There is something but we cannot define it.
On reflection, the first memory was in South Vietnam. I was in a US billet when there was an explosion down the street. I remember picking myself off the floor covered in sweat and totally confused of my whereabouts. I was probably trying to rationalise why an event months earlier was so pronounced.
On another occasion, I was preparing a medevac notice for transmission. As I went through the list of bullet points A to Z, this guy had so many that even with my limited medical knowledge it was apparent that he might not complete the flight. I slammed the tape into the auto head, ran outside, leant against the building and slid to the ground crying. Back then, I didn’t understand his relationship with my fears.
I think it was my mother death that made it worse.
I went to the Padre who was of little help. The Salvation Army guy must have sensed something and his words were comforting but it didn’t change my fear that I was losing it. In those days the attitude in the military was a manly “harden up” which left little support from one’s peers. Better to shut up.
I don’t remember any other events during the rest of the tour. Mind you I used up all my beer allocation every time and started smoking.
On return home, I left the Army and in between many jobs stayed with my father. I had trouble sleeping and could be found during the day in bed with the blinds drawn as I caught up on rest.
There had been as circular delivered to neighbouring houses that the council was going to widen the creek to allow better flow during heavy rain by using explosives.
Once again, I found myself on the floor covered in sweat. My father was standing at the door observing me; perhaps he had seen it in his generation of soldiers.
The next time was in a bedsit in Wellington where I had gone to sleep during the day after an incident at work. I was employed as a concrete hand and the policy was if you were on the skip and the wind caught the crane you rode it around until it came back over the building. The crane driver was a Socialist who had said something derogatory about people who served in Vietnam earlier and foolishly I had identified my past employer. Instead of leaving the controls alone, he lowered the beam and when the wind blew back, the skip crashed into the scaffolding throwing me off. Fortunately, I was able to grab a hold of an upright. With clothes torn by the crash, I was given the rest of the day off from management. I believed the crane driver did it on purpose but it would years before I realised that the return to another time resulted from a number of triggers, individually or collectively.
On the second tour, it was after the security detail on the Jeparit that I returned to a previous time.
After that tour although for some time I did not experience the “returning” but other symptoms were apparent to a new observer. Fortunately, I had been able to find a wife who would put up with my strange attitudes. But it was the shouting in the night that eventually forced me to seek an explanation from our GP. I had developed what I called “helicoptering”. Seeming to rise from the bed and hover above it. It scared me along with the other symptoms of been alarmed by loud noises and a child’s scream whether from joy or alarm.
The GP arranged an appointment with the specialists at Kingseat mental hospital.
“There is something but we cannot define it.”
PTSD had yet to be written into the manuals. They suggested an issue of anti-depressants. In those days, they had some real scary side-affects and I didn’t return for repeat evaluation three months later.
There was one ironic incident on leaving Kingseat. A hitchhiker waved me down at the gate.
He wanted a ride to the Papakura rail station, which was in the opposite direction of my intended travel. But I decided his need was more than mine and I drove him there. Here I was, identified with some sort of mental condition giving advice to a guy who had completed some month’s internment after a messy divorce.
I received an invitation to enlist in the Territorial Force because they were short of trained operators. During an exercise on flares, I was found leaning against the water tanks in a confused state.
In the late 1980’s discussion appeared in the media on a new phenomenon reported in Vietnam Veterans call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In those days prior to the internet to obtain a copy of medical journal required a subscription or a visit to the Philson medical library in Auckland.
I settled on buying via post a copy of a couple of articles from the library. Those early documents suggested there might be an explanation for my problems. Fund exempted me from exploring further.
In the early 1990’s I was received a questionnaire in the mail which on evaluation with others resulted in the what was termed “The Long Report” on PTSD in New Zealand Vietnam Veterans.
Its publication resulted in my leaving a Vietnam Veterans organisation I was a member of. It was the then Presidents lack of acceptance of the wider implications of the report that annoyed me.
In his view because the condition was more common in those that had served only a few years in the NZ Army it was somehow a “short timers” disorder to be dismissed. Mind you he would later say when the Australian Mortality and Morbidity studies were released that we were not National Servicemen. He totally misunderstood that the NS cohort was equally important to the overall results of those who served and those that did not.
There had been some discussion in the Vietnam Veteran community as to why the Long Report didn’t result in changes in the War Disablement Pension criteria immediately after publication. Was there a lack of support amongst those in higher positions? I suspect so although it is laughable to see those who could have done something earlier admitting in their biographies that they were on anti-depressants as well.
Eventually with the MoU, although not specifically spelt out as a part of the “toxic environment” to which Vietnam Veterans were exposed PTSD did become accepted. One does question, given that today a definitive diagnosis can be made why it was not included in the list of conditions eligible for ex gratia payments alongside those with questionable causality.
All those previous declined claims associated with an unknown condition now received an official diagnosis, albeit three decades late and past any usefulness.
I’ve never had a “returning” for a considerable time. But I continue to show anxiety over loud noises or raised children’s voices. But now been able to understand the mechanism the wind down is very much shorter.
My last job was in an engineering workshop where loud noises were common. In earlier years, some would notice my reaction and deliberately make the gas explode .But as the years went it was less of a problem. Like my nickname Rambo. It was given to me by a fellow worker who was vocal on the Vietnam War and like the crane driver before him I foolishly responded. He left the company long before I did, and an apprentice asked me just before I left why they called me Rambo. I said did you ask the older guys but he said no one could remember. I told him with the proviso he tell no one else.
I like to think that I managed to contain many of the symptoms once I learnt what the triggers were and how to avoid or reduce them. I think the only symptom that on reflection I wish I didn’t have was procrastination. I often thought that PTSD sufferers would make great politicians because of this trait, but it is not because they want to delay something but from the incessant demand for completely accurate information before making a decision that the disorder demands.
Mind you, a psychiatrist once said that people with depression usually have a more realistic evaluation of life than optimists and pessimists.
There was something and it has now been defined.