A few months ago, Maximilian Uriarte A.K.A Terminal Lance Corporal Uriarte, USMC drew up and posted a strip for his wildly popular and successful webcomic Terminal Lance titled “The Veteran Moment”. You can see the strip here. In it, the main character of the strip is sitting down at a restaurant to eat when he overhears two presumably college student civilians out on a date and getting absolutely everything wrong about everything regarding the War on Terror to the point of near insulting cluelessness. This prompts the main character, one Lance Corporal Abe to lose his shit at them. This is what Uriarte dubs “The Veteran Moment”, that moment when you’ve heard enough from people talking about things they know nothing about as if their words were worth anything more than the hot air coming out their mouths and you have the near inescapable urge to correct these people but at that moment your mind is just filled with so much rage that you can’t help but let it off on them and thus completely validate their opinions on the matter.
This is not a Veteran Moment of Terminal Lance’s definition. This is me having followed the advice that Uriarte gives at the bottom of the strip to remain calm and carry on with your life. Some things still need to be addressed though and I have decided to take it upon myself to address them. This series of articles in a nutshell will be about correcting mistakes, misinterpretations, and misinformation about the military in fiction, obviously with a focus on comics first but in a lot of cases these issues are universal throughout media. This column is going to be a complete 180 from my I Love a Woman who can Kick my Ass series, that column is about exulting in awesome characters and accentuating the positive so that we can all enjoy it. This column is about accentuating the negative, pointing out inaccuracies, and on occasion shedding light on some ugly truths. This is not a column of me being nice.
That previous sentence leads me in perfectly to the first thing I want to talk about and the first punch of the column series. %*#@ Rambo: First Blood, %*#@ that movie so much. Yeah, Rambo helped point out the fact that America had for all intents and purposes abandoned thousands of its veterans after the Vietnam War and left them to rot and I acknowledge that as a good thing on its part. However, the movie also inadvertently created a problem almost as bad as the one it helped solve. Rambo started the trend in everyone’s collective consciousness that we were all liable to flip out, grab a gun, and start shooting the place up. The trope of the disturbed veteran that goes off the deep end is everywhere these days. You can’t take a step without tripping over four or five of them.
Obviously it wasn’t always this way of course and I suppose I should take a few moments to acknowledge some of the notable veteran comics characters that have never failed to show us in a good light. The only ones I know off the top of my head are Captain America, John Stewart, Carol Danvers, and War Machine. I’d like to add Ben Grimm to that list but since Marvel is hyping a new storyline with him titled “Ben Grimm: Murderer” I’m going to go ahead and preemptively count him out of the running.
It certainly doesn’t help in the slightest that the single most well-known military themed “superhero” is The Punisher. I put superhero in quotations because really Frank Castle is a sociopath with a lot of guns and a moral code that leaves him just barely more tolerable than what he fights. He’s Dexter Morgan without the scalpel, a serial killer of killers and he’s unfortunately the first thing most people think of when they hear the words military and comic books put together in a sentence. In Punisher Max it is heavily suggested by Garth Ennis that Frank Castle grew to love war and killing during his tours in Vietnam.
That isn’t PTSD, no matter what fiction writers who only half-assed their research try to tell you. PTSD does not cause a person to fall in love with killing. That’s a symptom of a mind afflicted with far worse problems than PTSD. What it is, I don’t know as I’m not a psychologist but this next guy is and he has a pretty good explanation for what actually is going on. In this video from Dr. Larry Lewis he describes the Punisher’s behavior as that of an addict. He kills and kills and kills because for him, the killing is the heroin, the cocaine, the crack that helps him cope. But it’s only a temporary high, so his body count keeps rising and rising. For the record, on that same Youtube channel Dr. Lewis has a video explaining the behavior of Rambo as well, and while the word PTSD is mentioned in that Rambo likely cannot connect with people outside of the PTSD community the actual explanation offered is that of a man who has been pushed to the breaking point and then finally beyond and reacts the only way he knows how; with the violence that he has been taught to wield.
So if the actions of John Rambo and The Punisher aren’t PTSD then what is? A diagnosis of PTSD is given when the patient exhibits the following. Firstly they experienced a traumatic event. It is important to note that a traumatic event can be all sorts of things, yes the most obvious and stereotypical are things such as frontline combat or a violent sexual assault/rape but it surprisingly can be things such as piloting a UAV and watching the frontline combat or delivering a missile payload and watching the aftermath. A lot of armchair soldiers and militarists deride this as a not really traumatic and say that the person in question is faking it. I say that unless these people are licensed psychologists then they can shut their fat face and go back to playing their war games because their opinions on the matter mean nothing.
Next, is persistent re-experiencing. This blog paints a pretty good picture of what that phrase means. Arachne Jericho is the pen name of a sufferer of PTSD and explains that it’s sort of like your brain experiencing something and yelling out “DO NOT WANT!” and cannot process it, but it also can’t get rid of it or forget it. So your brain does the equivalent of throwing a tarp over the memories and every so often something happens that lifts up all or a portion of that tarp and you get the re-experience. Most of the time it’s subtle, sometimes it’s not. Next on the list is persistent avoidance and emotional numbing, this one is self-explanatory I believe. The sufferer tries to avoid and distance themselves from factors that have a chance of making them relive the event.
Number four is persistent symptoms of increased arousal not present before. Arousal here means “physiological response issues, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, or problems with anger, concentration, or hypervigilance. Additional symptoms include irritability, angry outbursts, increased startle response, and concentration or sleep problems.” The final two criteria for diagnosis are duration of symptoms for more than one month and significant impairment as in the symptoms must significantly impair one’s ability to deal with life activities such as social relations or occupational activities.
At this point, I’m sure that people who pay attention to what I write and my interview with Marc Andreyko are likely asking themselves some questions about me, like when I said “And when you started going into PTSD, she acts, you have her acting exactly the way I’ve seen many soldiers act…” did I hesitate and phrase my question awkwardly because I meant to say “she acts exactly how I act”? I’ll go ahead and give you the answer.
I don’t know if I have PTSD. I’m honestly afraid to find out so I’ve never brought it up when asked at our mandatory mental health screenings. I know that I exhibit a couple of the common symptoms sometimes from having done my own research into the affliction. But it could be anything, it could be simple coincidence, or it could be PTSD. I don’t know. I don’t want to know. A large part of that is just simple not wanting to have proof that my head is messed up. Part of it is knowing that what symptoms I do or do not have are manageable and minor and thus the Veteran’s Association can better spend their time and money elsewhere with people who legitimately need help instead of wasting it on me. And lastly is fear, for when I get out of the Army. I realize that those statements can be taken as proof of avoidance and I’ll say that there is a reason that I’m avoiding the issue.
The world and our society act with understanding towards people with PTSD, as long as they stay near the help circles set up by our government. Get too far away from them and suddenly all that understanding dries up. I knew a Soldier that was getting out of the Army on a med board, his time in the Army had given him significant medical issues and bad PTSD was part of them. The first thing I asked him once the med board went through and it was certain that he was getting out was where he was going and was there a good VA presence there? Thankfully he replied that yes, there was a very good VA where he was going, that he had visited them before and they had helped him when he needed it even though technically it wasn’t their job due to him still being Active Army at the time. I was very relieved, nobody wants to hear about their friend out in the middle of nowhere with no support when they need it.
It’s just you amidst the civilian population, and they are leery of hiring you or giving you a chance to prove yourself because it’s listed in your resume’ that you’re a combat veteran so you obviously must have PTSD and the only thing they know about PTSD is what they see in the movies or television that says you’re going to snap at the slightest provocation and hurt somebody. You’ve given your blood, your sweat, and your tears for this country, you’ve broken your body, broken your heart, and likely broken a part of your soul so that Joe and Jen civilian can live their lives in comfort and for all that they are afraid of you! All because Hollywood and the media watched Rambo, saw the success, and saw dollar signs in their eyes. It was all downhill from there. That is the situation for a former military with PTSD that doesn’t have access to a VA and sometimes even the situation for those that do.
If for some reason you don’t believe me, here’s some proof for you from a few studies. If you don’t believe that then I have a story for you about a friend of mine. I knew my friend from back in high school, and we pretty much grew up together. He joined the Army a few years after I did and ended up in the Signal Corps. He was a guy in charge of communications, making sure that we could talk to each other both for mission and morale purposes. During his tours in Iraq he saw some action, not much just a little more than I did. He ended up with PTSD and when he got out and tried to find a job using his hard earned skills in telecommunications he was treated like a hot potato. No one would have him despite years of experience in the field, not even for an entry level position. He eventually managed to find a job at a quarry in order to make ends meet. These days he works as a manager at a Pizza Hutt. Years of experience in telecommunications, and yet now the best my friend can do is get a job making and overseeing the making of pizza. Sound familiar?
David Morrell had the best of intentions when he wrote the original novel First Blood, there’s no way he could have foreseen the problems that Rambo would cause veterans thirty, forty years later. Still though, %*#@ that movie. I’ve had enough for now, and I’ve gotten all angry again. I’m going to walk away for the time being and calm it down, come back to these topics another day. Next time I’ll be discussing Hollywood Tactics.