The Voices at Arlington

The Voices at Arlington

(This story first appeared in The Dogington Post ) 

“…what most separates dogs from humankind isn’t mental capacity, however, but innocence. This innocence carries with it a clarity of perception that allows dogs to glory in the wonder of creation in even the most humble scene and quiet moment…the combination of their innocence and their intelligence allows them to serve as a bridge between what is transient and what is eternal, between the finite and the infinite.” –Dean Koontz

Gander, my service dog, and I frequent veteran cemeteries and memorials when we travel. We accept requests in advance from friends and social media; contacts will ask us to visit a relative’s gravesite, take a picture of a name on a memorial or leave something in memoriam. Gander quietly sits vigil as I prepare for the rites I have promised to perform. I take this ritual seriously and Gander honors the gravity of promise fulfillment with exceptional calm and professionalism.

Because of the solemnity of our intentions, we go when few people are likely to be there with us at the same time. But, more than once we have exchanged whispered greetings along the way with others and have occasionally been invited into emotional drawing rooms: that place between the living and the dead where Gold Star families mourn. Twice, while at Arlington National Cemetery, Gander has called people deep in grief out of their sadness and comforted them as they spoke about love and loss.

I think we often see and hear what we want to see and hear; we interpret simple events as important lessons. And at other times life rally does conjure up for us exactly what we need, at that moment in time, to navigate toward safety and comfort; a last chance at rescue before resigning ourselves to being adrift forever.

Gander had stopped unexpectedly several times. He would look to me for approval and then gaze out toward the long rows of white markers. Then he would cock his head the way a dog does when someone is talking to him.

A women and her daughter who had been ahead of us for most of our journey toward the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stopped just a few yards short of our destination. “Do you suppose he can hear them? The soldiers?” I was relieved. It wasn’t just me who thought he was in touch with something invisible and inaudible to we humans. It was a beautiful sunny day. There was a slight breeze, but it was barely strong enough to rustle leaves. He looked engaged, not perplexed or curious in the same caring way he connects with me when I need a dispassionate listener in times of inner turmoil.

She told me that she visits Arlington once a week. Her brother was interred not far away. He’d served in Vietnam as a hospital corpsman. His Purple Heart was earned with a minor injury when their mobile surgery facility was mortared one dark midnight in 1969. He’d been given the Silver Star for his selfless actions that same night while attending to patients without regard for his own welfare. She shared that he had left both medals at the base of Vietnam Memorial years ago as a tribute to the dozens of men he had watched succumb to injuries beyond medicine’s ability to repair.

The day his tour ended he was taken by helicopter from a fire base where he had been performing triage, deciding who would stand the best chance of quick treatment, for wounded members of a platoon that experienced heavy casualties when ambushed by the Viet Cong. He was transported to a waiting 727 that flew him to San Francisco where, still in jungle fatigues, he disembarked through a gauntlet of angry protesters. At twenty years old he was a stranger in his own country after only nine months in Vietnam.

He’d been afraid when he went, she said. The fear was replaced by the grief and guilt he felt on his return. She told me that remembered every name, and held pictures in his mind of every wound he had dressed. His world became television, books, and a dozen ways to pass the sleepless hours.

A job in the post office on the graveyard shift kept him financially solvent. He never applied for Veterans benefit. Working at night, there were few people who demanded his attention. But, the anxiety and depression worsened. And isolation couldn’t create enough new memories to replace the old ones.

By the time he reached out for help, the VA, with the casualties of two new wars to attend to, had few programs and little time to coax cooperation from an aging Viet Vet. The new counselor hires were kind enough, but they couldn’t empathize with a man, decades their senior, who could barely give voice to the increasing sadness and despair inside of him.

He left a note the day he hung himself. He said the only reliable friend left in his life was suicide. He asked not to be buried in a military cemetery because that was reserved for soldiers who fought and for those he’d watched over as they died. But, because money was tight she had arranged for him to be interred at Arlington.

“I feel ashamed. I want him to be at peace,” she said quietly. “Do you think he can ever forgive me?”

You want to say “yes” at moments like that. You want to have a spiritual connection; you want to believe that this kind of deadly regret can be vanquished. That another good person should die physically, emotionally or spiritually because they had done the best they could, should never happen.

I want to lie just to give her some peace. But, remorse and grief are clever, intuitive adversaries: They know when you have nothing more to offer than a “sorry” in the way of a anecdote, aphorism or falsehood meant to send them on their way. I had courted suicide for a long time. There, but for the grace of Gander and God, was I. But, I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know what to do or say.

Just then, Gander rose, turned again toward the graves, before slowly moving toward me with his head bowed. He reared back on his hind legs and placed his front paws squarely in the center of my chest and looked me straight in the eyes the way he does when I am overwhelmed and at a loss for words or actions. A long kiss on the cheek later and he pushed himself off, wheeling to turn toward the woman, who by now was in tears. He turned his body sideways and leaned his weight against her.

It hardly matters whether or not it was coincidence that Gander chose that moment to be affectionate. It has happened so many times now I am no longer surprised when it happens. There was no explanation needed, no words left to be exchanged between us. She did lean down to look into Gander’s endlessly soulful eyes to say “thank you”. We both received an answer we could believe.

“That’s what heaven is. You get to make sense of your yesterdays” –Mitch Albom

Veteran Traveler blogger Lon Hodge is an award winning poet, writer and activist for suicide prevention among Veterans and victims of trauma. He travels with his service dog Gander in support of awareness of the healing power of dogs.

Follow Gander on Facebook at http://facebook.com/ganderservicedog on Twitter at http://twitter.com/veterantraveler or on Instagram at http://instagram.com/veterantraveler

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This story first appeared in The Dogington Post and will be included in the In Dogs We Trust e-book and softcover editions.

My PTSD (Part I)

“What the mind doesn’t understand, it worships or fears.”
― Alice Walker

PTSD  has now become a part of our lexicon. PTSD hashtags appear on Twitter feeds in reference to everything from a chance encounter with a spider in a trash bin to more serious revelations by survivors of sexual abuse, combat, accidents or tragedies like the one today in Aurora, Colorado.

I began working with PTSD in the 70’s when I was a behavioral science instructor and field placement supervisor at the Army’s Academy of Health Sciences and later while assigned as a therapist in the outpatient psychiatry clinic for the Army’s 97th General Hospital in Frankfurt, Germany. The Vietnam war had officially ended in 1975, but soldiers of my generation, entrenched within themselves, rarely spoke of their time “in country” and still could not connect many confusing thoughts and actions to their battlefield experiences until their symptomatic storms raged so severe that they were ordered to see me. For them, the war was hardly over.

And after my discharge, in later years, I was a Certified Employee Assistance in charge of front line counseling for senior employees of the city of Raleigh and Wake County in North Carolina. It was there that I guided police officers, fire chiefs and health care workers through the guilt, shame and torment they experienced because anxiety debilitated them. Shootings, being surrounded or assaulted by a mob in a riot situation, having to performing triage (deciding who would be best left to die at an accident scene and who would be a survivor if transported first to the hospital), carrying screaming burn victims from burning homes, and former soldiers who just could not make nightmares stop were part and parcel of my day. And too, there were rape and molestation victims, intensive care nurses who simply couldn’t bear to see another patient die and their families who had become no less distressed. They stayed in difficult relationships hoping the person they once loved would reappear from the ashes of anguish and self-destruction.

Fiction writer Dean Koontz once wrote that, “Because God is never cruel, there is a reason for all things. We must know the pain of loss; because if we never knew it, we would have no compassion for others, and we would become monsters of self-regard, creatures of unalloyed self-interest. The terrible pain of loss teaches humility to our prideful kind, has the power to soften uncaring hearts, to make a better person of a good one.”  I am still learning those lessons. And in some ways I am a better person for enduring PTSD for decades. I will share the stressors with you in future posts, but suffice it to say, I have been abused, psychologically,medically and physically, and endured torture in ways only concentration camp survivor or POW might understand. I will share some of what I experience here in hopes you better understand issues surrounding PTSD:

Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms typically start within three months of a traumatic event. In a small number of cases, though, PTSD symptoms may not appear until years after the event and they may be triggered during other stressful periods in a person’s life.

Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms are generally grouped into three types: intrusive memories, avoidance and numbing, and increased anxiety or emotional hyper-arousal. I had many symptoms for years, but became totally overwhelmed in the middle of a meeting. My heart rate jumped to 140 and I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going to die.

The hospital where I worked tested me for cardiac issues. I had none. I was having panic attacks. The doctors prescribed mild anti-anxiety medicine that had little or no effect. The panic attacks increased and soon I was having up to five a day and they would last between 5 and 40 minutes each. Imagine being on a balcony one day when when you experienced a sudden feeling like you might fall or even jump.Most of us have felt that at least once. Now, multiply the confusion and fear you had by a factor of two or three and you are close to feeling like I often did without warning or provocation.

At the time I was teaching college courses in Psychology, lecturing at national conferences across the country on wellness topics, I had just won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for my poetry, I was an international Tae Kwon Do Master Instructor and had begun feeling reasonably successful professionally in most areas of my life. I had managed my symptoms up to this point (hid them well) but, those days were clearly at an end.   All I wanted  to do was hide from any responsibility, anything that might cause stress. I prayed nightly that I would die in my sleep before having to endure, or putting friends and family, through another day of terror. I thought I would gladly give up an arm or leg if the anxiety would just stop. Suicide was never a distant option.

Then came the constant reliving of traumatic event for minutes or even days at a time. My sleeping habits were bad before, but horrifying dreams, and night terrors now dominated.  I became housebound. I tried to avoid thinking, talking or engaging in any activity that might trigger an attack or increase my anxiety. I was hopeless about the future. I couldn’t concentrate and I had trouble remembering events both near and far. All my relationships suffered as I worked diligently to hide how far I had fallen.

I was easily angered, though too weak and afraid to be much of threat to anyone unless cornered or assaulted. I was easily startled and often heard or saw things that simply were not there. I over indulged in anything that would distract me from my anxiety: Drinking, television, gambling….

I tried to return to work. I tried teaching, but was carried out of my classroom once by paramedics. I was lost for an answer. Finally a military psychiatrist proposed a long-lasting benzodiazepine. The panic attacks stopped, but my personality changed. I was depressed, irritable and devoid of creative thought. And worse, I was seriously addicted.

A recent pop psychology article was titled “What doesn’t kill you, makes you weaker. There is more than a little truth to that if you understand the classical conditioning paradigms and the heavy toll negative events can exact from mind, spirit and body. When anxiety generalizes it is hard to get a handle on how to stop it from flooding every corner of your consciousness. You cannot just will it away. Drugs are one way out of the trouble and the Army and the VA have used them in excess. The effect of benozos is to behave and think like someone who has just downed three or four glasses of wine, but the effect lasts twelve hours. I often wish I had dived headlong into alcoholism. It would have been easier to kick. I stayed lost in a drug haze for over a decade….

 

 

Postscript: My heart goes out to the victims and families of the Aurora Shooting today. I know the area well: My father was evacuated there after being critically wounded during a mortar attack in Vietnam. My sorrow is miniscule in comparison to the pain that must be felt today. I pray for the survivors and a speedy recovery from senseless physical and emotional wounds.