Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War

Stories From the Book: Paula Elvick

My dad was a real GI Joe. He wore his fatigues around the house all the time, and he had a military strictness. You didn't obey the rules, you got put in the brig. He was a lifer, a patriot, and we were brought up to "love your country."

I don't think he would have chosen to go to Vietnam. He was a veteran of the war in Korea. He was thirty-nine, an old guy, when they told him to go to Vietnam. He went where they told him to go. He spoke a little Vietnamese and lived in a Vietnamese home, so he got to know some of them pretty well. I remember he wrote that he was sorry to be there in such a hard time because it was such a beautiful country and such a beautiful culture. Those are the kinds of things he wrote about. I think he was trying to protect us from the rest.

When he came home, in 1968, we were stationed at Travis Air Force Base in California. Everybody could see he'd changed. He was going through-I'm sure they were stress attacks, but I don't know. They were like nightmares. He would wake everybody up screaming. One of them was really scary. I found him crawling in the hall. He was talking to me in another language, I guess Vietnamese. At first I wasn't frightened, just curious what he was doing. I thought he was awake. But then I realized that he wasn't, and I got my mother.

He started going out to bars a lot around that time. It was extremely stressful for all of us to see a person who used to be outgoing, boastful-you know, happy-come back withdrawn, negative, mean, abusive, with us never understanding why. It came to a point where I hated him and I absolutely blamed the war.

When I was twenty-eight, I moved to New York to go to law school. My father called me the night he shot himself. He told me he missed me. He wanted to drive to New York and get me. I told him I'd be coming home at the end of the summer. To this day, I look back at the conversation. I didn't hear desperation. If I had known anything about suicide at that time, I would probably have caught some of the things he was talking about. "Did you know," he said, "that when you were a baby I took out an insurance policy for you and your brother?" That was as clear as could be, but I didn't hear it. Then I got a phone call at five in the morning saying that he was dead.

When my dad died, my mother was very ill. I had to pull the funeral together. I went to the VA to ask for help to bury him. I took my father's briefcase full of his commendations and his medals and stuff like that, but when I told them he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, they said, "The VA won't pay for that." I was so devastated. I had to go to a private funeral home. The day of the burial, the VA called me and said they'd made a terrible mistake. They offered to bury him in a military cemetery with a color guard, which is the twenty-one-gun salute and the flag and all that. I said it was too late, I'd already paid for the plot. But I took the color guard because I wanted him to have a military funeral.

The VA didn't give us anything. They told me that when he killed himself, his pension died with him. It's been a hard thing for me to forgive. My baby brother wasn't even fifteen.

I finished my law degree, but then I got suspended. That's a different story, but I drank myself out of it. I knew I was in real trouble. My middle brother, Pete, said he was going to be away and I could have his place in Mendocino while he was gone to work things out. I went home to pack my things and was all ready to come, when I got another five-in-the-morning phone call. Pete had driven his car off a cliff. I didn't see it coming at all. He had a daughter and a son, and he loved his kids so much.

I hit bottom about two months after that, and finally got some help. I still go to AA meetings at the VA. My brothers and sister are all sober now too-well, except one. He's the baby. We're working on him. Sometimes when I get together with my sister and brothers, we go through old pictures and try to figure out when things changed, when things started. We try to understand what they went through, and why it was so bad that they had to take themselves away from us. And then, what happened to us?

Vietnam-that's what happened. Before that we were a family. When my father came back, everything fell apart.

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