By Peter H. Green
Yesterday I had the privilege of making a presentation to a small group of military retirees being treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, who had enrolled in a Warrior Writers workshop at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in St. Louis. As each introduced him- or herself and told one personal fact that wouldn’t be readily apparent to an outsider, I got a sense of what troubles they had seen. A combat nurse whose father had recently died —a veteran himself, exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam and only after nine years of trying had received government disability benefits; a pilot of B-52 bombers who had flown missions in two Mideast wars; a sergeant who used to drown his military sorrows regularly at the bars and now is clean, and an officer who had the task of debriefing secret operatives, not realizing he had the stress syndrome until the doctors told him.
I had been briefed about keeping the identity of the participants confidential, but was told I could talk about their situations. Part of the introduction to this new workshop group was a discussion of how beneficial the VA had found writing to be in the process of recovering from traumatic stress. A strikingly high percentage of veterans who had written about their ordeals had been able to overcome their symptoms and begin the long process of recovery. One of the patients in the class had become so interested in the process that he had studied it in depth at the University of Missouri and plans to go on and get a PhD in the beneficial effects of storytelling. As I listened to each participant reveal his or her story, I began to remember the effects that writing my book on my father’s World War II experience had on me–how many times I had broken down in tears at my keyboard as I reread Dad’s World War II letters and realized how much he cared about his family, and me in particular. Suddenly I knew how to begin my talk.
I pointed out that I had military stress very young when my father left home for the Marine Corps. I was barely five years old, and my baby sister had just been born. While my father had doted on me and lived for me, he was gone. My mother not only had to cope with keeping the car repaired, the house warm and the family budget under control, while staving off the unthinkable dread of Dad’s assignment to the next island invasion, now she had an abruptly orphaned new baby and a dispossessed son on her hands. I realized even better how to relate to the members of this class.
I mentioned how hard it’d been to lose my father at age 68, and said I couldn’t bear to let go of him. I never realized why until I wrote my book, Dad’s War with the United States Marines, when it dawned on me that that it was because of this early deprivation of him as a child. I recounted how my idea for writing the book came about, on a nostalgic college reunion trip to the East Coast, where we visited Mary Oates Johnson, a school friend of my wife, who was an editor and writer, in Andover, Massachusetts. She suggested that we take a weekend jaunt up to Annisquam to revisit the locale where I had spent my sixth summer at a cottage my aunt and uncle had rented while Dad was off to war. The rest is history; in fact, reading 400 letters Dad sent from the Pacific theater revealed some World War II history that had never been written before. The rest of my presentation was easy. I reminded my class that a disproportionate share of the world’s history has not only been created but written by members of the military. Starting with Homer and Julius Caesar, the list continues with Ernest Hemingway, Ernie Pyle, Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower, to name just a very few. I told them, “If you don’t write down your history, much of it known only to you personally, it will die with you, and the world will never know.” I had begun to do it. Now. It was their turn.
That in itself was a very healing thought.
For more on this book, Dad’s War with the United States Marines, see my website.
Till next time, good words to you,