The war inside me

A lifelong struggle with PTSD, how Vietnam veterans express emotions through poetry, art and within interviews

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2012 22 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of contents


What is PTSD?
Disorders that are diagnosed among Vietnam veterans with a type of PTSD

Art as a way to express emotions
Poems about PTSD
Louis A. Griffiths' “PTSD Blues”
John Breska's “PTSD”

Film and Art
First Kill (2001)
Art Therapy
Michael Bertorelli
Richard Bartow




If you are not directly or indirectly affected by a war, for most of us this war ends right after the last alive soldier came home. For most of the soldiers and their most beloved people around them, this seems to be quiet different. The discussion about Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD) started in Germany especially after the first German soldiers came back from Afghanistan, a problem, which is still not solved. According to a report by Spiegel Online from 20th October 2011, 587 soldiers were diagnosed as having PTSD and were being treated. The numbers rise. In 2010, Germany had a total of 557 soldiers that were diagnosed.

But this is not a problem that started this century, it is a problem in and after every war. What changed is how our society recognizes and talks about stress disorders after a war. The Vietnam war is no exception to that rule. We can say that a larger number of Vietnam veterans suffered or still suffer from what they experienced as a soldier at war, the problem is that the numbers vary in the different studies. One answer to the question why we have so many different number could be that PTSD first appeared in 1980 in the DSM- III, but was known already before under various disorders that were now put together under one name. But fact is that there are and were Vietnam veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorders caused by the war.

This essay has a main focus on PTSD as a long-term effect of the Vietnam war, not only on soldiers, but also their families. First, we have to define what PTSD is and what disorders were found among Vietnam veterans. In the next step, I am going to present some examples I found during my research, veterans, who suffered or still suffer from PTSD and its symptoms, the different ways they dealt with it and if they managed to find a way out of the situation.

What is PTSD?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder that appears after a traumatic situation, in our case something a soldier experienced during a war. It is a very severe disorder and not easy to diagnose, because it can come out in various ways and with various symptoms. What causes most of the trouble for PTSD- patients is the repeated experience of the situation(s) that caused the trauma. Usually, these experiences appear as flashbacks or nightmares. A reason for a flashback can be a particular sound the patient strongly connects to the traumatic situation, nightmares usually contain the re- living of the traumatic situation. It is also possible that the patient suffers from more than one traumatic event, or that the patient cannot even specify, which scene or scenes cause nightmares or other symptoms. The problem for people with a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is to realize that they are not in an unsafe situation anymore and that those situations are far away in the past.

Based on the symptoms and the degree of PTSD the psycho-therapeutic treatment varies in medication and behavioral therapies. Most medications are used to treat urgent symptoms like insomnia. Behavioral therapies are intended to teach patients ways of dealing with the trauma in a long term in order to use less and less drugs.

According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD is “assessed using a multimethod approach, including three primary indicators: the Mississippi Combat-Related PTSD Scale, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-PTSD Scale, and the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-III-R PTSD module.” (http://www.ptsd.va.gov)

The first indicator is, as the name already tells us, used especially in the military. The last two indicators are general psychological indicators, which are used in psychology worldwide. After using these tools and according to governmental resources, over 30% of the Vietnam veterans are diagnosed with lifelong PTSD- symptoms and 22.5% show partial PTSD- syndromes for a lifetime. According to this study, 26.9% of the female in the study have lifelong PTSD- syndromes and 21.5% partial PTSD. This means that about every fourth veteran is diagnosed with a type of a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. These numbers are published by the United States Department of Veteran Affairs. These numbers are verified by clinical psychologist Matthew Tull, PhD.

Disorders that are diagnosed among Vietnam veterans with a type of PTSD

According to the National Center of PTSD, the following are the most- prevalent disorders found among male veterans with current or lifetime disorders: alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence and generalized anxiety disorder. Patients with lifetime disorders can also suffer from an antisocial personality disorder.

Women usually have depressions and generalized anxiety disorders, but only sometimes abuse or depend on alcohol in connection with lifetime PTSD.

All these effects caused by a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder lead to a lot of trouble for the veterans in their life after combat. Usually they have troubles with unemployment or in their job, they have health- problems (also physically) and marriage problems, which leads to a high level of divorces amongst marriages where one partner has PTSD.

The ways of getting down with PTSD can be very different from one person to the other. In general, we have three different types of risk factors that can effect a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: pretraumatic, peritraumatic and posttraumatic risk factors. Pretraumatic risk factors are static, almost unchangeable factors that correlate with the rates of PTSD (female gender, genetic factors, education, minority race, childhood trauma etc.). The severity of the trauma has a big effect on the possibility of developing PTSD and is one of the most important peritraumatic factors. The more severe the trauma, the more it is likely to develop a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The only risk factors that can be changed are the posttraumatic factors. Very important factors are whether veterans are supported by their social surroundings or have a stressful life. What people outside the USA usually observe is a general support for the soldiers. We can see people at American airports stopping their way to the gate and applauding soldiers who are just walking by or Veterans Day. But no other war had so much lack of support among Americans than the war in Vietnam. No other war caused so many anti- war demonstrations, including one of the most famous demonstration, the march on Washington on 22nd October 1967, where people like Dr Martin Luther King took part in and held speeches in front of the Capitol. A lack of support like this could have had huge effect on a Vietnam veteran, either feeling understood or not supported enough. According to Norris, a trauma can result in four different responses, either you are resistant to what happened, or you struggle with what happened an recover, or you show resilience to the trauma or it ends in a chronic dysfunction (2009).

In normal cases the possibility of getting PTSD for men is around 3.5%, so the risk for a male Vietnam veteran is almost nine timers higher. We also have to keep in mind that disorders do not start to appear in a certain amount of time after the trauma, they can show up a month after coming back from combat, but also twenty years after the war. After seeing the varieties of PTSD in connection to war and how many American veterans, who served in the Vietnam war, are suffering from this, we can now understand most of their stories they represented in books and documentaries.

Art as a way to express emotions

Poems about PTSD

As mentioned above, some PTSD- patients have the urge to express their trauma in order to heal the psychological wounds. Thus, we can find some poetry on that topic, written by not only by Vietnam veterans, but also veterans of other wars. However, this chapter focuses on the poems and pictures from Vietnam vets. You can find these poems dealing with with PTSD on various web pages, usually describing the troubles that are caused by the disorder.

Louis A. Griffiths’ “PTSD Blues”

Louis A. Griffiths was in the US Marine Corps and in combat between April 4,1968 and May 1, 1970. His poem “PTSD Blues” is published on the website of Vietnam “Veterans Against the War, Inc.”, an organization found in 1967.

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What we can find within this poem is a situation, with which the narrator has to struggle with. After flying with a chopper and landing in a combat situation. He seems to be very nervous, his heart is beating fast and he feels the wish that there will be no contact between him and the enemy. Two possible reasons come to my mind why this soldier feels that way. First of all, he does not want to be shot and stay alive, second, there could be some scruple on the side of the soldier shooting a person he does not know at all. Right after the landing he wakes up, realizing that this has been only dream. He is at home in his apartment, probably somewhere in the United States, and not in a combat. This apartment should be a place where he should feel safe, but this is a fact he only slowly realizes after a while. The narrator also remembers his comrades and how they felt about revenge during war and after it. It is not as sweet as they think it would be, he is the only one, who was able to feel revenge, because his comrades died during war. The last scene he remembers seems to be the scene he struggles struggles with most. It is a scene where he faces an enemy with a hand grenade, able to end the narrator's life. Still, the American soldier for a second realizes that the person in front of him may have a life worth living, just like himself. The problem though is that the Vietnamese soldier is still the enemy and the chances are high he wants to kill the American soldier. After this incident, the American soldier still has to struggle with this killing, it is one of the scenes that can cause a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and in his case, it happened to be like this. He does not want to remember how he shot this man, but he has to. His brain is still dealing with the scene and can be a reason why he cannot forget it, even after thirty years.

In the last stanza he expresses his hopes and wishes to forget. Instead of wishing to come into heaven or not suffering when his time comes, his hope for the moment when he dies is still that he never has to think back to that particular moment during war. This wish is so urgent that he wishes nothing else than forgetting. I think that it takes a lot for a person to come up with such a hope connected to his own death.

During my research I did not find any information on Louis A. Griffiths, but this poem. On the vvaw- web page, where I read this poem for the first time, is a picture right next to it. It shows a dead body, lying in the dirt, only having one arm. The right hand and the forearm are gone, the last bits of the right upper arm are covered, one could guess, blood. You can assume, looking at the shape of the head, that the dead body is a Vietnamese. He has the last piece of a cigarette still in his mouth like he was lying there and sleeping. In my opinion this picture can easily correlate with the images of the soldier in Louis A. Griffiths' poem. The image not only of a dead body, but also the body of a man, who was killed by the soldier, now looking down at him and realizing what he did maybe just a few seconds ago. It is an image you do not want to have in your head and delete it as fast as possible. The problem for the narrator in “PTSD Blues” cannot find a way to destroy this image in his head, he feels that he is stuck with it for the rest of his life. We, who only look at the picture, have the power to look away when we want to and in many cases we distract ourselves from it and start losing it. It must be horrible not only to have a picture like this in your mind, but also dealing with the fact that you shot this man or even see the moment where you pulled the trigger like a video in front of you.

For people, who have never been in a combat, it is hard to imagine how soldiers feel in certain moments. It is very hard for a person without PTSD to realize, how challenging it must be to deal with this syndrome. I think the combination of “PTSD Blues” with the picture next to it is a good visual approach in order to get a glimpse or to trying to put yourself into the position of somebody, who experienced it and also suffers from both, the scene and the disorder followed by that. Each of those elements, poem and picture, alone already function well in their ways, but together they get another dimension, the poem as a possible description for the picture and vice versa.

John Breska’s “PTSD”

During my research on post- Vietnam poetry that deals with the problem of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I found another web page, a blog called “support-outroops.com”, and for May 2011, this blog contained a poem by John Breska, a Vietnam- veteran, who published some of his poems on this blog, including the one that is simply called “PTSD”. As it is mentioned below the poem, John Breska was in the 25th Division between 1969 and 1970.



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Vietnam War PTSD poetry art



Title: The war inside me