Essay on “survivor guilt” and generations of PTSD

“I grew up thinking of my grandfather as a drunk. His spiral into self-destruction left a legacy of bitterness and addiction that will haunt our family for generations to come. But only recently have I begun to realize how much of that legacy is rooted in the war.” – Adam Linehan

PTSD NYTIMESPhoto illustration by Jesse Draxler

by Adam Linehan

“My friend Paul Critchlow fought in Vietnam, earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with valor. Then he returned home to Omaha, Neb., and nobody wanted to talk about it. So he did what many combat vets did after the war: He kept his head down and drove on, built a career, raised a family, avoided anything that reminded him of Vietnam, compartmentalized the trauma, drank heavily and abused drugs. He did as his old coach once advised after he broke his leg playing college football: “You’ve got to play above the pain, Critchlow.” It was a productive approach.

“He eventually landed on Wall Street and rose to become head of communications for Merrill Lynch. But then one morning in 1994, he woke up and couldn’t get out of bed. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t find the will to move. The doctors told him he had clinical depression. In Critchlow’s mind, however, it was much more specific than that: a hill in the Central Highlands of Vietnam that the Army numbered 102. Many of his close comrades died there during the battle in which he was wounded. He blamed himself.

“There were fewer than 200 American soldiers on Hill 102 when it came under siege by the entire Second North Vietnamese Army Division on the afternoon of Aug. 19, 1969. Critchlow was a 23-year-old forward observer for Charlie Company, responsible for calling in airstrikes and artillery barrages. As the Vietnamese troops advanced farther up the hill, the grunts dug in along the perimeter shouted over the radio to Critchlow for more and more bombs. The battle raged through the evening, and once it got dark, Critchlow lay on his back in a roofless French plantation house and used a strobe light to guide an AC-47 Spooky gunship to its targets. Just before midnight, a lone figure appeared in Critchlow’s periphery. He was armed with a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher, and Critchlow knew he was an NVA soldier by the shape of his helmet. The explosion lifted Critchlow off the ground, and suddenly he was immersed in brilliant white light, spinning slowly through the air, certain he was dead. Five hours later, he was tossed onto a helicopter packed with bodies, and bullets pierced the fuselage as the bird lifted off the ground. Critchlow begged God not to let him die after all he had just survived. He prayed to go home. But as soon as he got there, he wanted to turn back around. He felt as if he had abandoned his men. ‘By putting myself in harm’s way, I left them behind,’ he recalled thinking after waking up in a hospital in Danang.”


This New York Times Magazine long read (below) is so important to gain insight into what warriors grapple with after returning from hostile actions in other nations.


AT WAR

I was convinced the deaths of my friends in combat were my fault. It took me years to realize this feeling had a name: survivor guilt.

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