November 23, 2008

The Combat Veteran and Police Assisted Suicide

The Blood Runs Thick as The Bonds of Brotherhood

On November 8, 2008, I wrote an article about identity and dissociation and the relationship between the two. Since then I have struggled with writing more, actually I have been having difficulties writing in the last month as I have only composed 7 articles this month so far. Granted some of the issue has to do with my having to write butt loads of papers for school about crap I do not want to write about. Uhh, professor(s) (they say that they have been here), if you happen to read this then I did get something out of the writing assignments, but I still did not want to.

So, anyway. Identity, dissociation and a connection to some kind of topic. Yeah, ok. Here it goes.

I was just reading about Sgt. Travis Triggs again, for those that do not know who I am talking about he was the soldier who had 5, yes FIVE tours of combat, that shot himself and his brother in the head after a police car chase. He went to Iraq 4 times and Afghanistan once. He had never been in trouble before that day even though the media had portrayed them both as having violent criminal histories. Sgt. Triggs volunteered for the extra deployments,
My symptoms went away. After all, I was going back to the fight, back to shared adversity, where the tempo is high and our adrenaline pulses through our veins like hot blood (as cited in Times Online, November 23, 2008).
The article gives an account of a lost soul that had left everything over in a far away land where the blood runs thick as the bonds of brotherhood. He had assumed a culture of killing and the persona of a "combat self," a subsumption of the "Soldier's Heart," shedding all of the remnants of his civilian identity and connections to self and home. He had become the perfect soldier, much to perfect.

There is disconnection between everything that is human and the necessities of killing and what has to be done in combat. Imagine being in an unimaginable situation and having to do the unthinkable. How can this be done? A disconnection between everything human and having to do the unimaginable resounds in combat. For we must wholly demonize our adversary and in the process we dehumanize ourselves, whereas the monster must die. A neurological reprogramming engaging dissociative states and a compartmentalization splitting. In doing so some veterans and soldiers lose their way, not only on the inside of our mind but now they become outsiders in society. Everything at home had become foreign to him, he had become lost within a once comfortable environment.

The parallel contrasts to my article on identity and dissociation and Sgt. Triggs? On the night where I had lost myself into psychosis, if the police had shown up, or if someone had confronted me on my abnormal behavior, it would had became real and the psychotic break would have been complete. I was convinced that everyone was out to get me and I would have responded with violence to "protect" myself due to a warped conception of a perceived threat.

I ran out of that house and jumped into my car and drove away; drunk, high and out of my mind. Easily I could have been in an incident that probably would have resulted in a similar outcome. My death, an innocent bystander and possibly the police.

To survive war is not a relief, it is a sentence of guilt and shame from killing and surviving.

1 comment:

  1. Scott, sometimes it takes a long time to recognize that we have PTSD. My preface to my new book, Unknown Soldiers, (see below) is an account of my situation.

    I've finally written my place in history and that of my comrades from my point of view as a participant. My new book, "Unknown Soldiers," is a memoir of my days as a soldier serving in World War II in Europe.

    Even as I, at eighty-five, close the book sixty-five years later, I confess in the recollection of it all to a tinge of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. No, none of us purposed our death when we purposed our services to President Roosevelt and to our country back in the 1940s.

    This book was embarked upon in March 1943 in the form of a journal—a catch-as-catch-can record of whatever lay ahead of me, a bottom-of-the-pile volunteer in the United States Infantry when the USA was viewed as the last hope of a more or less civilized world grappling with the most evil force in the recorded history of mankind. Six months after I signed up for battle, not long after the Allied invasion of Italy, I landed in ravaged Naples with the first contingent of American casualty replacements in Europe and was assigned to the Intelligence & Reconnaissance Platoon of about thirty front-line scouts and observers in the 45th Infantry Division's 157th Regiment, already baptized in the battle to drive the Germans from Sicily after their expulsion from North Africa.

    Soon after the nearly repelled landing of the Yanks and Brits in Salerno, Italy, I was cautiously up on the stalemated Winter Line in the almost straight-up steepness of the Apennine Mountains and incautiously under hit-or-miss enemy fire until January 1944. Then five months of leisurely twenty-four hour duty as target practice for the Krauts on the Anzio Beachhead; then the "Champagne Campaign" liberation of southern France; a bout with malaria; a leisurely AWOL return to the front; and a leg injury falling down a barn loft ladder during an enemy barrage that hospitalized me back to Italy as our Platoon approached the Vosges in northeastern France. My buddies went on to fight the desperate Battle of the Bulge, and finally, on the verge of the end of the war in Europe, to liberate Dachau, the prototype concentration camp, where they at the last moment saw and smelled what it was all about before carrying on to occupy the very Munich beer hall from which der F├╝hrer had loosed his Holocaust.

    Over the course of the following months, as a field-hospital driver in the Volturno Valley east of Naples, I absorbed an Army manual on journalism as a postwar career, was hooked and mulled over the idea of a book about it all. My first attempt around 1947—after graduating from Harvard and getting a job with the Associated Press in Boston—I couldn't write myself into my first day in action.

    Thirty years of journalism, free-lance writing and books, and in 1978, the haunting compulsion resurfaced. I realized that this was really the collective story of our Platoon and by no means mine alone. So I turned to my old comrades around the country, one leading to another, ferreting them out, interviewing them with my newshound know-how and with bottle and camera in hand, and discovering that few if any of us had talked of our war to anyone. Well, we old buddies, under the magic of our mutuality and lurking, unrecognized sense of guilt (for lack of a better word) over having survived while so many others hadn't, unloaded our burdensome memories and terror and denial, talked and talked and almost wept and laughed and roared. They granted me, every one, unreserved freedom of publication in the bargain. Ninety taped hours, much of it available on the Unknown Soldiers website ( along with their friendly faces.

    Yet, though I wrote and rewrote, I still could not get myself and our book past the roadblock of my first day in action. Why?

    More productive years passed—but still no war book—until in 1994 Veterans Administration psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, MD, published his landmark study, Achilles in Vietnam, wherein he recognized virtually the identical psycho-emotional disorder among Vietnam vets and the survivors of the Trojan War in the twelfth century b.c. described by Homer. In an intense discussion at my home one evening, Doctor Shay helped me to project myself retrospectively from my particular rung on what he described as "the ladder of guilt" for surviving as one's buddies died.

    That was the first step, and it enabled me to rear back, charge through my baptism of fire and write our book. But a more significant second step toward insight revealed itself to me recently as I awakened from a troubled night's sleep, and it harked back not to my first day in action but to my last, when I was hospitalized back to Italy for a cut on my left shin in a fall down a rickety ladder in a barn in France, trying to gain observations of the enemy under their artillery fire.

    My "wound" wholly healed, and though entirely fit for return to action with my buddies in France, my sympathetic Army surgeon reclassified me as unfit for further combat, and I was reassigned to the Medical Corps as a driver in a station hospital in the countryside east of Naples, whose commander just happened to be an old medical friend of my influential doctor father back in Boston, as was another friend, the Chief of Surgery for the European Theater of War. A third colleague of Pa, running an Army hospital in Naples, looked me up, congratulated me and declared that after nearly a year of it I'd had enough. And dear old Jimmy Dowdall, ninety-six now and one of the last four of us left alive in our Platoon, was wounded in action three times before they declined to return him to his buddies.

    So now at last, in this moment of revelation and with a lump in my throat, I hereby face up to what's really been gnawing at me for sixty-five years. Flat on a stretcher on the ambulance plane back to Italy, my first time aloft, I was overcome by dread that the symbolic loss of my helmet, which had disappeared somewhere between hospitals in France, would cost me my life if I returned to action. Now I realize that through my years of focusing on my helmet's loss I was only silently rationalizing the loving, but never revealed, undoubted intervention of my father to rescue me from my war.

    Thus the letdown of my buddies back on the front, thus the "guilt," thus the book.

    And we Unknown Soldiers? The Greatest Generation? No, we occasionally pulled off what had to be done. My vote for "Greatest Generation"—with all respect, love and loyalty for my own—goes back to our Revolution of men and women who fought, sacrificed, suffered and died for their freedom from a distant, contemptuous, arbitrary and rather stupid emperor across three thousand miles of ocean. They were the generation that produced the most noble documents in human history, the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, the generation of my particular forefathers here in Gloucester, Massachusetts, once the greatest fishing port in the New World, who met in Town Meeting on December 15, 1773, and voted as one: "If we are compelled to make the last appeal to Heaven, we will defend our resolutions and liberties at the expense of all that is dear to us." And they did.

    No one who hasn't been inside war, at war, down-to-the-dirt-and-shit of it can even vaguely imagine it. Those who have waged it and endured it from the ground down, any war, find it an overwhelmingly horrifying nightmare of inexpressible inhuman experience. The naked truth of humanity's (yes, humanity's) capability for beastliness is rarely conveyed person-to-person from one generation to the next, or even within its own. Thus each succeeding generation is denied the first-hand lesson of it. And thus this all-too-human urge for self-destruction of our species rebuffs prevention anew and persists in remaining a hidden mineshaft in the human experience known as the "passage to manhood." This work, then, is an experiment in breaking through that void toward the expression of the duality of what we two-legged mammals regard so jealously, so fearfully, so vulnerably, so utterly humanly, as our humanity.

    Joe Garland
    Eastern Point
    Gloucester, Massachusetts


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