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By John Ketwig (reviewer)
Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War
by Penny Coleman
(Beacon Press, 2006)
Author Penny Coleman married Daniel O'Donnell, a Vietnam veteran, in the early 1970s. They were young photographers, striving to make their mark upon the world. Daniel was a Vietnam veteran, and he drank too much and smoked too much pot. Things deteriorated to a point that Penny tried to distance herself, and Daniel attempted to commit suicide. "I can see now that he was just a kid who tried to stay alive in a situation that exploded all the rules he had ever lived by," she writes. She left him, and was already married to someone else when his sister called to tell her that Daniel had taken his own life. Penny believed his death was her fault, and she "crept into a psychic lair to lick (her) wounds in private." After a time, she was able to go on with her life, but deep inside she was plagued with guilt and shame, and constant fear that there was something wrong with her, something that might cause her relationships to end the same way.
In the late 1980s, she ran across some literature about PTSD and Vietnam veterans, and the symptoms of PTSD sounded familiar. "In the suggestion that perhaps it had not all been my fault, I found some room to breathe. Finding my way to the surface has been a long and slow process. It would be dishonest to suggest that the process is complete, but writing this book has surely moved it along."
Flashback was published fourteen years ago, and it does not appear to have been a best-seller. It should have been. This is a terrific book, filled with many poignant messages from the survivors of Vietnam veteran suicides.
Today, fourteen years later, we are still experiencing the pandemic of active-duty military and veteran suicides that Penny Coleman was trying to prevent when she wrote her book. "The US military defines collateral damage as 'unintentional or incidental damage' occurring as a result of military actions. Such damage not only can occur; it inevitably does. I am not now talking about the civilian casualties that occurred in Vietnam during what they call the American War," she writes. "The collateral damage I am talking about is here, in this country, and it has been effectively hidden from sight. It consists of those soldiers whose names are not included on the lists of MIAs or WIAs or KIAs, though they are in a very real sense missing, wounded, or dead, even if by their own hands. And it includes those of us they abandoned when they chose not to go on. Together we became collateral damage when they brought their wounded bodies and minds home to us."
Flashback is about a large, troubling number of Vietnam veterans as told by their widows and children. Their stories are heart-wrenching and, truth be told, all too familiar. As a Vietnam vet diagnosed with "severe" PTSD (which I insist the VA describe as Post-Traumatic Stress DAMAGE), too many passages in this book were like looking into a hand-held mirror! "The emotional wounds and suicides among soldiers are neither an anomaly nor an aberration," Penny Coleman tells us. "They are inevitable." She gets it! "To date, no cure short of abstinence from war has proven to be reliable." Yes! She gets it, and her advice is spot-on. Today, after eighteen years of war in Afghanistan and sixteen in Iraq, a whole new generation of veterans are coming home troubled and hurting.
I had never encountered real-life suicide until basic training at Fort Dix. Surely, the preparation for war is, in many cases, as deadly as combat itself. We were appalled in basic training, at the physical and mental abuse afforded us by the cadre. We had never been treated with such disrespect, and yes, physical abuse, as we encountered during basic training. The military intends to "break" each and every recruit, and rebuild them as a mindless robot ready to obey without question, even if the sergeant's command will inevitably lead to one's maiming or death. Looking back on it all now, I understand that participation in a war, in combat, offers a great personal career opportunity to a military officer. Promotions are judged by the candidate's "daring" and "fearlessness" but modern warfare has segregated the commanders from the cannon fodder. In Vietnam, far too often their acts of "bravery" ordered lower-ranking GIs into a meat grinder. So widespread was this problem, by 1971 our military was routinely defying orders, refusing to go where they would be unnecessarily threatened, and so the war effort in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos had to be abandoned. Sadly, we have not seen similar refusals from the all-volunteer military.
In Vietnam, what we witnessed was man's inhumanity toward his fellow man on a scale that had never happened throughout human history, and today's young soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan are seeing even worse! The American way of waging war is, at its core, genocide. Whether it be fireballs of flaming napalm or white phosphorous, lethal defoliants containing dioxin, (the most toxic substance known to man), depleted uranium, the damage done by 750 lb. bombs, "MOAB" (the Mother of All Bombs), or guided missiles carried on drones, our high-tech weapons do terrible damage to the bodies of human beings, and the sight of men, women, and children ripped and torn by such weapons tattoos the mind of the beholder with indelible ink.
The vast majority of American soldiers come home, settle back into society as best they can, and they create families. The problem is, the military that changed them into obedient killers before sending them to war does not care to try to change them back before sending them home. If you wonder how that has worked out, read Flashback. It is a shockingly tragic story, a story told by the surviving wives and children of America's fine young soldiers who have come home and taken their own lives.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC displays the names of 58, 317 American soldiers who were killed in America's war in Vietnam. The experts tell us more than 200,000, and probably more than 300,000 Vietnam veterans have taken their own lives since returning home! Flashback is a small book, but it chronicles the tragedy of those suicides, and their effects upon the survivors, like no other book I've ever found. Highly recommended!
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of two books about the Vietnam War.