Peace and Freedom
February 16, 2007
This is Part III; links to Parts I and II are at the bottom of this essay.
Very little is written about the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on the "Commander, " meaning Field Grade Officers and above.
Company Grade Officers, Captains and below, are generally believed to be impacted by PTSD about the same way as their combat GI's. But the officers in the rank of Major and above experience war from a different vantage point: they send men into destruction, make the plans that lead to horrific death, and bring together the fighting forces that create the nightmares and the ghosts the poet in Part II refers to.
The Commanders leave the battlefield and return to a very different life from that encountered by the junior enlisted men. The Commanders are unlikely to be eating in soup kitchens, seeking treatment from the VA, or ending up in shelters.
The Commanders are almost always highly educated with families and money to fall back on. Therefore, after the Commander leave the battlefield, they bypass the normal PTSD "tracking system" of VA statistical analyses.
So how do we know about The Commanders and their PTSD experience?
Well, what we know is mostly anecdotal.
Peace and Freedom sought out the Commanders through research in the Northern Virginia community of Vietnam war veterans. The officers interviewed, all now retired, were brigade and battalion commanders, pilots and air wing commanders, ship Commanding Officers and the like. One was a Navy SEAL, two were green Berets, one a Marine Colonel.
The Commanders told us that they, like the front line combat soldiers, felt PTSD very deeply but that their place in the community generally shielded their lives from any public scrutiny. Many told us they suffered from alcoholism or alcohol abuse and one even told us he was addicted to drugs.
The Commanders generally lived their lives in a very structured, orderly environment. Therefore, more so than with the frontline combat veterans, these veterans have a low incidence of DUI, public drunkenness and other aberrant behaviors that might involve the police.
One Vietnam Veteran Commander, Mike, said to us, "The Commanders, as you call us, are just as sick, just as disassociated, just as traumatized by war as the guy who led a platoon, maybe more so. I figure I sent about 800 men to their deaths and that doesn't sit well with me. Moreover, I came home to an America I couldn't understand. I guess when you think about it, I left the United States for Korea and the Army in the early 1950s. When I got back to Virginia in the early 1980s and looked around - I was in a foreign country. Nobody much understood me. Nobody much had any use for me. And I couldn't relate to many people or many things in my environment."
What did you do? I asked him.
"Well, I drank for a few years because I could and then I decided God still had some things for me to do. I joined the church, got involved in a lot of activities, and so it goes."
"I am the President of the Church Council, I drive for Meals of Wheels, I dance one night a week, I teach college one night a week, I take my dog to the hospital to amuse patients on Wednesdays, that sort of thing. It keeps the mind active and helps the community a little I guess."
Mike is now 77 years young and still going strong.
Sam graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1965. As a young Lieutenant he led a platoon in Vietnam, then a Company, and then, as a Major he served in a staff.
"I guess I am more like a GI than most of the guys you refer to as 'commanders,'" Sam told us.
"But I did witness the anguish up close of a General Officer who had to put these wonderful young men into combat. All pay-grades suffer PTSD. It is just that senior officers don't readily admit to it. It tears them up inside and often tears their lives up, tears up their families. Often senior officers who have returned from combat have trouble relating to people, even their own wives and children. They suffer and relive the war and the battles alone. Mentally, what I've seen, there seems to be a higher incidence of Alzheimer's Disease and that sort of thing as they age. I know there are no statistics on this but I feel I am right. I know it is true."
George told us, "I was the guy who shook the hand of the soldier, the young sergeant and their captain. Then I had the unfortunate duty to send them to their ends. Then I had to tell their families what I had done. War hurts every participant. Sometimes I think it is the lucky one who died."
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