Looking for St. Patrick

Published 3:33 pm Tuesday, December 1, 2009

On October 20, 2009 President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Unit Citation to A Troop of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment for actions that occurred March 26, 1970. On that day, a column of armored vehicles made its way through thick jungle to rescue a fellow company (C Troop), which was surrounded by NVA regulars and threatened with being overrun. In days since then I read in my hometown newspaper, the Gadsden Times, that a resident of a nearby town was a member of A Troop and was present at the ceremony.

I was a member of the Air Cav Troop of the 11th and was in Vietnam then. Of course we heard about the incident and were happy about the rescue, but knew none of the details at the time. Reading that a man from near my hometown was involved in the action excited me and I have tried (so far unsuccessfully) to contact him. I would like to congratulate him.I have spoken with several of my former comrades, also veterans from the 11th Cav, since the ceremony. We are universally proud of our brothers in arms, and a little bitter that it has taken 40 years for this action to be recognized. One of the guys made a statement recently that has stuck with me for days now. He said, Man, I bet those guys (from C Troop) have got some snakes in their heads.Snakes in their heads. Its a term Ive heard several times from vets over the years. Its probably obvious that it means recurring ruminations, or obsessions, or nightmares about an event or events that produce anxiety, perhaps even overt fear/defensive responses. Some of these snakes are so insistent that they cant be forced out of consciousness for very long so we joke about them. Often a vet will need to take medication in an effort to dispel the unwanted thoughts. Far more often vets medicate themselves with alcohol or drugs in an effort not to think about some of those events.

Rarely a month goes by that I dont communicate with at least seven of my former comrades either by e-mail, telephone or face-to-face. Most of these men are dealing with PTSD in some form or fashion. They talk of their snakes and it is remarkable how consistent the images are. When I list out the various complaints, I have a compilation of the symptoms that are listed in the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual for PTSD. The specific events, of course, are different; but the themes are amazingly similar.

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Several of my friends report having a nightmare in which they are being overrun by enemy forces and are having to fight for survival. At least three have been violent toward a spouse while still asleep. Flashbacks (the sense that prior events are recurring in real time) also happen during awake periods shadows seem to morph into demons. Survivor guilt is rampant in this group. We lost men, friends, in action; and we think that somehow we should have been able to do something to prevent their loss. In a time of stress we all did, or failed to do, something that in retrospect seems would have produced a different result and we cant help thinking that the other result would have been better. We saw, heard, smelled and touched things that most people would agree shouldnt be experienced.

Some of these men are struggling with the secondary effects of their symptoms. Their pain is such that they dont mix well in social situations, and therefore they withdraw. Craving isolation, they just want to be left alone. They are irritable and often have outbursts of anger, sometimes violence. Emotionally many are numb, unable to trust, depressed, hopeless, and have suicidal thoughts and urges. When alcohol or morphine-like drugs are added to the equation, great danger is present. A few have told me of having a gun in hand with the idea of taking their own life. &bsp;

Treatment for the problems that are associated with PTSD has been slow to develop and even slower to be embraced by Viet Vets. The veterans from the Gulf Wars seem to be moving into treatment a little more quickly and so their prognosis is a little better. Coming in from being in isolation with all those negative feelings and urges is proving to be effective to some extent. Group therapy is helping learning that there are others who are fighting with their own snakes makes living with your own a little less daunting. At least we are beginning to face the problem. Years of doing therapy have instructed me on one crucial fact: If you cant articulate the problem, you have no chance of solving it.

What I have privately wished for is a return of St. Patrick someone to lead the snakes away and leave these patriotic men and women in peace.~BirdLand written by Don Weathington