Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War

Stories From the Book: Debbie Paterakis

He was back from Vietnam in November of 1973, and it wasn't long after that I ran into him. We knew each other when we were kids. He was fun; he was a dancer; he was outgoing, good-looking. I was drinking at the time myself, and it was party, party, party. We both woke up one day, hung over as hell, and he said, "Let's get married today." I said okay. We partied for two days.

Bob never talked about Vietnam. Only in our arguments, when he was drunk, he would say, "I've killed better men than you." I thought it was just drunk talk, but when it was brought up in his PTSD group years later, he showed me pictures from his file. He said, "See those two guys on the ground. I shot them." Then I realized he wasn't joking.

For twenty years, he was walking around with that stuff in his head. I don't know if he was trying to be strong, but he never showed weakness to me. Maybe he wanted to protect me. Maybe he thought I wouldn't understand.

Gradually his drinking became worse. In 1984, his work told him to go to a treatment center for thirty days or be fired. I committed myself to a treatment center too because he said we couldn't stay together if I didn't. Bob stayed clean, except for once-and except for the medication the V.A. put him on. I never had another drink until after he died.

Then on June 5, 1987, his son Adam died. He was seventeen years old and he drowned in a swimming accident. I look back on it today, and thank God Bob and I had each other to hold. He went into an emotional tailspin. He knew he was messed up. That's when he said he was going to get some help from the V.A.

He had been hospitalized twice before, but after Adam died, he was in and out of the V.A. so often I lost count. Even though the psychiatrists detected that this was posttraumatic stress disorder, they denied him benefits. The Army said they had lost his service records. "Not confirmed by evidence of record," they said. I even had to bring his snapshots from Vietnam to his PTSD group because he said they didn't believe he had even been there. Everything Bob said in those groups, I think they thought he was blowing smoke out his butt.

In 1993, Bob finally asked the governor of Wyoming to help him get his records from the army, and he got them, no trouble. They showed that Bob's story was true. After six years of appointments and papers, applications, denials, and filling him full of drugs, he finally had the evidence of record, and the V.A. sent him to Cheyenne for a PTSD evaluation. I never saw his evaluation until after his death. Why they never warned me is beyond me. This is what the report said: The patient has been in three different PTSD groups. Copies of his most recent psychological testing show significant elevation of PTSD scales, as well as depression scales.

This patient ... has suicidal ideas that occur for two months at a time, especially worsened by what he calls panic attacks. ... He jumps and startles when people surprise him from behind, and ... also has remembrances. He has three nightmares which are repetitive and says he awakens soaking wet. ... This patient has had 37 jobs since coming back from Vietnam. He says that he is unable to work. ...

This is a cooperative sad faced man who has tears in his eyes when he describes Vietnam. He has brought papers from Dr. Hackman, a Ph.D. psychologist from Sheridan and these notes written in October of 1993 say "too disturbed for the PTSD program". He is described as having been tested and having severe PTSD. That's the part I never saw, but this part I did see:

"We carefully considered your disability claim. The evidence establishes the following service-connected condition(s): Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome-10 percent." They gave him $87 a month!

After he heard the news, Bob went on a hell of a drunk. The Highway Patrol arrested him driving on the wrong side of the highway. I truly believe he was trying to kill himself. I told him to appeal the V.A.'s decision, but he said, " Fuck 'em. I'm tired of it."

The last five years of our marriage we slept in twin beds pushed together. He was shaking his legs at night like he was riding a bicycle. He'd wake up in a cold sweat, get up, get a drink of water, smoke a cigarette, and come back to bed-just up and down, up and down, fifty times during the night. And he thought I was out to get him. He called me at work twenty times one day and cussed me out for taking his slippers. He thought I'd taken them because I didn't want him going anywhere. I didn't have his slippers. It must have been some medicine he was on. I thought I was going crazy just being around him. It was to the point where it was my fault if he couldn't sleep or if he couldn't eat, my fault if the phone rang, my fault if he forgot to take a pill, my fault if it was raining.

Every time he went to the V.A., they just gave him more medicine and sent him home. The police counted fifty-four bottles of medicine the day of his death. He would carry it in a paper bag all day long, from room to room. The thorazine made him sit in a chair and drool. Another pill he'd be on sometimes would make him rock in that chair a hundred miles an hour and talk so I could hear him across the street. I believe the V.A. deliberately tries to discourage people, drugs them, and hopes they will give up. Well, it worked. He gave up. On October 29, 1994, he put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. October 29 was Adam's birthday.

The phone calls were day and night, people just wanting to know what happened and why. I didn't know myself! People I never heard from in twenty years would call. Not, "How are you? Are the kids OK?", but, "What happened?" They were just curious. That's a horrible feeling. I felt like people were staring at me, pointing out the girl whose husband did himself in, and I just wanted to crawl under a rug.

My friend Cheryl asked me if I'd received the $1500 from the V.A. for Bob's burial expenses. I called them and asked why they hadn't told me I was entitled to the benefit, and they said because I didn't ask. That really made me mad. They were playing head games with me and I thought, "I'm going to get educated, mister. I'm going to find out what else you keep secret." I decided to take up where Bob left off. I knew he should have been 100 percent PTSD disabled.

I was at it for six years. I had to go to Washington, D.C., to testify, but it was worth it. On October 3, 2000, I received a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs. It said that Bob's condition had increased in severity. This is six years after his death, but never mind! They raised his PTSD rating from 10 to 100 percent, retroactive to 1993. I won. I won because I was right, and because I just wouldn't quit. But I'm not a veteran on medications. He is the one who truly deserved it.

It's been seven years now, and it's a whole different world for me. I still don't quite know how to act. My whole life was around Bob, and every day I see or hear something that reminds me of him-the way someone walks, or smells, or whistles. If you asked me now if I would marry him again, the answer would be yes. The kids think he's better off where he is. They knew he was suffering. In his suicide note, he told them it was like putting Puppy to sleep. They accepted that.

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