Karen Spears Zacharias, a Gold Star daughter, lost her father, Staff Sgt. David P. Spears, in Vietnam’s Central Highlands in 1966. A Columbus native and former Ledger-Enquirer staff writer, she is author of “After the Flag has been Folded.” Her upcoming novel deals with the subject of post-traumatic stress disorder. “Burdy” will be released by Mercer University Press in September 2015. She can be reached at karenzach.com
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that post-traumatic stress disorder afflicts almost 31 percent of Vietnam veterans, 10 percent of Desert Storm veterans, 11 percent of Afghanistan veterans and 20 percent of Iraq war veterans.
But veterans aren’t the only community who suffer from PTSD. War correspondents like Joseph Galloway suffer as well. According to a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, nearly one-third of war journalists will suffer from PTSD during their careers. That’s about six times the rate of PTSD of other professions.
Gold Star Family members can also fall victim to PTSD as a result of second-hand trauma.
In this interview, Zacharias spoke with Galloway about his war reporting days and his own PTSD.
Who were the soldiers in your early life?
I was born three weeks before Pearl Harbor. I did not meet my Dad till late in 1945. He and five of his brothers, four of my Mom’s brothers were all in uniform in WWII. My first memories are of houses full of frightened women looking out the window for the telegraph delivery man.
As a young boy did you ever hear any soldier you knew talk about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder/PTSD?
I distinctly remember family talking about a returned soldier who came home “damaged mentally.” His legs were paralyzed and VA got him a car with hand controls. He became a drunk, self-medicating, and was found from time to time passed out in his car in a ditch somewhere. No one knew quite what to do to help him.
When you were a young journalist heading off to Vietnam, did you have any fears?
I was so eager to get to Vietnam before the war ended that my only real fear was that the first troops to land would finish off the Viet Cong and I would miss my war. I was 23 years old when I arrived in Vietnam in April 1965. I thought I was bulletproof, invincible, as young men often do before they see the elephant.
Did anyone, a mentor or a family member, give you any advice about adjusting to a war zone?
My Dad and all my uncles would not tell us kids war stories. Only jokes and funny stuff. Nobody offered any advice about going to war.
When do you think you first encountered someone with PTSD? What do you recall about that encounter?
I think the first soldier I ran across who was clearly unhinged by combat was in the Landing Zone X-Ray battle in November 1965. Although he seemed unwounded he was being medevac’d out of the battle. I shot a photo of him as he was walking toward the chopper and he was cursing everyone, me included.
Where you aware at the time that person was suffering from PTSD or was that something that only came to you in hindsight?
This was 1965 and we had never heard of Post-Traumatic Stress. I think that term did not come into being until sometime after 1968. I just thought the first guy I saw was what my uncles referred to as “shell shocked.”
When did it dawn on you that you yourself might be suffering from PTSD?
My first tour in Vietnam lasted 16 months. I left to go home and get married. We settled down in Tokyo, my next assignment. I began having a nightmare that was always the same: I was on my knees begging for my life and a North Vietnamese officer was pointing a pistol in my face.
I could see his finger tightening on the trigger. Just as he pulled it I came up fighting for my life, and threw my wife out of bed and against the wall of our apartment. It scared her badly; scared me worse.
But we journalists were so sure that we were immune to all we witnessed in combat. After all we talked about our experiences among ourselves. So I just moved on with my life and career.
Later I noticed that with the arrival of fall each year, November to be precise, I went just a bit crazy. I thought it was seasonal depression until in 1986 or 87 when I attended my first reunion of my old 1st Cavalry Division buddies. A light went on in my head. We were ALL a bit crazy at that time of year and for good reason. We also found that getting together and sharing the stories helped us all smooth things out so we could go on for another year.
Journalists deploy to war zones and others areas of catastrophe on an almost daily basis. How much preparation are they given for dealing with what they encounter?
Not very much, at least during my 43 years of covering America’s wars. First time we ever tried to help the greenhorns heading for combat for the first time was in 2003 as Knight Ridder was preparing to send 37 reporters to war.
In 2002 at a Marine Combat Correspondents reunion in Florida I suggested that the military would do well to offer a boot camp of sorts for novice correspondents. The Marine Corps chief of information took notes and called me later to tell me that the Pentagon was going to act on my idea. Knight Ridder asked me to write a memo for our reporters telling them how to cover so dangerous an operation without getting killed out of ignorance. You can find a copy of that memo by Googling it, I believe.
You have remained good friends with several journalists from your days in war zones. Do you all ever talk about those times and the effect of all that upon you?
Several of my old good friends from those days have gotten together a few times and talk of those times and all the friends who were killed trying to see and report the truth of war. We don’t focus so much on if, or how much, we were damaged by what we witnessed or participated in.
What was the worst case of PTSD you ever came across? Soldier or journalist?
The worst cases of PTSD are usually confined for treatment in a VA facility. I have had some journalists coming home from recent wars seek me out basically to ask me if I thought they were going crazy. I assured them that theirs was a normal reaction to the horrors of war and urged them to get some help. After the beginning of the Iraq War my own employer Knight Ridder hired psychologists who interviewed returning war correspondents, and checked up on them periodically to make sure they were OK.
What do you think the general public fails to understand about PTSD?
I really can’t speak for the general public and what they know or don’t know about PTSD. Or about war itself. If you haven’t seen war up close and personal you really can’t know what it is and what it does to those on the field of battle.
It seems to me that journalists are even more reluctant than soldiers to seek treatment for PTSD. Do you have an observations about why that might be so?
Soldiers and journalists alike are reluctant to seek treatment, and for the same reason: A fear that it is a confession of fear, and may damage your career. I long ago worked out my own way of dealing with PTSD, and that is simply to utilize each day to its maximum potential, working to make this world a better place for our having survived and their having died.
How has your own PTSD affected you?
I notice that as the years dwindle down to a precious few I weep a lot more often as the memories cross my mind. A photo of a young widow sprawled atop the grave of her soldier husband at Arlington Cemetery leaves me choked with grief and sobbing aloud. I used to believe that time would let those memories fade and allow me a measure of peace. I know better now. We aren’t allowed to forget; we aren’t supposed to forget. As long as even one of us remembers them our friends are not dead.
Employers shy away from hiring people who have been diagnosed with PTSD. Should they?
There should be no employer penalty or refusal to hire those who have suffered from PTSD. They are not insane. Their reaction to what they have seen, what they have done, what has happened to them is normal. All they need is some counselling and some understanding. They are good people.
Do you think Gold Star family members can suffer from PTSD even though they have never been in a combat zone?
Absolutely. The families of the fallen have suffered the most grievous wound of all. They have seen a loved one sacrificed in a war, and theirs is a pain that never heals, never goes away.
If we have a loved one suffering from PTSD what kind of things should we know/do to help them?
Urge them to get some counselling; to spend some time talking with others afflicted by PTSD. Understand what has brought them to that point. Love them. Hold them. Comfort them. Tell them that they will get better, and help them get there. – Joe.
Reprinted with Joe and Karen’s approval.