05/25/2012 08:24 am ET Updated Jul 25, 2012

This Memorial Day: Listen

Someone recently asked me whether I thought my grandfather and father, General George S. Patton Jr. and Major General George S. Patton IV, had suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Considering that they were both famously aggressive soldiers, veterans of a combined four wars, and famously unsympathetic to what they thought of as "shell shock," it's an unsettling question.

The fact that my father and grandfather reacted so violently to displays of battle fatigue among their men does make one wonder whether they themselves ever feared falling apart. In July 1943, at the height of his Seventh Army's successful offensive across Sicily, my grandfather notoriously slapped two soldiers who were being treated in field hospitals but who had no visible wounds: he considered them malingerers at best, cowards at worst. (As it turned out, one of the soldiers had been suffering from severe dysentery).

Similarly, near the end of the Korean War, in 1953, my father -- then a company commander -- learned that a young lieutenant had fled his frontline position during a firefight and soon found him sobbing in his tent. Dad struck the lieutenant with a steel helmet, drew his pistol on him and threatened to have him court-martialed for "misbehavior before the enemy," as he later told me. "And the penalty for misbehavior before the enemy is death!" he exclaimed. The soldier eventually returned to his post, but my father had him transferred out the next morning.

It's interesting that my father and grandfather could be so loyal to their soldiers but so insensitive in that way. Duty and faithfulness to their mission came before sympathy. Even though one of my father's favorite junior officers was diagnosed with severe PTSD years after Vietnam, Dad couldn't relate. The two men remained close friends but never really talked about it.

Today, PTSD is much more widely discussed and diagnosed but its social implications remain, in many respects, just as misunderstood as they were by my father. "Every soldier has two families -- the one they go to war with and the one back on the home front," notes Brigadier General (Ret.) Loree Sutton, MD, an army psychiatrist who was founding director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury. "The profound intensity of survival-based relationships forged in battle makes it challenging to reintegrate family ties on the home front, where 'life and death' concerns are replaced by more mundane realities."

Retired Sergeant First-Class Justin Widhalm, a 34 year-old veteran of the war in Iraq who was treated for PTSD at the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Carson, Colorado, told me that "talking about the stuff that happened to you to a caring listener is often the only thing that helps you work through it." Yet Master Sergeant Jason Gallegos, then a patient at the same WTU, stunned me when he said that even when people ask him about his wartime experience, they often tune out after 30 seconds. Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told me that about 350,000 men and women in uniform will be returning to civilian communities over each of the next several years. Many of them will be largely isolated from those they once fought alongside, or other veterans who might understand.

This, my father and grandfather would have easily understood. As my grandfather wrote in his diary after the end of WWII in Europe, "Another war has ended and with it my usefulness to the world. It is for me personally a very sad thought. Now all that is left to do is to sit around and await the arrival of the undertaker...." Cynics might say he was lucky, having been fatally injured in a freak car accident in Germany the day before he was scheduled to leave for the States for good in late 1945. He never had to re-enter civilian life.

When my father retired at 56, not a day went by when he didn't want to be back with his fellow soldiers. The longing for that lost camaraderie was so strong that he started an annual reunion with a handful of former colleagues. (Today, eight years after his death, their families still gather every year). More times than I can count, Dad would shock my friends by recounting a random battle in gory detail -- perhaps this was his way of reconciling traumatic memories? What I do know is that it helped him connect back to an intense and unforgettable period in his life.

Growing up, my siblings and I were taught that it was our duty to be good listeners, especially to veterans who wanted to talk about their wartime experiences. My mother said that if a soldier ever asked if we were related to 'Ol Blood and Guts,' we were simply to say, "Yes! Did you know him?" and then just listen. It's worked: I've heard some incredible stories over the years and at some point caught on to how great they were and started recording them.

In 2000, at age 76, my father began to exhibit signs of dementia related to his Parkinson's disease. As it progressed, my mother would routinely call me or one of my siblings to say that my dad wanted to speak to "the officer of the day." Then he would come on the line and ask if our unit had dry socks or enough hot food. Heartbreaking as it was, listening had its value there as well.

All of this underscores the need for each one of us -- particularly those like myself, who, as my dad often reminded me, "have never had to miss a meal or hear a shot fired in anger" -- to do our part. War takes a piece out of everyone it touches, and we're all in this together. So this Memorial Day, try to spend a few minutes with a veteran. Give him or her a chance to talk. And listen.

You may be amazed at what happens next.

Benjamin Patton is co-author of newly released Berkley book, Growing Up Patton, and founder of the Patton Veterans Project.