Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War

Stories From the Book: Gloria Fluck

We were part of a generation brought up to believe in family, God, and country. You had your family and your ability to worship God because of the country you lived in. You defended it. You stood up when the flag went by. You honored the president and the office-which I can't say I do now. But then I did.

His name was James Cassel Fluck. He was funny, adventurous, and daring. I was into studying. He was into running around. Then he got his draft notice and enlisted. He wanted to be in the Army, Special Forces. I think he looked at it as an adventure. So he went to Vietnam, and I went to nursing school.

When Jim came back from Vietnam, he went into the First Armored Cavalry at Fort Meade, which meant he could come home on weekends. I didn't notice the changes at first. But things started to show. He couldn't be out in a crowd. He didn't sleep a lot, had nightmares. Then he hit a commissioned officer. I think it came from his frustrations and his fears. He had spent twelve months sleeping in the jungle, and suddenly he can't make his own decisions. He was given the choice of a general discharge or court-martial, and he chose the general discharge.

You know, it makes so much sense. You take a nineteen-year old out of this area (Lancaster County, Pennsylvania), and this area twenty years ago was a lot more country, a lot more laid back than it is now. You knew your neighbor; you didn't lock your house. You take him out of here, you send him thousands of miles away to the jungle. He's never seen a jungle. You put a gun in his hands and say go fight. He's fighting someone he doesn't know or know anything about. He's spending every second of everyday wondering if he's going to see tomorrow. It's got to affect you. Especially if you're young.

He didn't want to talk about it. Nothing. Well, once in a while he'd talk about the snakes and the jungle. And once he told me he had shot someone and they later found out it was a kid, around sixteen. In my mind, he just tried to block it out as a chapter of his life he wasn't going to revisit. I respected his silence. I knew that eventually if people want to talk about something, they will. The only comment he'd ever say is, "If I ever have any sons, and there's another war, I will personally drive them to Canada."

He came home and started college, but he just couldn't do it. He got into plumbing, and from plumbing he got into business with a friend of his selling cars. Nothing seemed to work. We went through a phase where, if I lost weight, he said I had a boyfriend, and if I gained weight, I was fat.

The last year was bad. We were in a bankruptcy. He lost his business, the house, everything. I was working full-time, trying to keep the family together. I always took very high-stress, high-level positions because they gave me some time flexibility and a better salary. I was working nights and I really didn't want to leave him alone with the kids, so his mother came. We got up one morning and he had no idea where he was, didn't even know his mom. He was totally and completely out of touch with reality.

When he signed himself into the hospital, they called it acute depression, and blamed it all on the business and family. Nobody connected it to the war. I should have, but when you're so close to a situation, you don't always see. And this was 1976. Posttraumatic stress wasn't even recognized until 1982. I looked at his medical records later. They don't even say he was in the military.

When he was discharged, it was one of those-see you in six weeks. A mental health disaster. He was still on heavy sedation. He'd get up, take pills, go back to bed. He slept twenty-four hours a day. I knew it was serious, but he refused to sign himself back in. He should have been taken involuntarily because he had made threats, but the laws are very difficult to deal with. People used to put people away just to get rid of them. I was an RN who dealt with commitments through the emergency room all the time, and they still wouldn't listen to me. But, he followed through with his threats. When they found him, the mental health person who had refused to sign him into the hospital showed up with the state police. One of my coworkers just looked at her and said, "She told you, and you didn't listen."

Those were hard years, after Jim died. Mike was the oldest and he was only seven. I was working long hours, tired all the time. My parents helped, but money was always an issue. I pulled away from my friendships. Nobody wants to hear about a suicide. I don't go to high-school reunions. I don't go to nursing reunions. I don't want to have to rehash my life. You pull in and you become very private. You don't share at all. So that's the worst part.

The second worst part is you get to this age, and it's like-god, where'd my life go? I don't regret anything I did or didn't do, but it's like, well, this is the part of my life where things should be different. And they're not. I'm still working sixty hours a week and I'm still tired. I turn fifty-five this year. My feet hurt, my knees are gone, my back's gone, I'd like to ease off. It's not the life I would've chosen, but I don't think in life we're given a whole lot of choices. Jim had a choice. I think he would have been in a psychiatric ward for the rest of his life, and that would have been devastating to him. He didn't feel he was worthy of living, and I think that that's why he chose the path he chose. I think his choice probably was the best. Whatever life brings you, you deal with it.

And I was one of the fortunate ones. I had a profession that paid better than a lot of people's. If I had had to raise three kids at minimum wage, where would I have been? It's an election year, and I'm waiting for it to come out again that the problem with the world is single-parent families. That's a slap in the face to every single parent who has sacrificed to raise children to be productive members of society. I'm a single parent and I'm proud of my kids. Two of them have gone through college and come out owing nothing because I have sacrificed to get them through. I haven't asked the government to give them loans, grants, or anything, and yet they tell me I'm the reason society's in such bad shape. It really irritates me. If this had been dealt with right, if I had the benefits of a widow of a battle-related death, my life and my children's lives would have been very different. I would not have had to work full-time. I would have had more time to spend with my kids. And now, I would have enough to retire. To me, if people serve their country and something like this happens, the country owes them. The democracy and the government that you so support and believe in, you shouldn't have to fight. I'm not an activist or anything like that, but I shouldn't have to do this. But they want paperwork going back twenty-five years, and I'm on the third appeal.

Am I angry at him? Yes, some days. Do I feel sorry for him? Some days. Do I wish my life had been different? Well, yeah I do, but if it was, what kind of different person would I be? Someone told me God only gives you what you can handle. I've decided God maybe has a little bit of Alzheimer's and forgets, and he keeps giving me a little more.

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