What will follow is just as much a stab in the dark as anything else. On another front, it is an answer to a question I have heard asked many times and then ignored. That question is why today’s war veterans are having such difficulty when the veterans of World War II came home and appeared to simply return to civilian life. The very first and possibly the biggest single item that the rest of us need to know is that we cannot know how to treat them or address their problems; only they can care for each other. And that is the crux of the difference between the veterans of today’s modern wars and those from World War II. It has everything to do with having time to ramp down from a heighten state of mind and sensory overload to a normal life situation where your life is not dependent on split second decisions which can and do come often with no warning, simply a foreboding if you are fortunate. So, how is it so different now compared with seventy years ago?
Item one is that during World War II the soldiers were not allowed to come home leaving the battlefield ongoing and unresolved. They completed their task and had won their war where today we drop troops into an ongoing war and then send them home with the resolution of their fight unresolved. After World War II the soldiers arrived home to victory parades and the news never talked about an unfinished job, there was resolution and the soldiers were welcomed as heroes. In today’s warfare we send soldiers into the war zone and then pull them out leaving the fighting unresolved. There is no finality and then when they hear the news they are reminded that they left the job unfinished. They also left others, their brothers in arms, close friends who are more than just friends behind still facing the terrors and threats day in and day out. The veterans from World War II did not leave comrades behind still fighting the battles, the war had been won and they had experienced a finality that goes missing today. But it is more than that.
When World War II ended the troops did not return home within hours. They did not leave the battlefield and within twenty-four hours get placed almost instantly back in what we call a normal civilian setting. The World War II veterans went through weeks still in Europe waiting for their transport to be arranged. They were kept with their units and the others with whom they had fought side-by-side with. Then, after weeks at the staging areas they were placed on ships that took an additional number of weeks before reaching their home. They were welcomed by a relieved and honoring citizenry who applauded their accomplishments and welcomed them home. There was the long transit time with their buddies that allowed for them to unwind and to give each other the exact and understanding care they needed. When our veterans come home now some are even transferred to a new unit upon arrival which completely cuts them off from their main source of help. They are dumped into a whole new paradigm without the down-time they need and too often away from those who can best understand and commiserate with their problems and difficulties. That brings us to the next problem, who treats their difficulties.
No doctor and no medication can replace a friend who was there next to you listening. Nothing that comes in a pill bottle or from a new and fresh face can share the emotions, memories, and particulars the same as the others who were there with you. And absolutely nothing can replace time, simply time to deal as a community with the community the shared traumas and scars that warfare places on the mind and soul of a soldier. Psychiatry does not have the base knowledge or depth of understanding to deal in a positive and healthy manner with the reprogramming and deprogramming the soldier needs to experience and the forgiving, sympathy, release of pain, understanding, and so many unspoken intangibles beyond the ability of the uninitiated to understand, needed and necessary to allow the soldier to return to what we call a normal life and society. Perhaps the only ones equipped to handle the situations and possess the specific abilities, knowledge, and solutions are the very same soldiers who they had shared the experiences and counted upon to protect and keep each other alive, trusting lives and honor in shared combat experiences can help one another with the adjustment back to so-called normal life. Many soldiers will never be able to totally return and will suffer from memories and other difficulties but most are able to reach a position of control and understanding of what is necessary for them to live among and within normative society. We do not do the soldier much help by bringing them home so suddenly and quickly as the fast pace allowed by modern transportation. The World War II veterans had the possibly unintentional good fortune of a long and slow trip home aboard a troop ship with their comrades and fellow veterans and most often with the same unit and people who had fought with them side-by-side. They were allowed the camaraderie that just might have been exactly the treatment they were most in need of receiving. The one thing that is becoming evident, the methods we are currently pursuing and the prescription cure-alls are not working and a new approach is most definitely necessary. For those of us who wish to help, may I suggest one simply cure, try listening and say nothing, just listen and smile remembering that these young soldiers went and did what was required at our bidding and we owe them more than we can ever repay, far more.
Beyond the Cusp