Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War

Stories From the Book: Barbara Chism

I would never remarry. I'm in a relationship now, and I love Eliot, the man I'm with, but I don't want to be that close to anyone again. It's not really the institution of marriage I'm against, it's just the whole idea of being committed to someone and having them hurt you so bad by killing themselves.

Mack and my brother Mike were best friends all through high school. They joined the service together when they graduated. Mike joined the Navy. Mack joined the Marines and was sent to Vietnam. His company came under fire two months and two days into his second tour. He told all of his people to take cover and disregarded his own safety to remain on the gun. He lost one leg at the hip and the other one at the knee. Mike and my mother flew out to Philadelphia to see him get his medals. He was awarded the Purple Heart, Silver Star, National Service Defense medal, Vietnam Service medal, Vietnam Campaign medal-lots of medals. My Mack was dedicated to his country. He was a Marine. He was tough, but he looked pretty sad when they gave him those medals. I saw the pictures.

Every day we were apart during the engagement Mack called me or wrote me letters. Just the other day, I reread some of them. Even then he was telling me that he didn't feel like he could go on, but I didn't hear it. I was young and so in love. I wanted him to be the father of my children and I couldn't wait to be married. His family wanted me to make him wear the artificial legs. He hated them. They were heavy and cumbersome and they didn't fit right. He walked to our wedding, and that's the only time I ever saw him walk.

I was ambitious and gung-ho. He was reserved. After we were married, I got him into wheelchair basketball. I convinced him to buy an all-terrain vehicle so he could go hunting. And I got him to go to Southern Illinois University for a degree in industrial technology. I was going to save him, and I thought I was doing a damn good job of it. I was going to help him quit drinking and get him all straightened out. He kept promising me, but I realize now that everything he did was for me.

I never asked him to talk about the war. I didn't think he wanted to, so I protected him. He used to sit up alone and watch war movies after I went to bed. I would wake up three, four in the morning and go into the front room. There he'd be with a bottle at the table, smoking cigarette after cigarette, watching those old-fashioned war movies. I would say, "Honey, you should come to bed." But when he did, he was like, sweating in the bed, and tossing and turning all night. I think he was drinking a lot more than I realized, and probably taking a lot of Valium and other various pills that I didn't know about. I was so young. I knew he was taking medicine and I just accepted it. Then one day I came home and he was lying on the floor with an overdose of pills. My mother said, "What did you do to him to get to this point? Why didn't you try to save him?"

This was the first suicide attempt that I knew about. I called 911. They wanted to admit him to the psychiatric ward, but I decided that if he was going to kill himself, nothing was going to stop him. I told him, "We're staying married, we're having another baby, we're going to be happy." So he got out of the hospital, and everything was supposed to be fine. But it wasn't fine.

Mack graduated from college in 1974, and he got a job in Georgia. I stayed at SIU to finish my master's degree. I went to visit him in January. He wanted me to stay, but I wanted to finish school. When I got home to Illinois, he called and said, "I'm going to kill myself. I've got the gun right here and I want you to hear it." We had talked about suicide and crisis intervention in my classes at school, so I knew what to do. I told him to hold on, that our daughter Kim had just fallen down the stairs, and then I used another phone to call the local crisis center. They called the crisis center in Georgia, and the police went to his house while I still had him on the phone. They took his gun and saved his life that night. But the next day, January 18th, my brother Mike showed up at my door. He said he'd just stopped by with supper, but he lived three hours away and he never came see me, so when the police showed up half an hour later, I already knew. Mack had called my brother and told him to come be with me when I got the news.

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