Catherine Lieb – Listening to Stories of War

Note from the author to readers:  The following vignettes are from the first draft of Listening to Stories of War. These stories are true to the essence of stories veterans told the me and how I responded.  I have changed names, characteristics and identifying information out of respect and my ethical responsibility to maintain confidentiality.  Some stories are composites of different veterans who shared similar characteristics.  These stories may trigger strong reactions. Go easy, breathe, stop reading and get support if needed. 

       It’s easy to spot 1st Sgt. Sanchez in the waiting room.  He is slouched in his chair, legs stretched out casually in front of him, a picture of relaxed boredom.  A woman in her fifties, I’m guessing his mother, sits next to him wearing a calf length skirt and matching jacket.  Her posture is erect and alert, a counterweight for her son’s laid-back attitude.  They’re stuck in a stalemate.  She’s desperate for him to get help; he denies anything’s wrong.

       I scan the telephone intake note to pick out something to get him talking.  “Looks like you live in the foothills.  How was the drive in today?”

       “I didn’t drive,” he says, “My mom did.  She doesn’t think I’m safe driving, you know, all that time driving in Iraq dodging IEDs (improvised explosive device).”

             “Does she have a point?”

             “I suppose she does.”

             Staying in safe territory I ask if he grew up in the Sacramento area.

             “If you’re asking me if I had a normal childhood, I did.”

       That was a clever comeback.  I’m not his mom, but I’m a shrink and get the same treatment.  He’s a pain in the ass, and I like him, he looks like a friend of my son who is about the same age.  I circle back to his military service and ask a general question.  “Where did you do your Army training?”

       He jumps in front of where I’m headed and tells me he knows all about PTSD, he’s filled out lots of questionnaires.  In a tone that conveys, end of conversation he says, “I don’t have it.”

       A solemn, slender Soldier in his late twenties stands up when I call his name. He follows me back to my office in silence.  After I close the door and sit down facing him I ask, How can I help you?

       He launches into his story.  There’s sarcasm in his voice that seems to say, you can’t help me.  He joined the National Guard out of patriotism and to get financial aid for college.  His weekend warrior commitment did not interrupt his goal to go to medical school too much until he got deployed.  After he served twelve months in Iraq he was told, if he volunteered for a second deployment in Afghanistan, he would not get called up again.  He “volunteered” for a second deployment.

       His intensity rises as he leans forward and snarls that there’s a rumor going around among his Guard buddies that their unit is in line for stop loss orders.  Pulling himself back into his chair he taunts, “I’m guessing you think I need anger management.”

       Holding his gaze and my voice steady I say, “You’ve got a lot to be angry about, but I’m not thinking about anger management.  I’d like to know more about your time in Iraq.”  

       The lid tamping down the emotions underneath his anger cracks open and tears flow into his eyes.  He looks away. 

       I breathe into the silence and wait.  Underneath his anger are feelings of betrayal and grief evidenced by what he says next.  He changes the subject to funerals.  His sarcasm returns as he describes how it was easier for him to be a pallbearer at the funeral of one of his best friends who got blown up and died, than it was to deal with the wife of another buddy who survived horrible burns over most of his body.

       “While we’re over there getting blown up,” he says, “No one here cares, everyone carries on as usual, worried about stupid shit that doesn’t matter.” 

       I want to say, I care, but why should he believe me.

       The chief complaint on her telephone triage form reads:  Stress.  Sensing her fear about opening too much in her first session, I work through my assessment focusing on building rapport and save my PTSD question for lastAnything happen while you were in the Iraq that continues to bother you?

       She answers by telling me she loved being a Marine, the discipline, the hard work, and the friends she made.  Her grandfather joined the Navy during World War Two, her father served in Vietnam.  A military career was in the back of her mind after she completed high school, but she didn’t get serious about signing up until after 9/11.  

       Helpful information, but she’s side stepping my question.  I repeat, Did anything happen in Iraq that still bothers you? 

       There was one incident on base.  An RPG (rocket propelled grenade) hit the mess hall.  She was a first responder.  Her training kicked in and she did what she had to do.  She brushes off my follow up questions, denies PTSD.  We agree to focus her therapy on reducing her stress around juggling work and taking care of her two young children…

       After several sessions, Emily reports she had a full-blown panic attack while she was stuck in traffic under a freeway overpass.  Her symptoms were classic: heart pounding, shortness of breath, terror, thoughts that she was going to die, or worse, that she would not be able to save her daughter strapped in her car seat in the back seat.

       Something about how she describes being surrounded by concrete, having no way out, fear that she can’t save her child, feels like her story about being a first responder after the mess hall was bombed. I have an eerie feeling that getting stuck in traffic triggered her war memories buried deep in her mind and body.