What words would you use to describe the World War II combat veterans, the men and women we have called the “Greatest Generation?” Humble? Hard-working? Dedicated to their families? Silent about their war experiences?
I'll bet that almost all of us -- especially we children of those veterans -- would agree to the last choice. Our fathers never talked about what they did in the war. In fact,they hardly talked about themselves at all or about anything intimate and personal.
My father's silence spilled beyond the topic of his war years to engulf my childhood home. As we sat down for dinner, he would place Barbara Streisand and Yale Whiffenpoof albums on the stereo, their doleful songs substituting for conversation. On Sundays, he took my family for drives to a Holiday Inn where we ate dinner before driving back home. The whirring of the tires lulled me to sleep in both directions.
At his office, he was a different person. There he smiled, nodded as he listened to his patients, wrapped his arm around their shoulders. There, his eyes twinkled -- even at me. That is where I went to tell him I wanted to drop out of law school, that I needed therapy, that I couldn't bear my depression any longer -- because at his office, there was a chance that he would answer.
Like most other children of WWII veterans, I took my father's war service for granted (what little I knew about it-- that he had been among the landing on Utah Beach on D-Day and had been a part of the Battle of the Bulge), never considering that it might have any relationship to his silent detachment, his depression and melancholy or to my mother's alcoholism and subsequent disappearance from our lives.
Only after my father's death did I discover what his silence concealed.
The clues came in his army trunk that he stored in his office basement. Inside sat a box of photographs that he had taken during World War II, beginning with crossing the English Channel en route to Utah Beach for D-Day, across France, then Belgium where he tended the wounded at the Battle of the Bulge, into Germany. Photos labeled "Nordhausen Concentration Camp, April 11, 1945" showed countless skeletal bodies. An aunt explained that he had treated survivors for two weeks before suffering a mental breakdown.
This information astounded me, and I set out to meet other World War II veterans who had liberated the concentration camps. I found that veteran after veteran has never talked about it with their children, and that they have told very little to their spouses. Veteran after veteran choked up as they began describing what they witnessed in the camps. Many could not continue to talk. Many told me that they would have nightmares that night.
"I was never the same; I was never the same," a liberator of Dachau said.
"Did I ever change back?" a liberator of Ohrduf asked himself.
"I never spoke of it because there were no words," said a doctor who treated Dachau's survivors.
"I could not talk about it. Literally, could not talk," explained a liberator of Buchenwald.
A liberator of Dachau told me, "When I saw the crematorium, the shock was complete and total."
This past January I finally met a man who also witnessed Nordhausen. At the end of an hour of talking, he said, “I have struggled to say alive every day since.”
I have struggled to stay alive every day since.
That was the first time his wife heard him say those words.
Sixty-six years later, the eight-three liberators I met remain in the unyielding grip of the trauma, even those who have turned to art and writing for healing.
Could these people have post-traumatic stress disorder? I asked myself. They showed no rage, no signs of alcoholism, no nervousness or numbness -- all the indicators of what the media has presented as the hallmarks of PTSD.
Since the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, we have finally begun to pay attention to combat PTSD. But the media's reporting of it has skewed our understanding of how PTSD can manifest itself. Yes, it often shows up in outbursts of rage, in substance abuse and violence. But as I learned in my travels across the country interviewing World War II veterans, the much more common face of combat PTSD is one of depression, melancholy, silence, distance, avoidance of the memories.
Our veterans desperately want to shield their families from the horrors of war, and so they turn to silence, knowing no other way to keep the awful memories from polluting their homes. They don't tell us about their awful nightmares (though many children remember being awakened by their fathers' moans or cries during the night), and they don't speak of any negative emotion, as to express even a hint of sadness or grief would open the flood gates.
A main effect of trauma -- a distortion of perception -- keeps them from perceiving how this silence disfigures their families, their children.
Children are sponges, absorbing whatever emotion and behavior they observe. They take on their parents' attributes, and so I inherited my father's depression, his emotional distancing. I inherited his war.
Children of Vietnam veterans recognize the connection between their emotional lives and their fathers's war, but children of World War II veterans still resist making similar connections. Perhaps this is because we, the generation that made Prozac and therapy household terms, still need to idealize World War II as "the good war" and our fathers as the "Greatest Generation." I believe that label has burdened them and made it more difficult to admit their pain and find help. Delayed onset of PTSD among World War II veterans has not received much attention from the media, despite the significant increase of diagnosis of PTSD among World War II veterans in just the last 10 years and an increase in the suicide rate of these veterans!
Our misperceptions of what PTSD looks like not only keeps World War II veterans from getting the help they need, but it will affect the level of support available to our soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. It is time to realize that there is no good war, and there is no victor. Everyone returns from war wounded, bringing their war home into the hearts of their families. That is the cruelest aspect of going to war, that the veteran isn't able to protect that which he or she holds most dear: his or her family.
We must begin to recognize and acknowledge that the terrible wounds in our families- wounds of alcoholism, suicide, depression, severed ties -- are wounds of war. That time does not heal the trauma of war and that silence preserves it, passes it along to the children. As another child of a WWI vet wrote to me: “Yes, the not talking about his memories of the war held us in emotional hostage... all of us frozen in no language... just not feeling, to not feel it, until not feeling and not talking and just doing became normalized. Frozen from our humanity. not aware of our needs or even our right to have human needs of connection, respect, safety to be who we are.”
It is time to realize that no war is good. World War II, the Holocaust, PTSD, Holocaust Studies, trauma, intergenerational PTSDNo war has a victor. Everyone returns from war wounded, bringing their war home into the hearts of their families. That is the cruelest aspect of going to war, that the veteran isn't able to protect that which he or she holds most dear: his or her family. Our responsibility is to mitigate that harm as much as we are able. We must support our veterans, not with a bumper sticker but with heartfelt commitment and engagement. We must do all we can to help heal them and ourselves so we can know peace.
Causes Leila Levinson Supports
Soldiers Heart, Veterans for Common Sense, Hope for Heroes