disorder.

“Because I wasn’t out fighting as a rifleman in the jungles and rice paddies, I made the mistake of thinking nothing happened to was a series of seemingly mundane tasks, work I did every day, that was probably the most dangerous,” he writes of his initial struggles in feeling worthy of the PTSD designation. And later: “I’ve had a successful career as a scholar and a teacher. How can anything seriously ail me?”


In The Body Keeps the Score, van der Kolk presents a similar situation in which a patient was subconsciously reluctant to acknowledge the validity of past trauma. Marilyn, a young woman with emotional disturbances and a history of inexplicable rage toward male partners, reported to her psychiatrist that she “must have had a happy childhood,” but van der Kolk later discovered that his patient’s childhood was anything but. In fact, Marilyn had been sexually abused by her father before her teenage years. But because her memory of the rape had been repressed and the rest of her childhood was uneventful, Marilyn did not consider that her multiple psychological ailments could be explained by a diagnosis of PTSD. For both Petersen and Marilyn, there was an underlying sense of unworthiness in each person’s recognition of their trauma, a feeling that the experiences each endured could have been worse still. This notion proved detrimental to both, as it inhibited each person’s progress in making sense of their respective traumas.

Coupled with the mind’s natural need to dismiss painful memories, Petersen’s unspoken obligation to remain reticent led to his ability to dissociate way from the pain of his Vietnam War experiences. Interestingly, in Petersen’s case, dissociation was voluntary, a remarkably conscious decision. After describing the aftermath of a particularly perilous encounter during which Petersen and the aircraft he was manning were nearly shot down by China, Petersen discusses his choice to ignore the fear of death that was reignited after the close call:

“I found myself contemplating how close I’d come to dying… And I found myself thinking that if I continued to contemplate how close I’d come to dying, I wouldn't be able to climb back into my plane again. It was, I thought at the time, like climbing back onto a horse that had just thrown you…  I willed myself to stop thinking about the episode, forcing it out of my mind.”

Dissociating from a painful experience while it is occurring is one of the brain’s defenses against unpleasant situations; unfortunately, while dissociation might improve a person’s function during the moments at which it occurs, the negative emotions do not simply disappear into nothingness; rather, they will emerge later in life, sometimes within the context of post-traumatic stress disorder.  “Dissociation is the essence of trauma,” claims van der Kolk, “The overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds, images, thoughts, and physical sensations related to the trauma take on a life of their own.” (van der Kolk, p. 66) Delaying the inevitable processing of emotion was something Petersen was expected to do as an American warrior for this very purpose: deeply ingrained cultural influences that were intended to regulate veterans’ emotional expressions and feelings set Petersen up for successful wartime experiences as a Navy officer, but also stunted his ability to cope with and communicate healthily.

In spite of his introductory military training and avid consumption of glorified war media for all of his youth, Dr. Glenn Petersen was still in many ways unprepared for battle. It is both fascinating and tragic that the normative bravery and its accompanying suppression of emotion served a critical role in the ability of the military’s members to do their jobs. Being imbued with the feeling that involvement in the war was heroic enabled young American men to take pride in their efforts and commit themselves to their work. Banishment of fear from the mind created hardened soldiers and eager young men with an appetite for honor. One’s cultural environment is key in molding his brain, writes van der Kolk, and the experiences of Dr. Glenn Petersen certainly reflect the ways in which societal elements of pre-Vietnam America cooperated to produce a generation of brave, heroic warriors -- often at the expense of the warriors themselves.


By Dvora Zomberg

Illustrations by Yerain Abreu