the Eternal Struggle for Peace
Carl R. ToersBijns
Combat Medic, 1967-1969
Survivor guilt (or survivor's guilt; also called survivor syndrome or survivor's syndrome) is a mental condition that occurs when a person perceives themselves to have done wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not but it doesn’t end there. It leads into a physical disorder as well for it impacts all your senses and your energy in numerous attacks on the soul, the heart and the mind.
There is nothing easy about this disorder, as it is an infectious disease that tears the flesh, brings out the tears and jams up the emotions inside you like nothing else you have ever experienced except maybe death of a loved one. Hence the connection between the two reactions and passions of life and death.
Following the deaths of numerous known and unknown soldiers in the Vietnam War, there is an aftermath that nobody can prepare for. Even a severe injury, traumatized amputation or loss of limbs of a fellow combatant who you know only by a nickname or last name, it is not unusual for you to feel the shock, the responsibility for the even occurring in your life as a combat medic in the Army and deal with the remorse of surviving what was bound to be a life or death situation for someone at the time of the critical incident or in my case, the fire-fight of hell to survive a very wrongful war as battles fought were often without reason other than taking back what we had lost the day before.
If I had to guess how men had died, crippled or suffered under my care, I would have to say there were many. Too many for me to remember each and every one of them by name but clearly, I can see their faces before they passed away and before the battle as they laughed, cried, read a letter or just expressed their humanity amongst the others dressed for combat and war.
I accepted my responsibilities as a medic. I had been trained to do the best I could under the circumstances permitted and although it is reasonable to say that more were saved from death than the number who died, it doesn’t matter much when you lose someone and wonder why you are still living.
Every day of your life, whether it has been 24 hours past the moment of death until the eternity of human life as God graces it to be, this feeling, or emotional reaction is what has been called “survivor’s guilt.
One can only imagine how many times you must endure such an episode of guilt and shame. Every time someone dies or is airlifted away with mortal wounds via the helicopter, you experience the guilt of surviving while others died.
This guilt is not limited to death or the passing of friends or strangers. It follows every member of the military who is wounded or killed while you are there with them, at home thinking about them or re-deployed to another location to do it all over again.
Individuals coping with survivor guilt may find themselves wondering questions such as: why didn’t I get hurt or killed? - why did I live when other people died? - what could I have done differently to prevent it? These are the haunting conditions surrounding your guilt and there is nothing you can say or do to make them go away until the healing process has taken a stronghold and gives you the answers to your questions.
These expressions and feelings are common; they are part of how we as human soldiers or survivors’ grief. There are rare exceptions and the degree or intensity depends purely on the circumstances surrounding the death of each and every person who has died in your arms, your care or your presence. It has a cycle of torture that cannot be explained without expressing the pain that is lodged deep inside you where nobody can reach it and pull it out. You can’t erase it out of your head as you fall asleep with the subconscious mind bringing it back over and over again, as you sweat and scream with the agony of an emotional pain hard to understand by anyone who never walked in those same boots as you have.
To say that this kind of pain is common does not do it one bit of justice. What some call common, we, those who walked those shadows of death, call it horror as we see those faces of death over and over again. Intense is not the right word either, but it is a step in the right direction. It is more than intense; it is frightening real and heart-grabbing struggles of shaking and trembling proportions.
It cannot be erased from the mind and those who claim to have recovered are partial recovery patients holding on to their self-control by a thin thread. There are triggers that break it loose all over again and the fear that it will, is just as real as the fear of experiencing it over and over.
There is a healing process – although it is time consuming and lengthy and complicated. It can be done and many have survived the ordeal with a recovery of their own senses that allows them to breathe freely again. Others, like me, are not so lucky. We suffer this madness every time we close our eyes. Every time we hear the helicopter hovering above us and every time we see their faces with pain, as they hang onto life the best they can.
So I say to you, it is important to know that guilt is a common and usual reaction to a loss of someone either unknown or special to you. The level of guilt cannot be explained but by the person suffering and on a case by case only. This is something that has to be addressed at one time or another. It has serious complications and implications to your health and well—being.
Before you go any further, I can tell you that you will feel sick, you will retch or vomit till your stomach unwinds and you will shake for the longest time until your mind finds an island of peace inside your brain.
Your life will change to epic proportions that cannot be explained or described to anyone else who hasn’t stood by your side when the event unfolded. Losing someone, unknown, or very familiar to you takes its toll in every way possible to grab you by the seat of your ass and take you down to the lowest level of humanity in the terms of disgrace and shame. It is the harshest kind of self-inflicted pain and sorrow a man can experience without the ability to defeat it or stop it from attacking you.
This guilty feeling is more than a state of depression, apathy or generalized anxiety. It is a methodological way to tear yourself apart mentally and physically as it works on both sides of the body – internal and externally. Simply put, the experts will tell you to acknowledge these feelings and not deny them.
They want you to understand that whatever you underwent or experienced was not uncommon to the circumstances given at the time of death or mortal wounds inflicted. They want you to accept it as being ‘normal’ when your own brain rejects such a notion. They will tell you to find other people for support and caregiving.
The idea, suggestion or notion to seek and promote or talk about positive inspiration to share with a spouse, a peer, friend or family member is an unrealistic expectation until you find the strength to accept it for what it is and does to you first. Encouragement can only take a foothold if the denial is set aside to give it room to co-exist with your other emotional baggage driven by the pain of war and death.
As a medic, I was overwhelmed and overcome by such emotions and I carried it on my sleeve as I tried my best to keep everyone I touched alive. I never took the time to mourn their death, I defied that emotion. I didn’t join a group or support circle to talk about my situation. I decided it was too private and too hard to talk about to anyone else.
There was no positivity in my life other than focusing on preserving life and doing the best I could under the circumstances. This followed me into the civilian part of my life as well. I never sought to deal with it in any shape of manner because it hurt too much to deal with it. There were times where I never felt good about myself or the chore given to serve a greater good.
It was in many ways, a personal failure that may have been exaggerated by myself under most circumstances but nevertheless, a failure to turn my feelings into a positive aspect in my life. If I wanted to blame something else other than myself, I had plenty of options laid before me. I could have said, we were outnumbered, outgunned, outflanked and out maneuvered.
I can blame fatigue, combat stress, carelessness or recklessness on the part of the group I was with and smooth the errors over to justify the end. However, in real life, most of us who trained for being a medic, didn’t work it that way. We accepted the fact that we had been put there to save lives – no exceptions. Medics are not men of steel hearts or steel warriors dressed different with a red cross or medic bag – we blended in and did whatever it took to get the job done. There were no exceptions and there were few special privileges that were bestowed upon us only because of our balance to the unit and the value we brought to the group.
Keep in mind this struggle is already set in on top to any other combat related trauma or stress. Claiming PTSD as a reason to be unable to perform is not acceptable – it’s a cop out. Feelings such as this last forever, not months or years, but for an eternity.
In combat, while still within the same group of men or individuals who were there during the events, interacting with them who have experienced traumatic events or loss can be a helpful part of the grieving process.
It takes a long time to understand the grief experienced. While guilt is an emotional reaction, grief is the healing process people experience following a life-changing traumatic event. Like I have tried to explain before, grief can have physical and psychological effects and may impact performance during combat and other military operations, as well as your long-term health after you leave the military service. The symptoms and behaviors associated with grief include: Shock and disbelief this is happening to you; a temporary loss of control of emotions (e.g., anger and aggression), difficulties sleeping for long periods of time without waking up in a sweat or nightmare, withdrawal from others creating an anti-social personality appearance but triggered by emotional means.
The hardest parts of this ordeal is the relentless and never ending recurrent nightmares or frequent painful remembrances about the deaths or traumatic events that are illustrated in a most exponential manner inside your head. The presence of an anger; some people, like myself, may have urges to get revenge (“payback”) for the death or traumatic event and lash out at innocents to satisfy their own guilt.
It is unexplainable but normal to do so. The guilt drives disorder of the brain. You will experience a severe difficulty to be able to do some positive or meaningful concentrating of basic tasks or responsibilities or sustaining a mental focus that may be necessary to perform a job or task in your everyday living routines.
As the nightmares continue, the propensity to bring negativity and harmful thoughts to yourself comes and goes and triggers an avalanche of suicidal ideations that may grab hold to reality t0 commit suicide or homicide (involuntarily harm others) if there is no intervention or alternative to the negative power.
Grief itself will generally fade in time as you mourn your losses. The time frame various but the more deaths you have experienced, the longer the grief as you separate the faces from the events and mourn each one of them on their own merits or happenings. Whether you want to admit it or not, the craziness, chaos and madness never goes away completely but it can fade slowly as you deal with it, rather than denying it exists.
War veterans seldom admit that the grief subsided within six months or a year after their discharge or change of tour of duty. For many, it lasts much longer than a year. Connecting to others and with others is a key factor in dealing with grief.
Sharing your loss makes grief easier to manage but keep in mind, there are no guarantees in this process. The advances you make are essentially limited to those steps you take to deal with the matters of heart and mind and keep it focused on the positive side of living.