Volume 2 Issue 6                                      July/August, 1997

  1. BEARING WITHNESS --by Nancy Smoyer
  3. EDITOR'S NOTE--by tbass

BEARING WITNESS (taken from VWAR-L by permission of Nancy Smoyer, author)

I keep thinking about what I want from being on this list. Do I want an audience, an outlet, a chat line, a laugh, a cry, to feel, to reexamine Vietnam (good and bad), to look at myself, at others. There was a wonderful scene at the end of the movie "Witness." The criminal was threatening to kill the Amish man when the boy rang the bell, calling the others in from the fields. They left their tools (potential weapons) in the field, came to the scene, and watched. They did nothing--they bore witness-- and that in itself was enough to stop the crime. I think that's what I want from friends, acquaintances--America in general. It's too late for them to take away the pain of Vietnam, or to prevent it from becoming full-blown in the first place. They had their chance and they blew it. So the best I can hope for or from them now is to bear witness--to listen when I want to talk, to be non-judgemental, to not even comment most of the time-- but just to listen, to be there. It's too late for me for them to do anything else. The "help" I want is, for the most part, from people who have been there, who have worn those shoes, walked those miles. Now, it's easy to talk in absolutes. There are whole groups of people (individuals, actually) who fuzz the line. These are people for whom Vietnam and its aftermath, have become almost as real as it is to the veteran. In fact, I suspect Vietnam is *as real* to them as it is to the veteran--it's just a different reality. Not having walked in their shoes, I can't speak about their reality although I have no doubt that people who live with PTSD take on some of the symtoms. I'm thinking mainly of women who live with veterans, but there are others, like friends, families and counselors. But still, I wonder (and I don't know about this) but I wonder if the best they can do for their veteran is to simply bear witness. Some of the best listening I've had has come from these veterans of another kind of war. I don't mean to imply that the veteran is the only one to whom this care and attention is due. As we've said many times on this list, pain is pain. One person's pain doesn't diminish another's. And I guess the best we can do is to try to be strong enough to hear that person's pain--or less dramatically, hear their story. Bear witness. And maybe, just maybe, by bearing witness, some of the pain will go away. ************************ After writing this a few days ago, I read an article by Jeffrey Jay, Director of the Center for Post- Traumatic Stress Studies & Treatment in Washington, D.C., called "Walls for Wailing" ("Commond Boundary," May/June, 1994). He addresses the response of the Jewish people to hundreds of years of trauma. His premise is that because the Jewish religion has traditional ceremonies, both at the time of the trauma or loss (the "kaddish") and at regular intervals throughout the year, which are participated in by the entire Jewish community--because of this sharing and recognition, the victims are not isolated in their grief and so are better able to integrate it into their lives. The contrast between that and the experience of Vietnam veterans is obvious. It occurs to me, though, that veterans have instead formed their own community, comprised of themselves and others who choose to share the trauma, complete with their own Wailing Wall and ceremonies like the one on Veterans Day.

Nancy Smoyer Red Cross Recreation Worker, aka, Donut Dollie,Vietnam '67-68


An open letter to the leadership of every unit association from Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D., author of _Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character_ . I am a missionary of prevention from the psychologically injured Vietnam combat veterans that I've worked with for the last ten years. They don 't want other American kids to be wrecked the way they were wrecked, and are bursting with pride that their voice is being heard inside the Armed Forces. Working with them, I came to certain conclusions about the keys to prevention of psychological injury. They are three -- all in the hands of military line leaders and trainers: Positive qualities of community of the service member 's face-to-face unit (cohesion); All-around excellence and moral integrity of leadership; All-around excellence of training for what they really have to do and face. The veterans are greatly heartened -- as am I -- by the fact that senior leadership in all the services (many of whom were junior combat leaders in Vietnam) regard prevention of psychological injury as being seriously in the interest of their services -- a genuine matter of readiness. As was explained to me by a three-star, we have a -- Smaller force Longer service force Extraordinary increase in the quality of enlistees, by every measure More frequent deployment into hostile situations Missions are often ambiguous or rapidly mutating out Prevention of psychological injury is as much a readiness issue now as is prevention of ballistic injuries or of infectious diseases. This is head gear, flak jacket and malaria pills stuff. Psychologically injured service members atrit and are lost to the force. The fire in my belly is for prevention of the terrible injuries that have wrecked the lives of the men I work with. I don 't have an ax to grind for mental health professionals, and frankly see them as being poorly positioned to deliver on prevention, if the line leaders and trainers are not doing what they need to. I don 't care who delivers the goods on prevention, as long as it happens. Unit associations may be able to play a key role. So what can the unit associations do? Here 's my take on this: The unit associations maintain current and lively links with the active duty and reserve components. This gives them the unique opportunity to provide -- An added dimension to cohesion, by making clear to every service member that he or she is not alone, and won 't be alone, and his or her family will not be left out there alone. A quality control function on leadership and training, so that excellence can be supported from the civilian side and things are never allowed to go seriously bad. The line can 't bullshit members of the unit association the way it might be able to bullshit anyone else. And the line will understand that criticism coming from the unit association is not hostile or ignorant outside criticism. I am aware that some unit associations have taken the position that "PTSD doesn 't exist." While I respectfully point out that this is not the belief of active duty senior officers -- I think the fact that the Commandant of the Marine Corps put my book _Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character_ on his reading list for "All Hands" gives a sense of that -- it is not necessary for unit associations to take a position one way or another on PTSD. The three keys to prevention of psychological injury -- cohesion, excellence/integrity of leadership, and training -- are all combat multipliers that the unit associations can get behind as a matter of pure military professionalism that apply equally in all of the services.

Jonathan Shay, MD PhD


I, personally, would like to thank both Nancy Smoyer and Jonathan Shay for their contributions to this issue of the CVF. Without their contributions I would have been at a lost as to what to offer for this issue. I think their writings are timely and important issues for us to consider as we continue our therapy for Combat Related-PTSD.

tbass, editor

This publication is put out for and by the COMBAT VETERAN'S GROUP which is located in Dublin Georgia and meets at the Carl Vinson Veteran Administration's Medical Center. The copyrights for articles in the "COMBAT VETERAN'S FORUM" are by their authors and are published with their permission.