See, the darkness is leaking from the cracks.
I cannot contain it. I cannot contain my life.
- Sylvia Plath, "Three Women"
I was stationed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany in 1981, and had the opportunity to spend the last weekend of August in Paris, France. These, now, are my memories of Paris, for the tragedy that unfolded before my eyes on that Saturday afternoon overshadowed any of the sweeter sights and sounds of the city.
It was a dark and quiet Saturday afternoon in the Latin Quarter of Paris, on the left bank of the Seine. A man stood on a rooftop and shouted. He shouted down to the people on the street below and at the people in the sidewalk café. After a final blood-curdling scream, he dove into the air, and landed headfirst on the roof of a small blue parked car. Then he rolled off the car and spilled onto the cobblestone street. He died, lying there with a dark crimson pool of blood spreading slowly out around his head, and his light brown overcoat crumpled up around him like a shroud. Nobody came crying out to him. No one seemed to care.
A little boy was making his way down the street playing kick the can with an empty Orange Crush can. He stopped and looked over at the man, curious for a few moments, then went back to the business at hand, kicking his cylindrical toy down the street, around the corner, and out of sight. Some of the patrons in the café continued their meals, but the small band of tourists who had stopped for lunch at the café stood wide-eyed and open-mouthed, standing near the little white picket fence that separated the café from the sidewalk and the general public, watching helplessly as the tragedy unfolded.
After a few minutes a small police car and an ambulance came squealing around the corner, red lights flashing and sirens blurting, and came to shrill tired halts. The police officers and ambulance attendants got out of their vehicles. They inspected the man lying in the street and the caved-in roof of the parked car. Then a man came out of the building, which sat like a silent witness to the tragedy, and spoke to them; the officers took out their note pads to begin their paperwork about the incident.
After all the questions were answered, the workers tucked the man's body neatly into the back of the ambulance on a stretcher and covered with a clean white sheet. The men got back into their vehicles and drove away. All that remained to mark where the man had died was a dent in the parked car and a dark stain on the cobblestone street. The tourists gathered their belongs and shuffled onto the bus that had come to collect them, and that was it; it was over. Paris and the day moved on.
We had been raising our wine glasses to toast Paris when the shouting began, and with our meals hardly eaten, we mournfully watched as they picked the poor soul off the street, shoved him into the ambulance, and drove away. On the way to the Louvre, our tour guide told us that the suicide rate in Paris was astronomically high because of the country’s economic circumstances. He said that the Eiffel Tower had become such a popular place for people to jump off that it now had to be wrapped with barbed wire fencing in certain places where people could gain access to jump into the Paris sky and certain death. He went on to say that Parisians were not callous, but numbed from the sight of seeing people die this way.
I sat slumped in my seat, unable to rid myself of the vivid images in my mind: the man dying, the boy with the soda can. I shuffled through the rest of that weekend in Paris like a zombie. A large part of the wonder and excitement of being in Paris, the “city of lights,” had vanished.
I was twenty-four years old when I rode on that tour bus to Paris, and that event has stayed with me through all the years since; it crouches in the corner waiting in some deep dark recess of my mind. I have learned to live with it and move on with my life. I have quietly become uncomfortably numb.
But my experience in Paris turned out to be only a prelude.
When I returned to my dormitory room at Ramstein AB I was exhausted from the weekend trip; instead of walking to work as usual, down the narrow wooded path that separated the working and living sections of the base, I climbed aboard the small shuttle bus that would take me to my post.
It was on this morning that the truly unthinkable happened. A bomb exploded as we passed USAFE headquarters; I thought the bus had hit the curb but actually, the curb had hit the bus. What remained of the car bomb was a mass of twisted, burning metal; it sat spitting and smoking in front of what was left of the entrance to the USAFE-NATO headquarters building.
I remember being very shook up, but I had not sustained any physical injures that anyone could see. In shock, sitting still in the seats, inside the safety of the shuttle bus, the passengers traveled on again, after a brief stop, to their separate destinations on the base. Everyone moved on.
It was reported the next day that a German rogue military group calling itself "The Red Army" had taken responsibility for this horrific attack, one of many violent acts in a long stream carried out by the terrorist faction called the Sigurd Debus unit. Eighteen US Airmen were injured, along with a Brigadier General who lost his leg, a Lieutenant, and two West German visitors. The car, loaded with explosives and left in the parking lot in front of the building, must have detonated earlier than planned, because the majority of the workforce was not present when the explosion's thundering boom ripped through the quiet morning air.
Germany and my Air Force career were over in my mind. Now, I was no longer eager to go to work, socialize with my coworkers, or communicate with my family back home in the States. The few people I considered friends I avoided. I didn't know it at the time but I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Life no longer seemed as promising as it once had, and the realization that living in the United States would be so much safer was screaming out loud in my mind. I was scared. Pursuing an early out of my assignment was now front and center. I wanted to leave Germany and the Air Force behind me. I wanted to move on.
"Remembering, Remembering, that sweet world so bitter to taste."
- Jack Kerouac, Desolation Angels
According to Helpguide.org, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a normal reaction by sane people to a traumatic situation or event. It can be brought on by a many types of of events and experienced by people from all walks of life. Past and present wars; natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and wildfires; terrorist attacks like 9-11, Beirut, suicide bombs in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel and Palestine; the genocide in Darfur; the drug wars in Mexico; the hate crimes and gang wars of the United States; rape and domestic violence against women; robberies and riots; the social uprising in Iran…the list can go on and on into infinity.
The symptoms of PTSD can be as varied and nuanced as the causes. They can include feelings of detachment, avoidance of others, depression, and numbness. Over-sensitivity and bipolar mood swings are the hallmarks of this condition. Left untreated it can lead to violence against others and suicide due to self-loathing.
For some people suffering from PTSD, seeking treatment can be as simple as joining a support group and connecting to others with the disorder. Many people seek professional therapy, and doctors can prescribe medication. However, the vast majority of individuals suffering from PTSD never seek treatment; they live in deep, dark denial, self-medicating with alcohol, or with marijuana or other illegal drugs, in an effort to keep their inner wolves at bay.
One of the most important facts for a PTSD sufferer to know is that you are not alone in this world; there will always be those around you with shared experiences if you just reach out and seek help. I told myself long ago that I was a survivor, no matter what comes my way I would never give up, and someday I would feel normal again. I am still trying.
Today I have the support of my husband and family and I feel happier than I ever have in my life. I have difficulties and will always have this condition, but I can cope with it now. I am working to overcome my long list of fears and phobias; dogs, loud noises, and spies in my computer head this list, and I am, in my opinion, the most paranoid individual to ever touch a keyboard.
I also alienate twice the number of people I attract; this will always be one of the by-products of my disorder. I hope anyone I have offended with my harsh overreactions and words can accept my apology today and tomorrow. I am not justifying myself here, but attempting to clear the air for myself and anyone who feels they may have the same condition. I have never been officially treated by the Air Force for PTSD, and I don't collect SSI disability benefits, although sometimes I contemplate filing for them!
I have long since forgiven myself for not being able to cope with things that happened and were beyond my control, both before and after my time served in the military. I have moved on.