Thurman P. Woodfork

PTSD… THEN AND NOW

Sandbagging at Det 7, 619th TCS, Trang Sup, Vietnam, 1966-67
Sandbagging at Det 7, 619th TCS, Trang Sup, Vietnam, 1966-67
From the photograph, “Sandbagging”
©Copyright 2001 by Thurman P. Woodfork
Someone on SafeHaven mentioned concentration camps the other day. I immediately thought of an old friend I had met when I was stationed at Rosas Air Force Station in Spain. Tom was a WW II combat veteran who had survived the Bataan Death March; he was the second case of PTSD I’d seen close up and on a nearly daily basis.

Of course, we didn’t call it PTSD then; we called it “Shell Shock” and we just looked the other way when Tom got drunk, which was pretty often, and went on a crying jag or started beating up on the shuffle board game, his only target. He could consume a case of beer by himself and still navigate. Not well, but he usually stayed on his feet until somebody got him to bed. The Air Force allowed him to retire gracefully.

On the other hand, there was my first crew chief, John, also a WW II Army combat vet. He rivaled the famed Audie Murphy when it came to the number of earned combat decorations he was entitled to wear. But the Air Force bounced John out of the service because of his drinking. John was the first person suffering from PTSD that I unknowingly encountered.

John knew his job inside out, and was never publicly violent that I can remember, but the people in his chain of command – which mirrored Tom’s – didn’t consider his war record or experiences in combat as mitigating circumstances. As a result, John T. was gradually reduced in rank from an E-6 to an E-3, and eventually put out of the service short of retirement. Both men had given full measure to their services and country, but in the end, they were treated differently.

I suppose John’s downfall came about because nobody ever bothered to connect his day-to-day drinking with the day-to-day horrors that he’d experienced in combat. They didn’t associate his constant state of mellow inebriation with his war service, I suppose because he bore no visible scars. And when he talked about the war, he made light of it.

I remember him gleefully telling me how he deliberately waited for a clear shot so that he could plink a German soldier in the ass. John cackled merrily throughout the telling as he recounted how the startled man leaped into the air, angrily cursing him in German as he flung his carbine away, and he had me laughing with him. John T. could have nailed the guy with a second shot, but he didn’t. Now I wonder how many other memories were roaming through his mind; the ones he never laughingly shared.

To the best of my knowledge, neither Tom nor John ever received any sort of treatment or counseling for their condition. As a matter of fact, I’m dead certain neither ever did, at least, not while they were on active duty. It’s a pretty good bet that neither received much in the way of counseling or whatever from the VA after they returned to civilian status.

“What have you done for me lately?” has always been the theme once the GI came home from the war and removed his uniform for the last time. And there’s little chance that it’s going to change any time soon. I would suppose that time has gentled my memories, but John T. was a good man, and he deserved better from the Air Force.