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Page 52
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Tear by Tear

By Michael Orange

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There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.—Washington Irving

Years ago, I recall trying to describe to a college student what a search and destroy mission felt like. I asked him to take an imaginary trip the next time he was in a sauna. "Picture yourself dressed from head to toe in clothes including a heavy armored vest, boots, and a steel helmet. Now add sixty pounds of gear, ammo, and a rifle. That's about twice the normal weight for a backpacking trip. Now imagine stepping up and down off of the sauna bench to approximate the energy needed to fight your way through the thick mud and triple canopy jungles. After you've done this for two hours, take a twenty-minute rest. After a day of this, imagine digging a hole in which you will sleep for four hours and stand guard for another two. Then repeat." I paused, then added, "Oh, I forgot to mention that while mosquitoes, spiders, ants, centipedes, and snakes are driving you crazy, the well-armed locals will be trying to kill you with ambushes and booby traps." I think he got the picture.

The mid-August temperature topped a hundred degrees in St. Paul a few years ago but the evening's deluge relieved the atmosphere's pent-up energy. I donned my poncho and settled in on a lawn chair in the middle of our backyard patio. The rain splashed into the night's second brandy.

The splatter echoing within my hood triggered a flood of emotive memories of nights on patrol. I vividly recalled the exhaustion of humping through tropical heat so stifling I could feel sweat boil out of my skin. How sweat couldn't cool; it could only salt the meal for the mosquitoes and flies. How the smell of my rotting feet matched what oozed from feted paddy muck. How the foxhole I carved out of Vietnam's red soil was just large enough for a cross-legged crouch with my M16 across my lap. How the memories never fade.

A Minnesota thunderstorm is no match for Vietnam's. The roar of a Vietnam downpour could drown out all but a shout between our perimeter foxholes.

Sitting in a comfortable chair within the security of my back yard, a shiver coursed down from my shoulders and I recalled the bone-rattling cold of nights sitting half-submerged in a hole. But I knew that my enemy had it worse and that the rain made an attack unlikely. An uncomfortable protector.

I finished my brandy and came inside to the non-judging acceptance of my befuddling behaviors from my loving wife, Cynthia, profoundly appreciative of the preciousness of my life and the opportunity to love and be loved.

I completed PTSD therapy in 2004. Embedded in the word re-cover is the implication that covering over emotional experiences again is a good thing. We need a better word. I suggest embrace. A friend who also suffered from PTSD told me about the advice from the group therapist at the VA. He used driving a bus as a metaphor for staying alive. "Don't turn around, just keep driving; and, whatever you do, don't get off the bus." The patients are not to figuratively turn around because behind them riding on the bus are the ghosts that are their PTSD sources. "Getting off the bus" is code for suicide. Based on my PTSD therapy, I'd give very different advice. I'd tell them to stop the bus and not start again until they had gotten to know every one of their ghosts and embraced them as their teachers.

Claude Anshin Thomas confirms this advice in his book, At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace: "Healing is not the absence of suffering. What happens is that through this process of being more present to my own life, I stop attempting to reject suffering. This is healing and transformation ... I breathe in and breathe out, and I am grateful to be free to touch these emotions, to establish a different relationship with them, to be able to have the possibility to make different choices in my life."

My therapist, Thomas, asked if there was a key thing that would keep me on track. It was the easiest question he'd asked. "Cynthia," I said; "My relationship with Cynthia." More important than Thomas, my retreat with Thich Nhat Hahn, the books I read, and all of the friends and family who helped me, were the decades of non-judgmental love, patience, compassion, and acceptance from Cynthia. She has stood by me since 1973 when we married. With saint-like patience and wisdom, she listened intently to my descriptions of every one of my forty-four sessions with Thomas. She has a gift. With silence—almost stillness—she drew me out before I learned how much she saw all along. She anticipated my needs, served as my advocate for my medical leave of absence from my job, and offered her wisdom and love as the healing balm for my wounds and inadequacies. For every hour I spent in a chair opposite Thomas in his office, I spent one or more at home opposite Cynthia sharing the experience of my therapy, my reading, and my writing.

The tremendous burden of it all for Cynthia far outweighed the sum of the hours spent listening, absorbing, sorting, remembering, suggesting, and controlling her own emotional reactions. There is a special burden of carrying the whole, as one friend put it. My therapy and my PTSD were unwelcome presences that crowded our relationship. For those nine months, the default setting of my brain when it wasn't engaged in something else was PTSD, therapy, and writing. It generated a primordial low rumble that vibrated beneath my thoughts and dreams. It was a toothache that refused to recede into the background noise of everyday pains. She never complained although I'm sure compassion fatigue was very real for her. Like an alchemist, she continues to help me transform the poison of war into an alloy that makes me stronger; that makes us stronger.

I could have been drawn down the same suicidal path two of my fellow Marines took. After nearly five decades of marriage, during which she bore the brunt of my PTSD symptoms, she had the incredible patience to hold my hand every step of the way as I waded back through the jungle muck; the exploded bodies; and the betrayals by parents, church, and country. I know it was exhausting work for her.

PTSD poses serious tests to a relationship. Considering all of the attention we pay to honor the sacrifices of our soldiers and veterans, why is there no national holiday or marble monument to commemorate their loved ones who help repair the damage and who cope with the loss?

Thomas said it well, "Cynthia's such an important person for you, helping you home finally from Vietnam, tear by tear."

Michael Orange's book, Fire in the Hole: A Mortarman in Vietnam (2001), described his wartime experiences as a Marine. His new book, Embracing the Ghosts: PTSD and the Vietnam Quagmire (2021), describes the lessons he gleaned from the PTSD therapy he completed three decades after coming home.

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