Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War

Stories From the Book: Ruth Murtaugh

My son Don was a nice boy, a hardworking boy, but then he hit that teenage stage and he thought he knew everything. He wanted to be on his own and he thought the best way was to join the army. He volunteered for Vietnam. We didn't want him to go, and we could've stopped him, but I just don't believe in doing things like that. If he wanted to go, that was his prerogative. He acted like he couldn't wait to get away, but the first month we had huge telephone bills. He was so young.

After the first year, he came home on leave, and I don't remember thinking he had changed much. But then he reenlisted, went back for another year, and when he came home the second time, it was horrible. He had been busted in Vietnam. He was a Spec 4 when he went and he got busted back to a private. I have no idea what the reason for it was, but he was very bitter about the whole thing, about the war. Our boy was very patriotic, but he was carrying on about this rotten country and how they don't give a damn about anything.

We live in McAllen, Texas. McAllen is a conservative town and, when the war started, I think most people felt, like I did, that it was a bad situation, but there was nothing you could do about it; you had to more or less accept it. But by the time it had finished, by the time I had seen what it had done to these boys, how they came back and were so bitter, I felt disgusted. I tried to put on a brave front, but I was angry about all the young men who had gone off to a useless war. And I think that's exactly what it was.

When Don was sober, he was wonderful, but when he was drunk, he was disgusting. He'd show up at my house and I'd feed him and he'd sit there for a while and sort of slobber, and then he'd say he was going home. I don't know how many DUIs he got. Oh, he made me mad! I probably should have gotten angrier with him, but I don't think it would have saved him. I tried to do everything I could to help him. We all tried to guide him along the right ways. I know I never said, "Don't come back."

For a while, he went to San Antonio to the V.A. They diagnosed him as a manic-depressive, but that was in the mid-'70s, before they knew about PTSD. It wasn't helping, so he stopped going, and decided to build himself a house outside of town, where it was quiet. The house was really nothing but a shack out of used lumber, but he was so proud of it. In Vietnam they taught them how to survive by themselves, plumbing, electrical work, anything. He had a toilet in there, and a shower, a telephone, and a parrot. I never could understand what that bird was saying, but it was the meanest damn thing I ever saw.

About a week before he died, Don called each one of us. He was in terrible shape, and we were all so disgusted with him. Neither of my daughters would answer their phones. When he called me, I think I knew he was getting ready to do it. He told me he was going to some place in Mexico for scuba diving lessons. When I told him he couldn't afford it, he laughed and said that he had an American Express card and was going whether he could afford it or not. I think I knew he was going to have a last fling and to hell with the consequences. I didn't really try to stop him. When he came back, he overdosed in a rental car just outside of town by the 7-11.

I'm a very forgiving person, but I am still bitter about this: right after he died I got in touch with the Vietnam Veterans office here. I believe that posttraumatic stress was the cause of my son's death. All I wanted was an acknowledgment of that. I wasn't looking for a pension. I already have a pension. I just wanted them to say that this was the reason why this boy did what he did. I believe that it was to blame for what other boys went through, and I don't think the girls or wives or mothers or whoever is left behind should blame themselves for the way it turned out. It wasn't their fault. I didn't get any response from them. I'm sorry to say that, but it's true.

My daughters both felt so guilty because they thought he was reaching out to them for help and they didn't give it to him. I told them, "I don't want you blaming yourselves. It's not your fault. It was Don's time to go." It will probably sound wicked to you, but I prayed to God to end it. I'm afraid that's a wicked thing for a mother to do, but he had really had enough. I think that that's the reason God took him.

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