To the Editor,
No one ever returns from war. We are all casualties, as are the victims of terrorism. Not just those who are killed or maimed, but those who are there. They saw war in a very small place. Some say that with time they will get over it. Not true. It fades, goes out focus, takes up less space in your consciousness, but spiritually you have been captured. Your soul remains a prisoner.
Then days, years, even decades later, one of your senses will be a trigger. A smell, a sound — and instantly you’ll be back there in full color. But only you can see it and, as quickly as it came, it’s gone. As fast as gunfire — and nothing’s faster than gunfire. It’s past you before you hear it. They’re not flashbacks. It’s not some Rambo-rampage. It’s more subtle, more fleeting. Often triggered by something mundane — harmless and innocent. They’re just sights, sounds, and smells that happen to be around you when your world went crazy. They’re like daydreams. The professionals call them “intrusive thoughts.”
I’m not a psychiatrist or a doctor. Hell, I’m not even a good patient. But I’ve been around this block a couple of times. We all have had these experiences. For the normal people, whoever they are, usually intrusive thoughts are things that come back from childhood. When you were a kid you had more time to dwell on things. Also, you had less on your mind so things made more of an impression. Colors were brighter. Smells were more pungent. Sounds were sharper. Tastes were stronger. So today you may smell a turkey cooking and for a brief moment it will take you back to your grandmother’s house during the holidays. The sounds of wind chimes might bring you back to your uncle’s back porch. Get the picture? We all have had them.
However, for the combat veteran they’re far less pleasant and in a funny way, far more nuanced. For me there were no more beautiful sunsets after Vietnam It took me years to figure this one out. I cold be sitting completely comfortable on a pleasant deck after a day’s work with a beer watching the sun go down. Tranquil, right? I would become uneasy, uncomfortable, hyper-alert, hyper-vigilant, and there was nothing that I understood should have caused that. There were no bad thoughts and I wasn’t concerned about anything in particular. I thought I must have been going crazy. But I wasn’t. However, there are those that would argue that point.
I was having a perfectly normal reaction to an abnormal set of circumstances. In Vietnam, the setting sun was a warning of night. Night belonged to Charlie and my platoon would soon be moving into an ambush position. That smoky, hazy, jungle twilight was son followed by the inky Asian night, and you would lie silent pray for morning or a quick death. It’d been decades since the dust-off helicopter lifted me out of my war.
I thought at least for me the war was over. It was over for me like it was over for others. For anyone who’s been to war, it was over and over and over. Even today, if I hear the sound of a Huey helicopter, I have to stop and look up. The difference is, at least today I know why I’m doing it. Trauma is trauma — whether in Boston or Baghdad, and if you were there your mind becomes a dry sponge, which is thrown into a raging river of sound and fury absorbing all of it — even the seemingly peaceful things. And they will come back and remind you when you least expect it.
Jerry Donnellan, director, Veterans Service Agency of Rockland County