PTSD And Its Lasting Effects
Nine out of ten people in North America have probably never heard of the protracted Angolan War — the15-year battle in Angola — by the end of which more than one million persons had died, and about which President Ford is reported to have said that he had “permitted Kissinger to design a disaster.” To me, however, it is the memory of how it affected young people, about whom I cared very much, that still haunts me to this day.
This is, in fact, why I devoted such a great deal of space to agonizing about it in my book The Yardstick, the third in a trilogy, the Beauclaire Saga, set in South Africa. I did so by creating a secondary school headmaster by the name of Mark, and having his wife tell about him when asked why he had resigned, and why he had chosen, instead, to become the principal of a small primary school in the Kalahari Desert.
“Angola!” she responds. “Mark got to the stage where it just about broke his heart when, year after every year, as a new group of his boys turned sixteen, he had to start handing out the forms for registration in the armed forces. He’d seen too many of them return, changed forever! South Africans had never been conscripted before. And that made the situation even more deplorable..”
“I can understand that someone as sensitive as he was, and who loved his students so dearly, would have hated that,” observes her questioner. “Because I was at university then I, myself, was fortunate only to be called up periodically for three-month spells at a time, but that was bad enough. At times not as much because of what we endured, as from what we saw!”
He goes on to relate that some, when called up, were innocently quite excited to be going, but there were many like himself — young, angry, and unable to understand why they were being made to go! He pitied the ones who were obliged to be there for longer spells. One of them had sickened him by describing, vividly, how he had seen dogs eating dead bodies in the street!
I Was That Principal!
I recall once having to answer to an hysterical mother who justifiably had strong views on the subject. The news that her first husband had been killed in Angola had reached her only hours before the birth of her son, and a few years later she refused to marry a really fine man unless he would agree to emigrate. As she put it to me, she did not want to raise her young son only to become what she called “cannon fodder, like his father!”
She was of the opinion, and quite rightly so, that many people who were leaving the country at that time — not easy to accomplish considering that many countries, including the United States, the very one which had involved them in the conflict in the first place, had recently imposed severe sanctions from which she didn’t think that South Africa would ever completely recover — were doing so precisely because they did not want their sons involved.
What really incensed her, she went on to say about conscription, was that South Africans had long had a proud history of volunteering for active service — in two World Wars and elsewhere — pointing out that its pilots, for example, had been among the best who flew during the Battle of Britain. Even in Korea there had been the intrepid “Cheetahs.”
“What do we have to do with the Cubans?” she wailed. “Why do we have to fight them? Our people, men and women, have always believed in a cause! Now we have been pulled into a Vietnam-like conflict that has nothing to do with us and which no one can understand, and when our troops return, some maimed and crippled — not only physically, but mentally and emotionally — it is to find that others are occupying the jobs they might have had!”
What Continues To Distress Me
I, personally, did not move to what was called a “primary” as opposed to “high” school. Before very long I gave up teaching altogether, but I continue to keep in touch with many of my former students, and it still distresses me when, among them, I find those Angolan vets who cannot stick to a job for very long…many with a string of broken marriages behind them…some alcoholic, or addicted to drugs; and among them, some of those who have emigrated from the country of their birth, hoping to find solace elsewhere.
What hurts most is that some of them have been described as “crazy” or “mentally ill,” and this is why I have put Canadian Senator, Lieutenant-General the Hon. Roméo A. Dallaire, O.C., C.M.M., G.O.Q., M.S.C., C.D. (Ret’d), on a pedestal. I have paid tribute to him, the author of the book Shake Hands with the Devil, on the flyleaf of my own book.
He writes graphically of how, as a result of an operational stress injury in Rwanda in 1994, he developed a condition identified as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and was subsequently medically released from the Canadian Forces in April 2002. He used his own dreadul experience to make the world aware of PTSD.
How pleased I was, then, to read an article by the Associated Press Writer Anne Flaherty, on Sun. Aug 15, 2:22 pm ET, under the heading “Advocates see trouble for misdiagnosed soldiers.” She writes from Washington, “At the height of the Iraq war, the Army routinely dismissed hundreds of soldiers for having a personality disorder when they were more likely suffering from the traumatic stresses of war, discharge data suggests.”