“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” -Maya Angelo
Veteran’s Day. A time of remembering. A bitter sweet day because I do remember. I cannot stop remembering Dave.
Some of the details about Dave Nelson’s physical attributes are sketchy. Like his height, the exact color of his hair parted on the side, or the sound of his voice. In my mind’s eye, Dave is tall and muscular, with a friendly crooked half smile that invites a “Howdy”.
But the other aspects of Dave are still crystal clear. How Dave lived a life of innocence and transparency. In the 1970’s at the end of the Vietnam War, his brand of seeing reality was rare. He joined the church that my husband and I belonged to and we became friends with this veteran of a conflict in Southeast Asia. Dave had a way of clearing out the cobwebs while thinking. Instinctively, he laser focused on the truth of the issue. For some, Dave’s honesty was unsettling to folks. But for my husband and me, it was refreshing.
The 1973 holidays drew closer with each turn of the calendar page. Christmas and the joy of family escaped Dave as he lived alone in an apartment. We noticed that at times Dave suffered from deep despair, and we invited him to our home for meals. He agreed to spend Christmas Day with my husband’s Greek family in Chicago. Dave enjoyed our preschool children, and conversed with my father-in-law, who passed on a lifetime of wisdom gained by running a restaurant. In our youthful busy-ness, we did not see the depth of Dave’s depression.
When the news of Dave’s suicide reached my husband and me, we wept with shoulder shaking sobs of grief. The inevitable questions of “why?” and “could we have stopped this?” tore at our hearts. How could Dave make peace with God, and yet have so much turmoil inside? The funeral service drained our emotions.
At the luncheon after the burial, an older woman asked to speak. Dave’s grandmother had traveled from down state to attend the funeral. Having raised Dave from his youth, she knew how the war had affected him. “I am so glad that Dave found the Lord and that he was a member of this congregation. He was so loved.” All of us church folk felt humbled because Dave’s soul had found peace with God, but not in his spirit.
And I felt like a failure. Dave had died alone. No one rescued him from the demons he faced. We could not reach the depths of his desperation with platitudes and warm smiles. It was then that I began to learn about how memories trigger emotions.
Not long after Dave’s death, the nation began to realize that the term “shell shock” did not apply to the Vietnam Vets who returned and experienced problems fitting back into society. The concept of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder appeared in the magazines and on the news channels. The diagnosis helped, but the strategies for helping the vets were vague. It has taken time to find real solutions. I continue to gain knowledge and put it to use in the interactions I have with other people.
On Veteran’s Day, Nelson’s memory will haunt me with guilt and helplessness. As the years pass, my hope is that this nation will begin to understand PTSD and reach out with life-saving hands to those who come home with unsettled souls.
“Always remember, if you have been diagnosed with PTSD, it is not a sign of weakness, rather, it is proof of your strength, because you have survived.” -Michel Templet
“Our whole approach to mental health has been hijacked by pharmaceutical logic. PTSD is a crisis of connection and disruption, not an illness that you carry within you.”
-Gary Barker, anthropologist from Promundo
In this book from the series, Teachers of Diamond Project School, an Emergency Medical Technician, Joe, suffers from PTSD. As Joe seeks help at Hines Hospital in Chicago, he eyes the special education teacher in the local urban school. How they deal with the realities of his life is inspiring. Available from amazon.com in e-book or paperback.