The set of problems that plague their fathers has a name: post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is caused by exposure to a highly stressful event or series of events, such as a plane crash, an earthquake, a drive-by shooting or combat. Its symptoms were vulgarized in the Rambo genre of unhinged-vet films so popular during the Reagan years, creating the image of the easily riled, fatigue-wearing drifter taking on state troopers and setting towns ablaze. In real life. PTSD yields more confusion and humiliation than pyrotechnics.
Twenty years later, it’s not just the soldiers who suffer from postcombat trauma. It’s their children, too
A FEW MONTHS BEFORE SHE WAS married, Tammy Swisher visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. At the base of the monument she cried alongside wives, sons and daughters who dropped roses and paper hearts inscribed like valentines.
As others scanned the wall for their loved ones’ names, Tammy kept her eyes down.
Her father was not killed in action or declared missing. Having made it back, able-bodied, from Southeast Asia, he went AWOL on the family when she was three. She saw7 him again when she was six. That reunion marked the first time he sexually abused her.
Sixteen years later, she’d come to Washington to bury him. “I thought, I’ll tell myself my father died in Vietnam. I’ll put him on the wall and make him a hero.”
Tammy, a 27-year-old nurse who lives with her husband and 21-month-old son in New7 Jersey, is one of the unlisted casualties of an unpopular w7ar. While the children of slain or missing Vietnam veterans have recently started to gather through national networks like Sons and Daughters in Touch, women like Tammy, whose fathers did come home, broken and sometimes abusive, have no phone number to call. No place to meet and share their experiences.
Only recently have researchers thought to study veterans’ families. During the 1970s, puzzled doctors were too busy dealing with the vets themselves the men rolling into, out of, and back into Veterans Administration emergency rooms throughout the decade. Although psychiatric casualties should have been expected, given the number of World War II veterans plagued with what was then known as shell shock, PTSD wasn’t recognized by the American Psychiatric Association until 1980.
When doctors finally noticed that something was awry with the children of many patients, it was the sons who claimed their attention first.
THE DEMISE OF MISS PERFECT
At seven, Richie Martin was dismembering GI Joes and melting their maimed torsos in bonfires in back of the Martins’ West Haven, Connecticut, home. When he wasn’t smashing his toys to bits, he was fearful and paranoid, insisting to his mother that the family was being watched from the woods behind the house.
With her son such a worry’, Lois Martin was grateful that her twin nine-year-olds, Robin and Chrissy, gave no cause for alarm. Robin, in fact, was regarded by her siblings as Miss Perfect: She made her own bed, did chores without complaint and got straight A’s. “I remember thinking as a child that I had to do everything right,” says Robin, now 22. “‘If I didn’t, then Daddy would go into rages and Mom always had her pills.’” It was Robin, and sometimes her sister, who cleaned up the family messes. When the girls were in fifth grade, they found their mother on the bathroom floor, her wrists slit in a suicide attempt. They bandaged her up and put her to bed. Two days later, she swallowed a bottle of extrastrength Excedrin. A few months afterward, when their father was admitted to the psych ward of the local VA hospital for the first of many stays, the sisters knew they needed to bring crayons and coloring books to while away the time. They’d been through the drill already with Mom.
Rich Sr.’s first VA visit lasted nearly six months, during which time he was diagnosed with PTSD. The Martins went into family therapy. Richie, the most aggressive and destructive of the children, was considered by VA therapists to be the most troubled; he was put into individual therapy with Laurie Harkness, Ph.D., a leading expert on PTSD. Chrissy saw a series of therapists on and off over the following years. And Robin? Dubbed “best adjusted,” she was left on her own.
While Rich Sr.’s problems were the focus of family life along with carpooling to Brownies or field hockey after school, driving to the VA to visit Daddy was part of the Martins’ routine Vietnam was rarely discussed at home. When Lois married Rich in 1971, what she knew about his war experiences was this: He spent one year in Vietnam. During that tour of duty he was wounded in the knee. Only after Rich started getting therapy did Lois learn that he had sustained his wound during.