“Shrapnel must make its way to the surface and be removed; similarly, traumatic events need catharsis and witness.”
–Dr. Edward Tick, War and the Soul
Anyone who has studied war or its after effects in any depth has probably heard simply that “war is hell.” That’s it. Nothing more.
Iraq War veteran and author Tyler Bourdreau disagrees:
“They say that war is hell, but I say it’s the foyer to hell. I say coming home is hell, and hell ain’t got no coordinates. You can’t find it on the charts, because there are no charts. Hell is no place at all, so when you’re there, you’re nowhere — you’re lost.”
Oftentimes, veterans who have come home from war remain “lost” because of our society’s reluctance to shine a light into the otherwise dim and neglected recesses of war’s after effects.
“There are guys who come home from war,” Bourdreau continues, “and live fifty years without a narrative, fifty years lost. They don’t know their own story, never have, and never will. But they’re moving amidst the text every day and every long night without even realizing it…. They live inside the narrative like a cell, and their only escape is to understand its dimensions.”
For the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to piece together my grandfather’s narrative — the “truth” about what happened to him during the Battle of Okinawa. Before I started my research, I knew next to nothing of his experiences, yet I know from his behavior that something must have happened. For him, the war did not end on the battlefield — it followed him home and had a life-changing effect on both him and his family. The trauma he survived reverberated through the generations, leaving no one in our family unaffected.
I know from his discharge papers that he was assigned to Company A of the 193rd Tank Battalion, which was attached to the 27th Infantry Division. My father knew that Grandpa had been a tank driver. Armed with that information, I tracked down nearly every book and article I could find on the Battle of Okinawa, looking for any reference to the 193rd. It wasn’t long before I found that my grandfather had fought in a devastating battle on April 19th, 1945, that resulted in “the greatest one-day loss of U.S. armor in the Okinawa Campaign.”
A couple of months ago, I discovered that my grandfather’s battalion’s “Operational Report” was being stored at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. I contacted one of the archivists there and they sent me copies of those records.
Here’s what the commander of the 193rd wrote, in part, in his report on April 19th:
“As the first tanks neared TA 8176B, they were taken under fire by a 47mm AT gun from the left flank. Two (2) flamethrowers and three (3) tanks were hit by this gun before it was spotted and destroyed by the Assault Gun platoon. From approximately 0830, when the movement of all tanks across was completed, to 1200, the remaining tanks, assault guns and flamethrowers remained around the town of Kakazu, moving to various firing positions and firing on enemy installations and personnel on the South side of Kakazu ridge, to the flanks and along the base of the prominent ridge from TA 7976H to 8075B. During this time five (5) tanks, one (1) flamethrower and two (2) assault guns were disabled by mines of various types which were buried indiscriminately over the entire area. One (1) assault gun stuck in a bog and the crew was later forced to abandon it. They were also subjected to intense artillery fire and mortar fire, but with little damaging effect.”
Shortly after the war ended, a small group of Army historians set out to write the official history of the Battle of Okinawa. The resulting book, Okinawa: The Last Battle was based not only on records like the ones I had found, but also on (1) manuscript histories of the units that fought there; (2) interviews with the combatants; and (3) official records, including Japanese records and prisoner-of-war interrogations.
Here’s what they had to say about the battle for Kakazu Ridge. Notice the differences, not only in terms of the particulars, but also in the depth of what was reported:
“As the tanks moved down the road in column, a 47mm antitank gun, firing from a covered position to the left on the edge of Nishibaru Ridge, destroyed four tanks with sixteen shots, without receiving a single shot in return.”
“[The 193rd Tank Battalion arrived] in Kakazu shortly after 1000. They moved around and through the village, spreading fire and destruction; Kakazu was completely shot up and burned during the next three hours. Fourteen American tanks were destroyed in and around the village, many by mines and 47mm antitank guns, others by suicide close-attack units, and more by artillery and mortar fire…. A majority of the tank crew members were still living after the tanks had been disabled, but many were killed by enemy squads that forced the turret lids open and threw in grenades.”
What did my grandfather have to say about this battle?
Not a word.
He never told anybody about what happened that day. Like most men in his generation, my grandfather preferred silence to expressing how he felt about the horrors of combat and the struggles and emotions of coming home.
I wish he had met someone who could have helped him tell his story and share it with others. After all, if your life does not become a story, silence will become the story of your life.
Many veterans — and their families — are surprised at how difficult it is to come home from war. Many, according to Dr. Charles Hoge, “expect that they’ll just need a little time for things to go back to ‘normal,’ but find that ‘normal’ is elusive and time is relative.”
Indeed, many returning veterans feel a strange sense of alienation from their friends and family. And when they try to bridge this gap by sharing their stories, they are often met with interest and concern at first, followed by a kind of awe that eventually turns to bewilderment.
When he first got home from his second and final combat deployment, Brett Foley found that his friends and family did not — could not — understand exactly what he had been through. His stories were often met with an incredulous stare or a polite shaking of the head. His listeners would wait patiently to find humor in his words, wondering — hoping — that his memories had been concocted, that his war wasn’t really that bad. Who can blame us, really? We, the uninitiated, have never been exposed to the misery, cruelty, and absurdity of war.
According to journalist and author Sebastian Junger, “War is so obscene that even the people who supported it don’t want to hear the details or acknowledge their role.”
It’s this lack of acknowledgment that is not only unhealthy, but potentially dangerous. The most destructive challenge veterans face, Junger continues, “is the sense that their country doesn’t quite realize that it — and not just the soldiers — went to war.”
Why Should Veterans Tell Their Stories?
No one knows the sacrilege of war better than those who fought it and now have to live with the memories of what they have seen, what they have done, and what they have become. According to Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini, authors of Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War, “When veterans return to our communities after war, we owe it to them and to ourselves to do our best to support their recovery. To do so, however, we must be willing to engaged the same intense moral questions that veterans undertake about our own responsibility as a society for having sent them to war.”
Telling war stories, according to Dr. Edward Tick, author of War and the Soul, “knits the community together. It records or recreates the collective history and transforms actor and listeners alike into communal witnesses,” which has historically been an integral practice for most warrior societies.
In his book, What It Is Like to Go to War, Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes argues that, “A large part of treating PTSD is simply getting the veteran to remember and talk about what happened to him.” Once the talking begins, Marlantes has found, there’s a shift that makes the burden of war more manageable.
Take Misha Pemble-Belkin for example. After being profiled in Sebastian Junger’s book WAR, and the documentary “Restrepo,” Pemble-Belkin told the military newspaper Stars & Stripes that sharing his experiences was cathartic.
“Memories of friends claimed by the Korengal had trailed him home, triggering sporadic ‘night terrors’ that jarred him awake. On other occasions, his wife, Amanda DeVos, found him sleeping under a makeshift fighting position he built from furniture and blankets in the middle of the night.”
Pemble-Belkin added, “Seeing the movie and talking about it actually helped me. It kind of gave me a chance to work through things.”
Researchers have been examining the effects of writing and telling stories about traumatic experiences for more than three decades. They’ve found, among other benefits, that tellingstories about trauma improves both physical and psychological health. They’ve also found that it can improve immune function and help mend damaged relationships.
Telling such stories won’t work for everyone, of course, but overtime, doing so has helped many people better function in their day-to-day lives. Plus, there is no evidence that sharing stories of trauma is harmful.
As for how it works and why, psychologists say that confronting traumatic memories, rather than avoiding them, is central to feeling better.
Beyond that, organizing them into a coherent narrative helps make meaning of them, which causes them to be recalled more like other memories, says Joshua Smyth, a professor of biobehavioral health at Pennsylvania State University.
With time, when the traumatic memories are triggered, you feel less like you’re reliving them. “We can see on fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance images) that the neural representation can change,” Smyth says. “You can access the memory in a less traumatic way.”
Denise Sloan, a researcher and clinician at the VA’s National Center for PTSD, says writing for a half-hour a handful of times can be enough to make a difference. She also believes that writing may approximate the effectiveness of more conventional treatments, such as cognitive processing therapy. She is currently conducting a study comparing them and says that, so far, “the findings seem promising.”
What If a Veteran’s Stories Are Not Shared with the Community?
Not everyone agrees that the community as a whole needs to hear veterans’ stories. Vietnam veteran and philosopher Camillo “Mac” Bica, for example, has struggled with talking about his experiences to those who “weren’t there.”
“Unfortunately,” Bica says, “healing and coming home from war are difficult, complex, and perilous journeys of introspection and understanding. So, while it is important that veterans not be ostracized, shunned, or ignored should they want to talk, if healing is to occur, it must be with the help of others who have shared the experience, who know the horror firsthand. We are not helped through telling war stories to well-intentioned but voyeuristic civilians.”
“Our healing,” he continues does not require civilian understanding, sympathy, or compassion, nor is healing enhanced by civilian appreciation, respect, or admiration.”
At the same time, some veterans have actually been discouraged from telling their stories of war by their therapists. Isaac Bonilla, a Vietnam veteran who died a few years ago after battling the long-term effects of exposure to Agency Orange, told Dr. Edward Tick that in the 18 years he attended a hospital-based veterans therapy group, he and the other veterans were not allowed a single opportunity to tell their stories. The medical personnel there told him that telling his stories would upset him too much.
“My therapists counseled me to avoid stress by not remembering,” Bonilla said, “but that only locked my memories in the prison inside my head.”
What are the consequences of such silence?
In his book Achilles in Vietnam, Dr. Jonathan Shay warns about what happens — to both the veteran and his community — if the veteran’s stories are never shared:
“We can never fathom the soldier’s grief if we do not know the human attachment which battle nourishes and then amputates. Failure to communalize grief can imprison a person in endless swinging between rage and emotional deadness as a permanent way of being in the world.”
According to Kevin Sites, author of The Things They Cannot Say, “Without the demythologized, demystified, authentic experiences of war being shared by those most directly involved in it, society itself will remain ignorant of the real practice of war, its costs and consequences.”
There are at least two reasons to get your stories down on paper. The first reason is that telling your story can help you better control traumatic memories. This, however, requires only that the story be written. The second reason you should write down your stories is to educate those who didn’t see what you saw, which requires that your story be shared.
Those who didn’t fight need to know what happened, and they need to know about the struggles faced by those who did. At the same time, bearing witness can help veterans heal. It makes them less isolated and offers them a new mission. It softens the blow of leaving behind one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives because it is a way to stay connected to it.
Over the past four years, I have asked the veterans I work with to relive the worst memories of their lives — to expose his trauma to the light of day. In the end, having their stories of war validated by friends, family, and their respective communities has been a critical step in their journeys home.
Sharing the burden of war –and having it acknowledged — has helped them to understand and to heal.
Above all else, veterans need a way to talk about extremely painful experiences. They need a way to figure out what it means to survive and come home. And they need a way to turn off the disconnected numbness they were forced to turn on in order to survive combat.
As Dr. Tick has written: “In contrast to stress reduction strategies that counsel avoidance or disturbing memories, the healing cleansing of veterans can only occur when we relive memories and their accompanying feelings so that they may be expressed and relieved.”