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Veteran's Day 2012: A Tribute

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On Veteran's Day, we found ourselves thinking about the men and women who have served our country. Their bravery, their courage, their dedication.

Throughout my career as a physical therapist and psychologist, I have had the opportunity to work with our military: first at West Point Military Academy, and then at the Baltimore Veteran's Medical Center and the Houston VA. It was an honor to get to work at each of these places, and I have fond memories of many of my clients and co-workers.

One particular individual, however, has been etched into my memory forever. For the sake of anonymity, I will call him Bob. When I met Bob during my psychology internship, he was in his late 50s. Despite being out of the military for more than three decades, he has just "discovered" that he was eligible for services from the government.

Bob was an incredibly resilient man who had been through much more than he deserved... I have always wanted to share Bob's story so people could better grasp what our service people have done for our country and for us -- both on the battlefield and for years after.

Briefly, here, I want to share his story.

Bob was 17 years old when he enlisted in the Army. At that time (1967), you were supposed to have parental permission. Somehow Bob was able to enlist without his parents knowing. When he told his father, a veteran himself, Bob explained, "That was the only time in my life my dad told me he was proud of me."

Following nine weeks in basic training, Bob was sent off to Vietnam. "I was excited to get over there and win the war. I had no idea what I was getting into."

I don't know about you, but when I was 17 years old, I was stressing out about the prom. Bob, though, was stressed out about living. Every. Single. Minute. Of every single day.

Within days of being there, Bob saw one of his friends killed right next to him. And things just got worse from there. I won't describe what he told me. Most of us have seen movies depicting war. From what I learned, it was like Apocalypse Now -- experienced on a daily basis.

What I found most heart-wrenching, though, was that the atrocities that Bob described were in such striking detail, as if they had happened just yesterday. And yet, it was more than 30 years later.

For him, though, they had occurred yesterday. And the day before. And the day before. They took place every night when he closed his eyes and tried to get sleep. They took place in vivid flashbacks during the day when he was awake. The blood, the screams, the smells, the fear, and the horror.

Some 366 days after Bob left as an innocent young man, he returned to the United States a wounded soldier. Physically, he was the same as he had left. Aside from that, he was a completely different individual.

At that time, no one was talking about post-traumatic stress disorder. There was no Internet where Bob could Google his symptoms to see what was going on. He could not relate to his family or friends from home. He felt alone, depressed and angry. He was afraid to tell anyone about his flashbacks reliving the events, while at the same time not remember massive chunks of time. He didn't want to share his strong thoughts about hurting himself or others. He was afraid people would judge him even more than society was already judging those involved in Vietnam.

"The way people reacted, I realized what a horrible person I was. Who could have done all the things I did over there if I was the good guy I used to think I was. I realized how evil I really was."

Perhaps ironically, things only got even worse when Bob was honorably discharged at the end of his tour. While other soldiers had received medical or even culinary training while in the Army, Bob learned reconnaissance. He was the soldier who goes first, before the rest of his troop, to scout out the safety of an area. As he described it: "I had no idea what to do when I got out. The only thing I had been trained in was being a point man."

After trying to find various legitimate jobs and getting fired for his trouble concentrating and angry outbursts (his PTSD), Bob started his own "business." He became a burglar. "I didn't want to do it. But it was the only thing I was good at. I never held a gun to anyone. I would never have hurt anyone one who wasn't trying to hurt me. I just needed to make money so I could live."

Bob recounted one rather in-depth scheme where he camped out and surveyed a jewelry store for more than two weeks. "I used what the Army taught be about reconnaissance. I learned when people came and left, how they locked up, and how I could get in and out without getting caught."

Eventually, though, Bob did get caught and incarcerated. This 6'3" man was placed in a jail cell for the first time when he was 22. He would spend the rest of his life adult life more frequently in jail than not.

It was in prison that Bob tried heroine for the first time and got addicted. He learned how to make methamphetamine and even created a meth lab with a man he met in prison during a brief time that he was out. A smart man, Bob learned the prison culture rather quickly and realized what he had to do to establish his sense of authority. Part of this included getting tattoos in rather visible places, such as his neck and hands. In prison, this ink was apparently a sign of domination. Of course, out of prison, it made it difficult to get a place of legal employment.

Throughout all of this, Bob's PTSD got worse. His nightmares prevented him from wanting to close his eyes, so he was sleep deprived. His hypervigilance and paranoia prevented relationships with friends or significant others. His depression resulted in a suicide attempt (something that caused him more psychological stress because, as he described, "I even failed at killing myself!"). His angry outbursts, both verbal and physical, caused others and even Bob to view him as a bad man.

There was a constant barrage of internal dialogue telling him: "You are no good. You are evil. No one likes you. You can trust no one. You are what is wrong in this world." You can imagine what these thoughts do to one's sense of worth.

What I saw, though, when I got the chance to work with Bob, was the innocent 17-year-old young man hidden under layers of anger and terror. Yes, Bob did some pretty violent and illegal things during his life. But inside he was a good, kind person who just wanted to be loved. Like my children who love to dress up in costumes, Bob was hidden in a guise of meanness and disdain that was not really him. It covered his fear, his helplessness, his innocence. Sadly, he didn't know that and neither did most of those around him.

One day when Bob was in his early 50s, after decades of continually breaking the law, being in jail, and destroying relationships with family and friends, Bob's world changed.

"I was in my (prison) cell talking to another guy who was ex-Army. He told me about this thing called PTSD. I could not believe that I wasn't the only one going through this. I couldn't believe that for 30 years I was so alone, thinking there was something wrong with me." While still incarcerated, he started working with the Veteran's Administration to get the help he needed and so deserved.

I wish I had a happy ending to this story. I would love to tell you that, after my time working with Bob, he was completely cured. He was not. Yes, he was making positive strides. But when I left that VA because my training was over, Bob was still struggling with the experiences he had as a result of combat. And he was still convinced that he was a bad man. Good people do some not-so-good things. I worked so hard to help Bob understand that.

Not all veterans have the same story as Bob. I would, however, bet that most have stories that are challenging and painful, even decades later.

So, to Bob and all the other men and women who devoted their lives to our freedom, I say thank you. Please forgive us for not always helping you the way you need help.

And to the rest of us, let's remember that the effects of their service do not end once they are no longer actively in the military. Veterans continue to give us significant parts of their lives, even years after their duty is over.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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