In 1868, the nation set aside the last Monday in May to remember and honor those who had died in her battles. Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day, and people placed wreaths and bouquets on the graves of the fallen from the Civil War.
One hundred forty-four years later -- seven declared or undeclared wars and dozens of incursions, clashes and confrontations since Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse -- it's still fitting and proper to honor the fallen. But it is every bit as fitting and proper to honor those who have been scarred, visibly or invisibly, by combat. Many combat wounds don't show, and yet the invisible scars can be every bit as painful, every bit as debilitating, last as long and hurt as deeply as any physical injury.
Today it's called post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. It's been around as long as war itself. Greek soldiers in the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. experienced it on the battlefield and after they'd returned home. In our own country's history, thousands and thousands of Civil War veterans suffered from "soldier's heart." In WWI, WWII and Korea, it was called shell shock or combat fatigue. During the Vietnam War, the military didn't want to admit that anything was wrong. So lots of retuning vets went undiagnosed and were just considered weird or screwed up when they came home.
PTSD wasn't acknowledged and listed in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1980. The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, the authoritative medical classification list published by the World Health Organization to code diseases, signs and symptoms, abnormal findings, complaints, social circumstances and external causes of injury or diseases, did not list PTSD until 1992.
And now we have new generations of Americans who have witnessed the abject horror of war and its effect on even the strongest human spirit. They understand the brain-numbing reality of living every hour of every day knowing you could be killed or maimed at almost any time. They understand that to survive in war, you have to be able to kill other people and make incredible deals with yourself to make it okay. They understand that you have to demonize the enemy, even minimize their humanity and turn them into less than people because that makes it easier to kill them. They may have experienced the shock and white-hot anger at losing a buddy. And they assuredly understand that, when snipers have your unit pinned down, or IEDs are detonating, or when you're in the middle of a firefight, all the speeches about building a democracy or keeping the world safe from terrorism are bilious BS. They understand that, in war, the world doesn't extend beyond them and their immediate comrades.
Then, at some point, they come home, where nobody understands any of this. No one knows what they've been through, what they've seen, what they've been called on to do. All they can do is try to forget and put it all behind. It is not easy. And many never do.
"I am blind to beauty for I have seen the ugliness of war, my heart discard my soul's an open sore, my spirits broken and my body is not well, for I have seen the smoke and fire and passed through the gates of hell, I've held a dying man grasping for last breath and been surrounded by the taste of death and the smell of fear, I've buried both friend and foe in fields where no crops will ever grow, there is no honor in taking of a life, and I have done so with my rifle and my knife, and I do not sleep well at night, for in my dreams I still fight, and the enemy I see is a soldier... and it's me."
-- Kevan Lyons
This Memorial Day, honor those who have fallen in service to the nation. They have given the last full measure and they surely deserve our respect and gratitude. But take just a minute to honor those who fought in our wars and lived. For many, their battles are far from over.
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For more on PTSD, click here.
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