Because I began working with war veterans in the mid-1970s, I had contact with a number of World War II combat veterans between then and the 1980s. What I found most remarkable among many of these men was that despite the powerful emotional and psychological effects of their PTSD, many were able to carve out a civilian life in which they got married, had children, and worked to support their families. This was done because they had no options for treatment or support available to them from either the government or their communities, mainly because of our lack of understanding of the powerful and usually lifelong effects of war trauma on human beings. They basically learned to “bite the bullet” and make the best of the life they were dealt.
One such individual who stands out in my memory is an Army infantry man who was stationed on the European front with his unit. Their assignment was to give heavy artillery support to the men on the front lines and they were based by a river, living in tents. Their base was frequently attacked and strafed by Nazi Messerschmitts, and each time they took heavy casualties because they had nowhere to hide. Within months of this assignment, this veteran developed profound symptoms of combat stress based on his belief that he would die with every German attack. He forced himself to complete his work assignment and when he returned to Minnesota, he got married, became trained as an optician, and opened up his own small clinic in the town where he and his wife lived. He said that within a couple of years of starting his practice, he would experience frequent anxiety and panic attacks that disabled him from doing his work. Eventually he went to his local physician for help, but that did not help, and on one occasion he suggested to his physician that he should contact the Minneapolis VA to see if they could be of greater help. His physician discounted that idea, calling the VA a welfare system that robs people of their integrity. Because of this response, the veteran gave up the idea of contacting the VA and tried to live out his life by “biting the bullet”. He placed a cot in a back room of his office, and for the rest of his occupational life, he would take timeouts from his work with clients when overcome by his panic attacks or anxiety by retreating to the back room to rest and wait out those attacks. He said that his primary source of support was his wife, who was understanding and helpful to him in his hard times.
Unfortunately, his wife died when they were in their early 60’s and his psychological stability dissolved because he lost his primary support person. He was not able to continue his work and his panic attacks and other symptoms of PTSD became overwhelming and uncontrollable. Although we were able to give him some relief from the effects of his PTSD, it was in the twilight of his life and after too many years of “white knuckle” living. This was true of many other World War II veterans who also had to “tough out” their lives on their own because of the lack of understanding by our society of the effects of combat trauma on veterans and the lack of effective services and support for those veterans.
Probably the saddest examples of such veterans are the “town drunks” who quite often were homeless veterans who used alcohol for self-medication. Frequently, they were criticized and made fun of by other community members. Many of these men were war heroes who were honorably discharged from their service branches, but were so affected by their war traumas that they could not pull themselves together and function effectively as civilians.
Our country, and the world, did not learn well from the effects of war trauma on veterans in either of the first two world wars, and Korean and Vietnam war veterans who suffered from combat trauma and stress were also by and large ignored and inadequately treated by our country, including the VA hospitals. Not only did we not give serious concern to the effects of combat stress on veterans until the late 1970’s, but we also failed to recognize the adverse effect of sending soldiers into political wars where our objective was not to win and conquer the enemy. Wars became politically controlled, with our government’s concern being focused on not upsetting other world powers by restricting war zones and creating rules of war and conditions that restrained soldiers from engaging in full combat with enemy soldiers who were not restrained by the same rules.
The Korean War was our first politically controlled war. It was a civil war between North and South Korea, and the United Nations decided to intervene in defense of South Korea to stop the communist government of North Korea. The United States became involved as one of the United Nations countries that sent troops, but our troops made up 90% of the total number of soldiers sent to Korea by United Nations countries. Because of our country’s concerns about the two communist world powers who supported North Korea, China and Russia, we fought a war to stop the North Koreans from passing the 38th parallel of Korea rather than trying to defeat them. The North Koreans were eventually stopped at the 38th parallel, but at an enormous loss of soldier and civilian lives over a three-year period.
Because this was not an all-out war to defeat the enemy, our government called it the Korean Conflict rather than war and, along with our citizens, minimized and ignored the war after its conclusion, thus causing it to be called “the forgotten war” and, unfortunately for the men who fought in that war, they became the “forgotten soldiers”. Not only were our Korean War veterans deprived of the opportunity to win a war, they were also denigrated by our country’s reluctance to call it nothing more than a conflict. Understandably, most Korean vets came back to the country and retreated into their own communities and lives, becoming our country’s invisible soldiers. Most did not seek support from their communities or the VA systems mainly because of their desires to keep their war services to themselves in what became a highly ignorant and uncaring national environment. They, too, suffered all of the anguish of their war traumas, but they did it in silence.
During the late 1970’s and into the 1990’s, I had the opportunity to meet and provide services to a number of Korean War veterans. One that stands out was an Army infantryman who was in constant combat with North Korean and Chinese Army soldiers during most of his tour in the war zone. He was a unit machine gunner, carrying a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). As a result of his intensive contact with enemy, where on many occasions he and his unit would kill hundreds of Chinese soldiers who came at them in waves, but many without guns or weapons, he was constantly possessed by memories and images of combat situations. He also talked about getting frostbite in his feet that disabled him from being able to walk at the tail end of his tour, and having to be transported on the top of a tank to his home base. Following his combat experience in Korea, he returned to his army base in the US and became a drill sergeant, providing basic training to new recruits who were being prepared for the war zone. Because of his own experience and exposure in the war zone and the changes in his attitudes and views of life, he became very intense and harsh in his training of the new recruits and eventually was given the nickname of “Sarge”, which stuck with him for the rest of his life. His family jokingly described him as a tough disciplinarian who never left his army training and thinking. He had a tough and intimidating demeanor by which he interacted with virtually everyone.
I met Sarge when he was in his 60’s and on a disability status. He spent most of his time at home sitting at the kitchen coffee table and constantly ruminating about his war. His house was filled with war memorabilia and virtually every published war film. He would spend most of our sessions talking about various atrocities and incidents in which people were killed and maimed or tortured which he personally witnessed. He also talked about a significant number of kills that he made, particularly when Chinese attempted to overrun his unit’s outposts. He consistently complained about seeing a dark figure dart across his living room while sitting at the kitchen table and he was convinced that this was one of the Korean enemy soldiers. He knew better, but he constantly had this hallucination or vision which was accompanied by the very unsettling feeling that it was an enemy soldier. He attempted to deal with his PTSD and altered views of the world and life by keeping himself immersed in his military thinking and actions and war movie and books. Nonetheless, his intrusive memories, perceptual distortions, and nightmares constantly affected him until he died. He did not seek mental health help from the VA because of his disillusioned reactions to our government and governmental systems.
Another Korean veteran who stands out is a Marine Sargent who fought at the Chosen Reservoir. He was a very hardened individual who showed no emotions and was very serious in his interactive style. He spoke of constant direct contact with enemy on hill and mountain trails in their war zone and a number of hand-to-hand combat battles in which he engaged with enemy soldiers. He described the ongoing significant amount of killing on both sides as something that numbed him to the point that he was no longer affected by killing others or seeing death. He, like most of his fellow soldiers, returned home and blended in as a forgotten soldier, not seeking help from anywhere, including the VA system. Although his war experiences clearly changed him and his view of life and the world, and he was completely emotionless, he developed a style of survival that allowed him to have and keep a job and to have a family, but with a lot of interpersonal stress. By the time I met him, he decided that he could endure the lifestyle he developed and he did not want to open up any of the memories and pains of his war through therapy.
There were many other WWII and Korean veterans who I had the honor of meeting and giving some psychological assistance. Most were humble, responsible and caring persons who spent lifetimes of daily stresses working and providing for their families, as most Americans do, but, they also carried the added burdens of their war memories and scars until their final days. Despite the failures of our government and society to give them ongoing recognition for their sacrifices in their wars and for their war related adjustment problems, they all remained very patriotic and contributing citizens. This was true of the Korean veterans in spite of our country’s almost complete neglect of them.