When I began speaking publicly about my husband’s struggle to recover from post-traumatic stress disorder, people occasionally asked, “Why didn’t people used to get PTSD?” They labored under the misconception that since veterans of World War II did not discuss their psychological wounds of war in the same language that we use today, they must not have experienced them at all. In fact, as Jonathan Shay has convincingly demonstrated in his seminal works Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America, the signs of what we would label PTSD today are clearly present in the most ancient works of oral literature. Called “soldier’s heart” after the Civil War, “shell shock” after WWI, and “battle fatigue” after WWII, each generation has struggled to frame and recover from this trauma of their war.
Despite widespread advances in the recognition and understanding of PTSD as a result of intensive efforts by veterans of the Vietnam War, many still carry fundamentally flawed misperceptions of who can develop it and of what it looks like. Only combat arms troops who were involved in frequent firefights suffer from PTSD, they imagine. All of those men experience frequent flashbacks, try to cope with severe substance abuse, and descend into profound dysfunction: unemployment, homelessness. For some, that is indeed the course of the disorder. But not for all.
Combat support and combat service personnel also develop combat-related PTSD: modern wars do not have the “front lines” we may still envision from old movies. Every convoy is at risk from roadside bombs, every secure base can take indirect fire; medics are targeted, truck drivers return fire. (Troops and civilians who never deploy at all can also develop PTSD after surviving rape or other violent crimes, natural disasters, car accidents, or other traumatic experiences.) And while the symptoms of PTSD can reach an unmanageable level for some, many manage to function – succeeding professionally and, to outside appearances, thriving personally – for years or decades while nursing deep pain.
Lewis Nelson’s book takes us on his personal journey as a military intelligence soldier through his combat experiences, the gradual disintegration of his marriage, and his eventual realization that PTSD was preventing him from being the man he wanted to be and living the life he wanted for himself and for his family. With grace and empathy, he opens up about his reluctance to admit problems and seek help until finally reaching a breaking point. In doing so, he shatters myths about what kind of person develops PTSD, what forms it takes, and – perhaps most importantly – its permanence. Lewis shares with us the beginning stages of his journey to healing, showing other troops, veterans, and family members that there is a path to reintegration and fulfillment even after years of numbness and pain.
I had the privilege of serving with Lewis at the 101st Airborne Division briefly before leaving active duty to help my husband on his own road to recovery after he sustained a penetrating traumatic brain injury and subsequently developed PTSD. I’ve seen firsthand how hard it can be to admit that everything is not all right and to seek help – and to also see what a profound difference therapy in some form can make. May Lewis, and all who read this tender exploration, navigate through post-traumatic stress and find a measure of post-traumatic growth on the other side.
– Kayla Williams
Kayla Williams is the Director of the Center for Women Veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs and author of Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army and Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War
Update: Kayla Williams is now Director of the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security.