This picture by Norman Rockwell speaks volumes. The soldier holding the Japanese flag. The folded hands of the little boy sitting next to the soldier. The blue star flag on the wall. The expressions of the men listening to him. Solemn. Proud. Wanting to hear the soldier's stories. And oh, what stories he has to tell.
Talking about their experiences was one way World War II veterans could begin to heal from the war. On Ken Burn's The War, the wife and sister of WW2 veterans said that after the war, they all used to sit on their front porch in the evenings and the vets would tell stories about what they'd been through. She said as she got older, she realized it was a healing process for them. For the majority of vets, going to talk to a psychologist or psychiatrist about their nightmares or depression wasn't an option. As one veteran put it, the doctor he went to see said to "put it behind him" and just get over it.
But how do you get over seeing your best friend killed, or sitting in a foxhole in the rain with a dead soldier? There are so, so many horrific memories they had to deal with. And most of the time, they dealt with them on their own. Some, like Eugene Sledge, who served in the Pacific, grappled with the memories for the rest of his life, burying his mind in science and biology to try and keep the horrific memories at bay. Others couldn't deal with the nightmares and lost their homes, their jobs, their families.
Thankfully, today's veterans and returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan are much more fortunate in finding help for their emotional trauma than those of the Greatest Generation. Directly resulting from the Vietnam experience, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) was officially recognized. Now, help is readily available for those who grapple with these issues (although to be fair, a stigma is still attached to seeking help - many men feel it makes them look weak - understandable in a warrior mindset, which is what a soldier is.). While the pain is still the same, the understanding of society and the medical community that PTSD and stress injuries are real makes all the difference in the world. During World War I, many generals who were not in the field (and who would want to be in those incredibly horrific trenches?) actually scoffed at those who suffered from "shell shock" and even disciplined those men who had it. What a barbaric attitude to have. Thank the Lord we do not have that mentality today.
I've been studying PTSD and other combat-related emotional injuries for my novel. It's sobering stuff. Flashbacks, reexperiencing their bad memories, dissociative states, nightmares...all of them torturous reminders of what they went through. Some veterans heal and with the help of others, they get through it. They are the fortunate ones. Others live with the nightmares for the rest of their life. I even found an article for nursing home employees to help them cope with the emotional suffering of World War II vets from their experiences in the war. That is 60 years of dealing with emotional trauma. I simply cannot imagine.
My character in my novel suffers from PTSD. Of course, they didn't call it that back then, but had other words for it - battle fatigue, shell shock. Getting into his head, trying to experience what he's going through, is extremely difficult. I know I'll never completely understand. But hopefully, I can show just how much World War II veterans suffered - and continue to suffer - and how much of society just didn't understand. This is a fiction writer's challenge - and one I am eager, and humbled, to have.
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