How to Help Veterans Haunted by War Reclaim Their Humanity By Tom Medlar, LMHC on 11/29/22 - 2:26 PM

“I try to not fall asleep, because then I’ll just have another nightmare.”

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Rick was a sniper in the Vietnam War. He was sent on “high-low” missions in which he was taken by plane at night to a “high” altitude (above radar) where he would jump out with his rifle, and his parachute would automatically open at a “low” altitude of 1000 feet. He was given a photo of a high-level North Vietnamese commander who was his target on the mission. After completing his mission, Rick would run through the jungle, then swim down the river where he was picked up by an American patrol boat. Rick successfully completed six of these incredibly dangerous missions. He subsequently suffered recurrent nightmares in which he would see the dreadful sights in his rifle scope at the moments of successes, and then be chased through the jungle by groups of North Vietnamese soldiers.

After returning from war Rick became alcoholic, lost his marriage and relationships with his two young daughters, became homeless, and suffered degradation to his health. Now, in the nursing facility, Rick was gaunt, wheelchair-bound, with straggly hair and beard, and largely mute, rarely speaking to anyone. He did begin to speak with me after a few months of my quietly and patiently talking to him.

Rick talked of how he and his sister grew up with alcoholic and abusive parents. To escape, he would shoot tin cans for hours at a local quarry. In our therapeutic work together, Rick was willing to explore the associations with his recurrent nightmares. Even though Rick knew he had acted under the command of superior officers, had skillfully fulfilled his military duties, and was viewed as a hero, he had deep feelings of guilt and shame about his role as a sniper. In part, his guilt stemmed from fantasies he had as a teenager that involved shooting his parents as he took aim at the tin cans. Rick felt remorse over the killing of targeted enemy commanders, even though he knew they were directing their own troops to kill him and his comrades. Rick had imaginary conversations during therapy with the men he had shot.

Rick felt deeply ambivalent about being labeled a “hero.” We considered if it was heroism to jump repeatedly from a plane over enemy territory at night, or to fulfill six sniper missions, or to overcome his trauma and recover his human concern for others, or to begin communicating with others at the nursing facility, or to have a meeting with one of his now-adult and long-estranged daughters, or to reconnect lovingly with his sister.

Rick came to laugh as we speculated that maybe it should be the North Vietnamese soldiers having nightmares after an invisible American sniper jumped from the sky six times and killed their commanders then escaped unseen. As therapy continued over the next two years, Rick reported gradual reductions in the frequency of nightmares from nightly, to once weekly, to “only once in a while now.”

In working with Rick, and others who shared similar trauma, I have come to learn that war is truly hell on earth, and that while heroism surely revolves around the strength and valor to fight, it also includes the courage to reclaim one’s humanity and one’s relationships, and to regain some degree of peace within a wounded soul.  

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, A Day in the Life of a Therapist