THE HEALING POWER OF WORDS

Years ago I read a book. It didn’t change my life but it started me on a journey of understanding and accommodating my reaction to combat. By the mid-70’s, now home from Vietnam 5 years and functioning remarkably well, I had no concerns about trauma (what we now call PTSD) apart from my annual PMS, around September 14th. I’d recovered from extensive surgeries; I was now a working actor and in an enduring and loving relationship. It’s all good, right?

DISPATCHES, written by Michael Herr, remains one of my favorite books about combat in Vietnam. His electric prose had the curious ability to return me to the jungle and the delta, instantly, utterly. One passage continues to serve me today. Herr described a truth we all knew but rarely expressed to civilians: that our time in war was the most resonant, glorious, compelling experience in our lives. It was fine to share how wretched and disgusting and heartbreaking our missions had been…and we did. But accepting that it was a duality, that it was both the best and the worst time of our lives put internal strife to rest, not one or the other but both, simultaneously. Somehow, that had never occurred to me and knowing that truth was calming.

Sometimes we get to a place where we can hear what is being said to us…or have something said in a way that resonates with our own being. It might be something we’ve heard a thousand times…and we are finally ready to ‘get it’.

By the mid-80’s, now removed from war for 15 years, my life was in disarray. I was depressed (but not diagnosed or medicated), self-destructive, temperamental, and manifestly unhappy. Although I spent hours each week in locked detox and psych wards of the New York VA system, I was living in denial, denying my own need for treatment. A Vietnam Veterans of America chapter member performed an act of great kindness. He gave to me a book called LONG TIME PASSING –Vietnam and the Haunted Generation, written by Myra McPherson. It was a thick book, more than 700 pages and it contained hundreds of interviews –with soldiers, their wives and children, their parents and relatives. As I read these stories, I recognized my own pain and found myself saying quietly, “My God, that’s me. That’s me…”

That’s what it took to persuade me to ask for help…and help was mercifully offered, by Dr. Victor DeFazio, a psychologist who worked only with policemen and veterans. He gave me back my life, my mental wellbeing and I am eternally in his debt. He identified several issues troubling me, including PTSD, Survivor Guilt and Anniversary Syndrome. Vic encouraged me to begin writing down my memories, which led to a body of essays and eventually to the publication of my book, RETURN TO EDEN. I went back to Vietnam on Christmas Day, 2004, to the village of Tan Nhut 5, which I’d helped defend with my citizen soldiers, back in 1969. I published my book in 2006 and have been heartened by the kind words of reviewers and from veteran readers. My intention was to add to the body of insight, to help resolve some enduring conflict in another veteran’s heart.

I’ve encouraged all who bought it to share it with some one who has been touched by war. We will never be the same, we’ve seen and know too much…but we can enjoy a quality of life that is elusive to so many who’ve served and come home damaged. Their sacrifice deserves at least that much from us.

13 March 2009

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