At the age of 68, he wears a slight, rugged facial scar on his right cheek from cancer surgery, a souvenir from Agent Orange. He also sports a scar running up the base of his spine and he wrestles with demons most nights. All are souvenirs from an unpopular war fought nearly five decades ago.
His Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) runs deep and, at one point in his life, made it unbearable. None of the 11 mood medications the VA had stuffed in his medicine cabinet seemed to help. He told me about these night terrors on our first date, and the scar too.
With our 20-year age difference, what little I knew of that war came from Hollywood. (Rambo sure seemed pissed.) I knew that the returning soldiers did not get parades or special ribbons; they were not greeted by a citizenry that appreciated their sacrifice. There were no "Support Our Troops" bumper stickers and the acronym PTSD had not yet been coined. (That came in 1980.)
Though he's come very far in dealing with this deeply-embedded trauma ("Used to be, if a big truck went by, I'd duck under a table," he said.), he has to carefully avoid movies that depict battle or intense gunfire. The chop-chop-chop of a military helicopter can also trigger terrible flashbacks.
Once, we were watching TV and a graphic ad for the "Call of Duty" video game came on. I squirmed uncomfortably. Finally, it finished and I turned to him, "Did that bother you?"
"Nah," he stated flatly, "that's just a game." It was a chilling distinction.
When visiting his grown children and their families, all will occasionally be roused up with lights on by his middle-of-the-night screams. “Next thing I hear is, ‘Dad! DAD! Wake up!’ and I know it’s happened again,” he said.
His most common dark dream triggers kicking, his brain replaying an actual scenario: trapped in a foxhole with the enemy in one-to-one combat. The long body of a machine gun is held to his throat, choking him, and his hands work at breaking free while his feet kick furiously to deliver damage.
I don’t know the details of what happened next but i don't think it ended well for that particular North Vietnamese soldier.
He described how, one afternoon, he napped on the couch. Awaking with a jolt, he wondered, ‘Why is my foot wet?’ Looking down, he sees bloodied toes and a banged up coffee table. “Of course, oh my gosh, the kicking…”
On various evenings, I have witnessed the ramp up of these hauntings and they are terrifying. His legs begin to move, his breathing quickens and a plaintive whimper comes from somewhere deep inside him, begging for help.
To witness such haunting terror in the face of my man - so strong and stoic in the day - is jarring. Naturally, I try to stop these nightmares as they begin. (At long last, my night owl tendencies have a useful purpose!) I throw my arms and legs around him and whisper in his ear, “It’s okay, baby. It’s okay. You’re fine, you’re here with me,. It's 2014. You're in your own house, in North Dakota.” Gradually, the dream dissipates and those stubborn images - ghastly memories as old as myself - release their cruel grip.
One time, he grabbed my arm hard and mumbled, “I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you’re here.” He has only a distant recollection the following morning.
I pondered all this last May while the flickering shadows of a TV hockey game revealed raw vulnerability in the craggy lines of his handsome face. His head began moving side to side (“no, no, no, no”) and his brow furrowed with fear. The anguish in his voice was palpable, laced with a begging mercy. The man who laid next to me – this retired bank president, father of two, grandfather of five – was suddenly a terrified boy facing his own death in a strange land for the millionth time.
I shook him awake and his eyes popped open, staring straight into my own. His eyes, so dark and distant, revealed just how far away he’d been. He was momentarily shocked, disoriented and unsure just who I was; slowly, his mind returned to present day Earth. Then, a moment of recognition: “Oh, heh,” he snorted, embarrassed, “musta been that Memorial Day stuff I watched. All ten minutes of it…”
Then, he rolled over on his left side, facing the wall away from me. But just before settling in for the next round of sleep, he had to know. “'Hawkes win?” he asked, eyes closed.
“No,” I say. “Kings. 5-2.” I carefully withheld the glee in my voice for my hometown team, sparing his delicate state.
And just like that, life goes on, with or without a parade.
A big thank you to all who have served in our nation's military and especially those who have sacrificed body and mind. I live as freely as I can - a small gesture toward honoring your efforts.