Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Ravaging Our Young War Vets

He was racing in a Humvee with four other soldiers, having arrived there just days before, 19 years old. The day he got there his best friend was shot in the head, boom, gone in an instant. Now he was racing along this road when a missile directly hit the cab of the vehicle. One guy’s legs were gone and another was killed right away, and the missile flew right by his head, just missing him. He seemed uninjured, but he was, and now he is back in Boston.

It was a sunny August afternoon in Boston as I leaped into a cab. I had just finished attending a conference of great religious educators at Boston University, and I was feeling very good about my presentation. I thought it was a home run because I really connected with the message and the people.

The 50-something Irish cab driver, whose presence I immediately felt, had ruddy skin, a decently sized belly, and a fabulous shock of white hair. He was struggling with why he picked me up. “This is not my area,” he said. “I could get into trouble.” He asked me which way he should take me to get to the train at Back Bay, which was unusually indecisive for a local cabbie, suggesting that he was distracted.

The driver kept talking about complicated choices, and I became intrigued. I said to myself, “This man has troubles. He needs to talk.” Coming off the conference I felt confident in my listening abilities. So I asked him where he was from, and out poured his story like a gushing fire hydrant. His tough Boston voice started to choke and his neck turned a deeper red. His son had come home from Afghanistan a different person. “How was he different?” I asked. “It’s hard to say,” he responded. “He doesn’t hold down any food. If he eats, he vomits everything.” My stomach convulsed a little, my head already in Afghanistan. I had lost balance before, and I wondered about the young man’s his inner ear and what the roar of the missile might have done. I asked the cab driver if his son had seen an ENT specialist, and the father said that someone else had suggested that, and then immediately took out a pen at the red lights and started writing the suggestions furiously. I thought, “This is a father.”

I wondered if the son was becoming emaciated. How could he have slipped through the care system if he couldn’t eat? I asked if there was anything else unusual, and he said, “Yeah, he can eat late at night just fine, but come the morning, he can’t hold anything again.” I thought about day-and-night rhythms of the body that I know nothing about, but I also wondered when the missile strike occurred, and what was he doing at that minute. Finally I thought, post-traumatic stress disorder.

But I didn’t know, I didn’t know, and then I was at Back Bay, and I didn’t want to get out of this Boston cab. I told him about PTSD, and he wrote furiously; we were blocking traffic. I said that a therapist must talk with his son about the exact circumstances of the strike. I told the father that he was doing all the right things by caring and studying and paying attention, and how good a father he was.

I gave him a huge tip, out of guilt, out of damn guilt that it is his son who pays the price for the crazy inability of our superpower democracy to stabilize a small poor country, because what we mostly have invested in until recently are weapons to destroy, not the means to cultivate life and liberty, and not resources to heal wounded 19-year-olds who may never again eat breakfast.

War is horrible, it is why I fight against it every day of my life. I entered a cab in my beautiful Boston, and in five minutes I was in a cab with four 19-year olds, bundled up with weapons and helmets and boots, and absolutely defenseless before the monstrous appetite of war for human blood.

The news in recent days of high-level engagement with the Taliban reveals a fresh American approach to bringing a truly stable peace to Afghanistan and the troops home, something I have worked on. But right now I can’t stop thinking of the father, driving and writing, in search of a way to make his veteran son whole again, and I bless General Petraeus for opening a door to the end of this terrible war.

© Marc Gopin