The human mind allows us to conflate information, file it away and essentially refer back to what we think we know, thereby reinforcing a very simplified version of something that happened.
My grandfather was one of the soldiers captured during the Battle of the Bulge.
If you’ve not studied history closely, you tend to think of a “battle” as something that happens pretty quickly, but the event we refer to as the Battle of the Bulge took about 1 month and a week plus change.
Clearly, that’s not a one-off event.
It was unstated that my grandfather did not like to talk about WWII, and so those questions generally did not get asked, beyond the simple acknowledgement that he had served and been captured.
My grandmother didn’t like to talk about it either. She received the telegrams that he’d been captured when my Aunt Shirley was just a few years old.
Of course, it was a horrible time.
Imagine having a small child and finding out that your husband, whom you worry about all the time, has experienced the worst thing that can happen to a soldier, outside of dying.
It doesn’t even take too much empathy to see that picture.
So, my grandfather didn’t talk about it much, and my grandmother didn’t like for him to because, in addition to bringing up her own PTSD, it caused him to have the nightmares all over again.
So, imagine my surprise today, to have a conversation with someone whom I assumed only had a tangential reason to talk with my grandfather about anything and who was able to give me more of the story. This person’s father had also been captured in WWII under different circumstances, and he knew enough about WWII to ask him about it. He was also not steeped in the unspoken rule in my family that keeps us from mentioning it whatsoever.
I suspect my grandfather was so surprised that someone would have the audacity to ask that his only real recourse in that moment was to share more information.
Not only was he captured in the Battle of the Bulge, he also survived the Malmedy Massacre. Only about 1/4 of those guys survived and my grandfather essentially played dead under the bodies of his fellow prisoners.
He escaped and made his way back over time to the allied forces by staying in homes of sympathetic Belgians. Part of what I did know about the story had him staying in people’s homes but I never knew the sequence of events…nor the conditions surrounding his feet freezing.
I have never been to war.
It is unlikely that I will ever go.
But both my father and my grandfather suffered from horrific PTSD. My father experienced horrors in Vietnam that he was only able to speak about pretty near his death to qualify for a VA benefit for the Agent Orange exposure that killed him some 40 years after Vietnam ended. My mother probably doesn’t even know half of what happened.
Sometimes I wonder what 3 generations of my family would be like had my father and my grandfather not served in wars that never quite ended for them.
PTSD doesn’t affect just the veteran. It affects the entire family and informs patterns that family members pass around for generations, even possibly among people who haven’t met, but who are nevertheless a large part of the story. When a family member has PTSD, the whole family becomes prisoners of war.
People say anxiety disorders and the like are passed down generationally. I would like to hope that resiliency does as well. After all, it was my Grandfather who walked out of the Massacre of Malmedy. It was my father who survived untold horrors in Vietnam.
We often assume that’s simple genetics but it’s not that simple.
The effects of wars go far beyond what we often think.
Bless us all.