When I was 12, my grandmother took me on Greyhound to Virginia and North Carolina to meet her two sisters. Along the way we stopped off and stayed the night with a distant relative on a pullout couch. I’d been dozing for about an hour when I heard one, then two screams in rapid succession. I was more shocked than scared; living where I do, I’m used to hearing all sorts of street noise. But this was different. There wasn’t arguing. Someone seemed hurt.
Before I could sit up my grandmother touched my arm. She told me it was OK, that my cousin had been in Vietnam, and that’s what he did in his sleep. We’d had dinner together with his wife and both were friendly and polite. But when he tried to rest, he shouted, barked, and cried out. Even though I was only 12, I knew what Vietnam meant. I often saw men on the street in green army jackets, looking grizzly, carrying baggage. I read a lot and knew people had spit on them and treated them, mostly, as criminals when they came home, not as men in an unimaginable situation doing what their country had asked–or forced–them to do: serve. Later I would read about men escaping to Canada and monied young men who took medical deferments, but my cousin served overseas.
In 1984, PTSD was not a concept. My grandmother told me he was shell-shocked but he was OK, his wife was there, and to try to sleep. I did, but it was fitful. I knew military men like my uncle who drank, or shot heroin or were homeless, while others managed a more seamless transition back to civilian life–mainly by not discussing the war at all. It was simply off the table as a topic.
I’ve never forgotten that visit. I don’t remember my cousin’s name. But I remember he was a veteran, and his night echoed with screams. He came home but brought with him a haunting.
I’m liberal. I’m anti-war, particularly as war in today’s society is rarely about the citizens and more about profiteering. For years I struggled with the idea of men and women choosing to put themselves in dangerous situations. Why would any rational person do this, given the choice? Now I understand it’s a complex matter, it involves shifting variables, and it’s a personal decision. I’ve learned not to judge: how can I, when I see so many of us, with horrible internal and external damage, being undertreated and inadequately supported upon their return home?
It’s a vacation day for many in America, there are sales all over the place for big-ticket items… And that’s fine. It is what it is. I’d like to be more active with my support, but for now I remember my cousin, I respect our troops, and I pray for their safe passage. They’ve earned that, at least. At the very least.