"A RADICAL EXPERIENCE" Whitcomb.
NAME | Ron Whitcomb
AGE | 66
THE BASICS | Deployed to Vietnam in 1968, in the 9th Infantry Division
• Co-facilitator of “Operation Vet 2 Vet” Wellness groups at the Providence VA
• Serves on Advisory Counsel for the State of Rhode Island’s ASTR (Alternative Sentencing, Trauma Recovery) or “Veterans Treatment Court” Program
HIS WORDS | I didn’t have [PTSD] for 20 years. I was a really happy person when I got home. And then . . . Vietnam just was flooding me. I couldn’t go a minute without thinking about it. It was almost like a picture was rolling behind everything. I could be talking to you and behind you would be an ongoing movie of Vietnam. I just couldn’t ever get it out of my consciousness. And then I just lost myself after I [had been] home for 20 years. I had extreme depression, anxiety, panic attacks — anything and everything. And I had a really rough ten years. It got easier at the end, but for the first four years, I could barely breathe from depression. I didn’t know who I was for a little while. And I had a very rough time. I’m very grateful for my recovery
[PTSD] is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, and the person that experiences it has got to get used to a new normal. I will never be the same kid that I was, drafted at 19, but I’ve gotten my old self back and better. With a lot of work, recovery’s possible and the veterans shouldn’t give up and their family and civilians shouldn’t give up on them. It’s easy to look at somebody and say, “Jeez, they’re crazy.” But it’s not crazy. PTSD isn’t about you; it’s about what you went through.
For a lot of men, it’s hard to be a man and admit that you have a problem so big that you can’t deal with it yourself. And PTSD is bigger than most people can deal with. I’m a firm believer in getting help for it. My help was mostly talking. I would never say anything that I did [during war] to my friends and relatives. But I [have done] mostly talk therapy for the last 24 years. And I just needed to say things. I just needed to say them out loud and just that really takes a lot of power away from whatever it is I’m saying.
A lot of veterans present to me that their relatives, their spouse, their friends — they don’t understand them. And what I say to most veterans is, “Well, you know, you can tell your wife that she doesn’t have to understand, that you don’t expect her to. That really lets them off the hook.” Because, just like if their wife was trying to explain to them what it was like to have a baby, they’re never going to understand. So the civilian population is never going to quite grasp what war is like. And I don’t think it’s fair to expect them to.
I could talk to you all day. You’re not going to get it completely because you’re not in a war zone with someone trying to kill you for a year. It’s really quite a radical experience.
Philip Eil can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @phileil.