Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War

Stories From the Book: Joyce Garcia

Bobby used to tell me stories about his days in Vietnam and I didn't understand. He was a paratrooper and saw a lot of the war from the air. I knew it was hard for him to tell me about the killing. All he told me was that he hated guns and didn't ever want one in the house. Bobby never looked at me when he told me these things. He became stiff and stared off into who knows where. I learned not to ask many questions because he seemed to hate himself for telling me.

Bobby was not a man who wore combat boots to prove a point. He wore his because he was trying to show he was not ashamed of his fellow veterans. He was appalled at the behavior of the public toward the soldiers. It made him mad, and it brought tears to his eyes when he saw fellows missing an arm or a leg out in public. I learned that he was one of those who felt some guilt that he still had his limbs and his life while others didn't. He began to feel like nothing was ever going to help him stop hearing the grenades go off in his dreams. He said he could still smell burning flesh. I just grimaced. It was not easy for him. I wanted to enjoy life, and he was feeling guilty that he had one.

He began to come home late from work, and he started to ask me what I did all the living day long. I began to think I was married to a stranger. I believe he was finally coming to the realization that the Vietnam War was not going to leave him just because he left it. By the time he died we were separated and I was working at a large inner-city department store and beginning to discover that the world was much larger than I ever imagined. I had friends that made Bobby cringe. I met people he didn't understand.

He was only twenty-five years old when he died by clamping the hose of our vacuum cleaner to the exhaust pipe of our red and white pickup truck and then securing it by tape and cardboard to the window of our car. He sat there alone and died. It was February 13. We had a date for the next day, for Valentine's Day, and it must have been just too painful for him to have to plan a date with his wife who was living away from him. I had been gone from him for just over three months, and we had been talking about trying again. He must not have thought the date was going to do any good. Was he remembering that I was beginning to be afraid of him because he could not sleep and was cranky every day? Was he thinking I was getting too aware of his drinking? I had started to ask questions: Why was he always either sleeping heavily or so awake he was almost manic? Why did he drive the car like a fool and put us all in danger? Why and why and why?

It is nearing the anniversary of his death, and I always feel it coming on. The rest of the year I can be strong and can feel the distance, but February always feels so sad to me.

He didn't die in honor with a bullet through his body shot by the enemy, but was taken from all his loved ones just as surely as if he were shot on the field of war. He never had one night's peaceful sleep since he came back from Vietnam.

I was twenty-one when my husband died, and I'm fifty now. I did not lose my love for Bobby when he died. I did not lose my faith in him when he disappeared. I lost me. I have spent the last twenty-nine years striving to live a life Bobby would have been happy to share with me. I am getting more bewildered by his death as the years go on. Right now I am having some real issues with why the hell didn't he take into consideration that I might need him even more as the years passed? And his daughter, it's much harder for her. I at least knew him. I knew he was a good man. All she knows is that he left her behind.

Bobby gave up his life, not years later all alone in that truck. He really gave it up when he went to war, when he put on a uniform and learned to jump out of a plane. Bobby was an honorable man. He never sought help from the Army for the demons who chased him in his sleep and made him jump out of his skin when he heard a car backfire. He didn't know there was help. It was the early days and no one knew there was help to be had for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He just thought he was going nuts, and before he went over the edge by accident, and maybe took his family with him, he decided to do it quietly. He even made sure he did all his laundry beforehand so I wouldn't have to come back to the house to do it for him. He even made the bed. There was not one thing left for me to tidy up when I went back to the house. There was no note either. He did not say good-bye. He just went quietly away.

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