Surviving post-traumatic stress disorder requires acknowledging and confronting a bugaboo squarely and reliving it as often as it returns, says a retired U.S. Marine Corps sergeant who has been fighting demons since serving as a combat rifleman in Vietnam in 1966-67.
"You never get over it, but you can get through it," Andrew Brandi told a recent forum at Fort Lewis College sponsored by the Student Veterans Club. "I finally figured it out four years ago to where it doesn't hurt so much."
The approach reflects how existentialist writer Albert Camus interpreted mythological Sisyphus, the eternal boulder-roller.
The mythological toiler knew his torment would never end, but by acknowledging it and persevering, he attained a measure of victory.
Military veterans don't have a monopoly on post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly called PTSD, Brandi said. People who suffer a concussion or severe injuries in an automobile accident or victims of physical or sexual abuse can relive the incident endlessly.
Brandi struggled with flashbacks, survivor's guilt, loss of comrades, mistrust of society, stress and depression for years. But the key to not falling under the weight, he found, was meeting the issue head-on.
What is learned to survive in war - kill or be killed - is the primal side of man, he said. It's not needed in civilian life, but once acquired, it never goes away.
"I finally identified my primal self and acknowledged it as part of me," Brandi said. "He has allowed me to survive because, as my alter ego, I can transfer my guilt to him."
Fifty-four thousand Americans were killed in Vietnam, but 26 million Vietnam veterans still are alive, Brandi said. If they can't come to terms with their military experiences, they're candidates for PTSD that can lead to alienation of loved ones, unemployment, domestic violence, divorce, depression and suicide. Rejection by the public and the inability to get a job if their mental stability is questioned adds to the pressure, he said.
Eventually the past will catch up with you, Brandi said, noting that he denied his problems for years. Even some World War II veterans have not yet confronted the horrors they saw or suffered, he said.
"PTSD is a wound, not an illness," Brandi said. "But the longer a veteran puts off getting help, the harder it will be to get though it."
Brandi talks to veterans groups and has written a book, The Warrior's Guide to Insanity, that lays out for returning military veterans what they face. He has found that veterans tend to shun understaffed, underfunded agencies established to help them and turn increasingly to less-structured settings.
"I tell them that they're normal for what they've been through," Brandi said. "There is nothing broken, but you need new tools to get along in civilian life."