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Memorial Day Message

By Michael Orban

We will be having a series of Guest Writers for this Memorial Day. If you have a message for Veterans, if you are a Veteran with a message for other Veterans, please send it along through Comments. I will try my best to keep up with you to share your messages.

Today our visitor is Michael Orban, author of Souled Out: A Memoir of War and Inner Peace. Michael was drafted for service in Vietnam in 1971 and served with the Infantry- First Cavalry Division. You may read my review of his book here at Review: Michael Orban: Souled Out: A Memoir of War and Inner Peace.

Michael is a Veteran Activist, writing, speaking out for Veterans, for education about PTSD. Join him today with his Memorial Day thoughts. Blessings,

Michael Orban: Souled OutMemorial Day Message

Michael S. Orban
Drafted- Vietnam 1971
Infantry- First Cavalry Division
Author: Souled Out, A Memoir of War and Inner Peace

One of the greatest hurdles to readjustment from war and combat is the ‘social stigma’ of PTSD. Let’s disarm this. There is this pervasive, subliminal idea that PTSD is somehow a failure of the soldier, a cowardice. Though primarily an idea held by folks who have not been to war, soldiers seem quick to accept this idea, unfounded as it is and not based on facts. The picture of the soldier in the movie Patton who ‘just can’t take it’ while at war is the standard many have attached to PTSD. This is absurd, untrue and distorted thinking. I never saw this reaction at war. I never saw a soldier retreat, cower or in any way fail or refuse to perform his/her duties at war. I want to provide a more accurate, personal account of how I came to be diagnosed with PTSD 30 years AFTER returning from Vietnam NOT while in Vietnam.

Parents, school, religious beliefs and social laws provided the guidelines for my reality before war. These all fail at war. A new reality of primal survivalrises to take their place. I served in the Central Highland Mountains of Vietnam, all senses were focused on pure survival. Sleeping on the jungle floor my body slept a deep refreshing sleep but my mind seemed wide awake and alert, ready to defend and prepared to survive. To this day I do not understand this ability to simultaneously separate physical sleep from mental alertness, but it happened. The senses of sight, smell, sound and even touch became intensely focused on nothing but staying alive. Simple distractions, girl friend, home, all had to be avoided in favor of this intense, complete and endless attention to anything or anyone who might kill you. Combat is a savage fury to stay alive. The horrible sights in the aftermath of combat cannot be mourned you remain in a combat zone under the continuing threat of death. This forces the senses to remain intensely alert. To remain effective in combat and to stay alive the mind begins to numb itself to these experiences. I was not conscious that my mind was doing this. It seemed an instinct that comes from a part of natural human survival that arose unconsciously from the genes of life formed long before me. However, while I had numbed myself to these experiences, my mind was recording all it had seen.

After a year of this intense focus on staying alive, war was over and I was going home. Now, this is a time for critical thinking. I thought I was going home to life as it had been before war. Softball, beer, my girl friend, job all awaited me and I was anxious to return to them. Having completed our tours at war, not myself nor any soldier I knew had failed in their duties in combat. I had earned the bronze star, combat infantryman’s badge and air medal. How can PTSD, which was not even a symptom on our departure from Vietnam, be attributed to performance at war? PTSD simply wasn’t there at the time.

I did not expect that the numbing and survival instincts of hyper-alertness to continue when I returned home, but they did. Now at home and in a safe environment, all the memories my mind had recorded at war began to play back in my mind. These memories came back in a volume and intensity that overwhelmed my mind and froze it in that time at war. Intellectually I knew how to act before family and friends, after all, I had lived their life for 20 years before going to war. Emotionally, mentally I was still at war. This new war had shifted from the external participation of war, mission, the guys, the helicopters, jets, artillery, mortars, radios etc. to an internal, lonely reflection of those experiences and a mind happy to provide endless reels of information to feed that reflection.This is where the symptoms of PTSD begin to show their head, not at war.

So intense, overwhelming and incomprehensible were the thoughts that attacked and tormented my mind that I fled to live deep in the jungles of Africa. There among a people steeped in omens, superstitions, witchcraft, disease and death I found an extraordinary beauty in the life they lived among their ancestral and spiritual beliefs. Their beautiful connection to life, all life, helped restore my soul.

It would be thirty years later that I was given a document prepared by Dr. Patti Levin, a psychologist with over 30 years experience in treating PTSD. When I read her ‘Common Responses to Trauma’, I was at once spellbound and furious. I identified with most responses detailed on the list. I remember thinking, “I’ll be a son of a bitch, that’s what this is”! I was furious that we had not been as equally instructed on these known psychological reactions to war as we had been trained in physical injuries. I am convinced that had I known what to expect psychologically on my return from war that I would have been better prepared to identify and deal with those reactions. Thirty years of suffering because of a very cruel, sick social stigma.

What activity experienced in life has only a physical component and no psychological component? I can’t think of one. Yet, the most savage activity is the one we expect the participants not to have any psychological response. It is this stigma that is so profoundly sick and damaging. The stigma must be exposed and disarmed.

When we here a deadly car accident involving high school students, the school is flooded with grief counselors. Students who never saw the accident and may have casually known the victims are offered counseling. They are in an atmosphere of psychological trauma and treated as participants. In the following one, two, three years, these same people may go to war and experience a savagery far more destructive than a car accident and be expected to absorb this without any psychological reaction. This thinking is deeply flawed causing extensive, punishing suffering through its folly.

You may link to Dr. Patti Levins ‘Common Response to Trauma’. Please double click on double click on 'Educational Materials' then click on 'Common Response to Trauma'. My book recounts my struggle with PTSD and the beauty of Africa that helped heal those spiritual and psychological wounds. The book is available through my Michael, through Souled Out: A Memoir of War and Inner Peace., and local bookstores.

We must see through the stigma of PTSD and refuse to suffer for decades unnecessarily simply because of a severely flawed social stigma. When our military service is over we owe no more to anyone at the expense of ourselves.

This article just came up this morning. From By Maya Schenwar and Matt Renner at Truthout Veterans Attest to PTSD Neglect by VA. Isn't it time we demanded more for our soldiers?

Also, this article deserves your attention from Barbara Barrett, McClatchy Newspapers at Truthout What's Behind the Battle Over the New GI Bill?.


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This item is part of historian, author, editor, and educator Remy Benoit's ongoing weblog for Veterans, writers, students, and others who believe in learning from and making history; including thousands of articles and posts and the free writing seminar, Using History for Healing and Writing.

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