As part of the Veteran's Day service in Keene, a set of plaques honoring residents who had served in World War II were unveiled by Neil Hendricson and Frank Huchro, Sr., who both served in that conflict. Currently there are no combat veterans of World War I still living, the last, Florence Green a member of the RAF, having died at age 110 in February of last year. Roughly 1.7 million World War II veterans are still living in the United States.
"I'm glad that I made it safely home from my LST 36 service, and from my destroyer escort service with the Alexander J. Luke 577," said Neil Hendricson. "It felt great, just great to make it home."
The relief of returning home for all too many is not an easy transition as outcomes of combat can stay with a person for the rest of their life, impact their relationships and work, and create difficult obstacles to overcome well documented by Keene resident Tom Smith in his new book "Facing PTSD."
Tom Smith, author of Facing PTSD
Smith served in Vietnam. He was a helicopter scout pilot for the 1st Cavalry Division. His job was to locate the enemy, often by flying just above the treetops at a fairly slow rate of speed, and call in their location bringing in air support. Of course once he noticed them, they tended to notice him and attempted to shoot him down, a few times successfully. Scout pilots had a 50 percent survival rate. His experience in Vietnam was recoded in his first book "Easy Target."
As Robert Hesselbein, a Vietnam AH-1G Cobra pilot wrote about Smith's account, "Our scout pilots combined extraordinary courage with bravado as they did their daily reconnaissance missions. Their mission was very personal at times, often engaging in very tight "knife fights" just feet above the jungle trees."
Those very personal engagements have been taking place throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and come at a very heavy price, one of which is PTSD, which Smith knows intimately, and unlike many, has the courage the write about as openly as he did about his experience in drawing enemy fire.
"On Memorial Day and Veteran's Day I get a little bit angry about all the people who lost their lives," said Smith after the service. "Don't get me wrong, I am grateful for these events and for the community support, and the chance to connect with other veterans, but it does bring back memories."
"What inspired you to write about your experience of living with PTSD?" I asked as we sat down on a porch at his house.
"The singular nature of the experience. It is sort of like being pregnant; you never know what it is like until you go through it," said Smith. "I wanted to share it. PTSD is like the elephant in the room. I wanted to speak about the thing that we all know is there but are afraid to mention. I tried to create an easy read about a difficult subject that many people don't want to talk about."
"I actually wanted to write this as my first book, but I wrote "Easy Target" first to get the experience of writing and because it was a hot topic. I wrote "Facing PTSD" not only for veterans, but for people who live with and love veterans. I had two traumatic experiences, the first was being a combat pilot, a scout, and the second living in a combat zone, living in an environment of fear on a daily basis and in an environment where the people don't want you to be there."
"There are 24 million diagnosed cases of PTSD in the United States, which includes not only combat veterans but police, firemen, first responders and others who have had traumatic experiences. I think people are more afraid of PTSD than reading about my experience with PTSD."
"How would you describe PTSD?" I asked.
"PTSD is insidious," said Smith. "It is woven into the fabric of your life. The trauma grows roots that spread through you. By the time you become aware of PTSD it is a part of you. Because it is a part of you, a part of every aspect of you, it has access to your thoughts and feelings. It influences every aspect of your life. Things are not as funny as they seem to be and things that are serious you take too seriously. You become a different person. That's when you become aware of PTSD."
"What motivated me to spend six years writing this book is because as I became more aware I saw that the Army was only dealing with the clinical aspect of the disease. They are doing wonderful work on that frontier but they are not getting to the heart of it. My initial motivation was survivor's guilt, which is the same thing as PTSD. I view myself as an auto ethnographer, I am trying to use my own experience to help others understand PTSD. Not everyone can do group therapy. I feel that there are more guys out there like me who have to fight with it every day. Living with PTSD changes you. It causes intrusive thoughts."
"My intrusive thought, the one that woke me to my living with PTSD, was imagining knifing my wife in the back. I would never do that, but that thought got my attention. That is what really led me to writing this book."
"I think it is important for veterans to access other people's stories. They are not alone. They can benefit greatly from reading other people's experiences and how they dealt with the disease. "Military Life" and "Stars and Stripes" are great resources. The stories can help family members learn how to deal with a veteran. I am very lucky that my wife stuck with me through it all. I apologized a lot. I will say to a spouse that is living with a veteran, if there is ever any violence it is time to leave."
"One thing you can count on is time. I believe in the healing benefit of time and distractions, which is different than escapes like drugs and alcohol. Distractions can be a walk in the woods, for me it is running and writing. You can learn to dismiss the thoughts. Yoga breathing is extremely helpful. I use as holistic approach as I can, yoga, exercise and good food. I can feel when its coming. I feel exhausted. Then I have to get ready."
Tom Smith's book Facing PTSD is available on Amazon.com. I highly recommend it and retreats provided by Creative Healing Connections and Soldier's Heart.