Book Review: SOLDIER’S HEART: Close-up Today with PTSD in Vietnam Veterans by William Schroder and Ronald Dawe


 

“Soldier’s Heart” was coined after the Civil War to describe what is now diagnosed as post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.  The authors of Soldier’s Heart are Vietnam veterans who suffer from PTSD.  William Schroder is a writer, and Dr. Ronald Dawe is a psychologist who specializes in the connection between PTSD and substance abuse.  They decided to talk to other veterans with PTSD in order to try to better understand their own symptoms and experiences. 

Soldier’s Heart:  Close-up Today with PTSD in Vietnam Veterans was recommended to me at the Field’s End Writers’ Conference.  I decided to read it because viable treatment protocols for PTSD will most likely arise from the military.  The book is expensive:  $49.95.  I was lucky our library system had a copy. 

If you are a veteran or are concerned about a veteran with PTSD, the soldiers’ stories will give you a candid glimpse into life in a combat zone.  Dr. Dawe inserted diagnostic explanations into each soldier’s story.  I will be focusing this review on what I learned about PTSD. 

 

William Schroder

  

Dr. Ronald Dawe

  

Carol Jean Sundling was an Air Force Flight Nurse from rural Pennsylvania: 

  • Her very first exposure to combat induced traumatic stressors.  Her brain released amino acids and neurotransmitters which gave her the ability to deal with the immediate threats to her physical integrity ~ chemicals that transformed and damaged her brain.  Repeated stressors would make the damage to her brain permanent.
  • She began to psychologically and emotionally isolate herself.  She succumbed to fatigue and the gruesome nature of her daily existence:

      I put on an iron mask and kept it on every single day for 365 days.  I kept everything I felt behind my mask, and I’d not realize until many years later I’d never learned how to take it off and let my emotions out.

  • The psychological insults were exacerbated by the physiological strain on her body and the resulting fatigue.
  • She couldn’t fight or flee.  The only survival strategy left was to freeze.  During moments of extreme danger and stress, the brain may develop a survival strategy of dissociating or freezing out the threat.
  • Her faith helped her to feel she hadn’t been abandoned to evil.  However, she admits she was “pissed off at God.”
  • Avoidance of people, places, or activities that arouse recollections of traumatic events is a symptom of PTSD and quite common.
  • The olfactory (sense of smell) is considered the most powerful of the senses related to triggering traumatic recall.  Auditory is another.
  • The rage and frustration she felt toward the government over useless threats to her life eventually were turned inward into self-destructive behavior.  She turned to alcohol to avoid the night terrors to numb the pain and still her fear.  Nightmares ~ significant sleep disturbance ~ are a red-flag symptom of PTSD.
  • Avoidance ~ a form of running/escape ~ is a manifestation of PTSD.  Another symptom is feeling alone and uncomfortable in a room full of people.

  

Marlin Jackson, Marine Corps from Oregon: 

  • The human brain does not fully develop until approximately age 25.
  • To react to threats, our brains pump large doses of neurochemicals throughout the neocortex.  The chemicals that motivate us to self-protective action have an immediate and deleterious (obscure or unexpected harmful) effect on still-developing brains.
  • He numbed his pain before he felt it ~ a classic PTSD symptom.
  • We develop distorted interpersonal relationship skills via our coping skills such as misdirected anger and self-medication with drugs or alcohol.
  • The inability to feel safe ~ even for one day ~ has a devastating effect on our ability to remain resilient in the face of unremitting traumatic stressors.  Our brains are constantly on guard, hypervigilant.
  • Estrangement, inability to bond with others, and isolation are common.  Bereft of human closeness and support, our isolation will make our PTSD symptoms more pronounced and debilitating.

  

David Sekol, Navy from Missouri: 

  • Childhood trauma sets us up for PTSD.  His father was aloof and hostile, and his mother was detached and disconnected:

      Living with my father was like being kenneled with General Patton.  Steely-eyed and inflexible, he rarely showed affection toward his children. . .Prone to fits of violent anger, when Dad looked at me, gritted his teeth, and curled his lips, I knew I was in trouble.  I swear to you, when very angry, he growled like a wolf. . .his belt came off, and in a blind fury, he chased me down and whipped me.  If I moved, covered, or did anything to protect myself from the stinging leather strap, he swung harder and hit whatever body part was available.  Relentlessly and unmercifully, like a Roman guard beating down a slave, he went for the back, arms, legs, and head.

  • Since 1980, a great deal of research has been conducted into what clinicians term Complex Trauma.  These disorders are related to trauma associated with early childhood and adolescent abuse and neglect that contributes to or causes chronic stress related dysfunction in individuals.  Combat veterans who experienced childhood trauma are twice as likely to develop PTSD.  The earlier in life the abuse begins and the longer the duration of the abuse, the more likely the person is to be pre-disposed to PTSD later in life.
  • The character deficiencies of his father predisposed him to being vulnerable to becoming traumatized more easily when under the authority of his commanding officer ~ the officer and his father shared similar volatile personalities.
  • His childhood didn’t harden him.  The exact opposite is true.  His brain became malleable and more prone to developing a stress disorder.
  • Dave was unable to find joy or satisfaction ~ his only emotions were fear and rage.
  • Persistent symptoms of increased arousal ~ hypervigilance ~ includes difficulty falling or staying asleep and an exaggerated startle response are the first signs of PTSD.
  • His principal self-defense mechanism was escape.  Brutal corporeal punishment had a lasting impact on his cognitive worldview and on his defenses against being re-victimized.

Although there are more soldiers’ stories in the book, these stories reflect the essential elements of PTSD.  I was stunned to discover that PTSD causes us to have difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships.  And, I was blown away to learn that we do not develop a hard shell to protect ourselves.  We’re as vulnerable as a turtle deprived of its shell. 

The most important thing all of us need to take away from this book is that PTSD causes permanent brain damage.  The wounds are inside where they can’t be seen with the naked eye.  We are as disabled as those with visible physical wounds.  But, we will have to fight harder to get rehabilitation treatment.

I was shocked to read at the end of the book that Freud first noticed PTSD in his patients who had experienced child abuse and molestation.  He abandoned his theories, however, because he didn’t want to offend the wealthy parents who were picking up the therapy tab.  The DSM on PTSD was developed to diagnose battered women.  It was extended to cover veterans. 

This doesn’t surprise me because those of us who have experienced domestic violence in its many guises are veterans.  Our homes are not peaceful.  They are like living in a war zone.  The terrorists who threaten to kill us aren’t strangers.  We know them intimately. 

Soldier’s Heart exposes the horrors of war and dispels any romantic, heroic notions about war.  I think it should be required reading for anyone thinking about enlisting in the military as well as their families.  I skimmed most of the veteran’s stories ~ the details were too brutal for me.  I read enough, however, to become even more strident about world peace.

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11 responses to “Book Review: SOLDIER’S HEART: Close-up Today with PTSD in Vietnam Veterans by William Schroder and Ronald Dawe

  1. Wow, what a great post. I was surprised by the fact that PTSD can cause permanent brain damage, but intuitively it does make sense. I don’t think anyone that has suffered it a long time can really ever get back to where they were, and I think the damage aspect is an important part of this. I too am seeking self-help ways to help people with this problem because, as you know, if a mother gets labeled with ANYTHING, it will hurt her in family court, even if it was brought about by her abuser.

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  5. Hi Anne,

    Thank you for your kind words about Soldier’s Heart.

    You are correct, The details of PTSD are indeed brutal, and the symptoms first manifest beyond the veterans’ own experience with their struggle to adjust to civilian life. Away from the blood, gore and bared teeth of the combat zone, many experience difficult homecomings. Seemingly uncomfortable in their own skin, many abuse alcohol and other drugs, seek isolation from loved ones, and randomly and for no apparent reason exibit self destructive and counterintuitive levels of anger and even rage that frightens and confuse family and loved ones.

    Living in the shadowy interior of trhe brain’s limbic system and invisible to the untrained eye, PTSD reaches beyond its sticken victims negatively to influence a wide circle of loved ones. For years, families and friends hear bits and pieces – snippets – of wartime events the veterans faced in their lives. Grudgingly reveald, generalized and non-specific, their anecdotes leave the veterans’ loved ones yearning for more information, desperate to understand what made the veterans who they are, and if necessary for discovery, to know and feel the horrors their husbands, daughters, sons, brothers or fathers experienced.

    “What’s wrong with Dad? I don’t understand why he does those things.”

    “Aunt Marion is so unhappy. Will she ever find joy?”

    “The whole family was devistated when Roger took his life. Why? He had so much going for him?”

    Sadly, given today’s course of events in Iraq and Afghanistan, thirty years from now, researchers will have another generation of stricken combat veterans to study, but until that unhappy day, only Vietnam veterans provide a lifetime of experience with war trama from which we can learn a great deal.

    Again, thank you for informing your readers.

    William Schroder
    Author, Soldier’s Heart
    Close-up Today With PTSD in Vietnam Veterans
    http://www.soldiersheartbook.com

  6. Thanks, Nancy.

    I hear you. Family court is the only place where a crime victim can get punished for being brutally attacked. It’s just nuts.

    Did you happen to read the prior post??? While on the surface it may not appear to support your cause, I think it does profoundly. It essentially says that 40% of kids reside in abusive households. . .none of those kids get a solid foundation in life. . .they end up on a slippery slope that they aren’t able to ascend.

    A couple of decades ago, prosecutors started intervening in custody cases to get deadbeat dads to pay up ~ their real incentive was to keep mom and the kids off welfare.

    I’m wondering if prosecutors might similarly start intervening in family court issues because so many of the moms end up permanently on welfare ~ the PTSD renders most folks permanently disabled ~ its the brain damage.

    What boggles my mind is that states like WA will pay $20 billion/year for welfare (60% of people on welfare experienced abuse). But, they pay pennies to prevent the shit from hitting the fan. Makes absolutely no sense.

    I’m absolutely psyched by the progress y’all made this week. You are making history, Nancy.

    Sending hugs,
    Anne Caroline

  7. Mr. Shroder,

    I am humbled you found my review. Someone at Elliott Bay Books on Bainbridge Island, WA recommended your book highly. It is the most amazing book I’ve read in a very long time ~ your concept is absolutely brilliant and very well implemented.

    My own nephew was Marine special forces in the early days of Afghanistan. He came home a white hot mess. So, I know for certain what you say is absolutely true. Since I couldn’t read much of the soldiers’ stories about their combat experiences, I cannot fathom what it must be like to have actually been there. I do know that it is insane for us to send young people to war.

    And, I’m livid that my family has not been supportive of my nephew.

    I don’t know if you are aware of WA State’s First Gentleman’s commitment to veterans. He has created a parallel state veterans administration. My sense is that PTSD is a top priority for them. They do amazing things for veterans. I’m going to take the liberty of sending a link to my post to one of their directors and suggest she contact you and Dr. Dawe.

    With deepest respect,
    Anne Caroline Drake, MBA/JD

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