A soldier’s heart: Then and now

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When Richard Saholt joined the Army in 1942, he did so in hopes of proving himself to his father and society. He did, by becoming a sniper, scout, point man and a member of the infamous 10th Mountain Division.
The division were ski paratroopers, and Saholt earned the Combat Infantry Badge and Bronze Star. The training alone was the most brutal and rigorous training known in the military.

Conducted at an elevation of 10,000 feet, many soldiers couldn’t meet the physical and mental challenges. Later his division fought a fierce battle against the Nazi’s Gothic Line in the Italian Alps during WWII, where 90 percent of the U.S.’s 14,000- member division were wounded or killed. “We destroyed nine of their crack Alpine Divisions!” he wrote to me. “They were written up in World War II as the finest trained fighters in the world. They were Hitler’s most famous troops!”

Saholt’s military accomplishments were set against an unsettling backdrop. Upon enlistment he was diagnosed by the military with chronic undifferentiated schizophrenia and was “one of the most bizarre and genuinely crazy” people they knew.

But that document was kept secret from him until 1969. He struggled with the VA to get disability for more than 30 years. Besides his original diagnosis, he returned from combat with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and was discharged from the military for his back and leg injuries. He also suffers from blackouts due to blast concussions. Saholt credits his very life to one of his “voices,” which, during combat, screamed at him to “duck.” Saholt did duck, and the mortar took off the faces of the soldiers next to him.

Besides serving in WWII, Saholt also had his own private war. His father served in combat during WWI and was himself an alcoholic with his own violent paranoid schizophrenic outbursts and pedophile behavior. “He was one mean son-of-a-bitch. I’ve got that hatred burning out of me, and it will burn out of me until the day I die,” he wrote.

How is Saholt’s story connected to the millions of other war veterans who have served in World War II and since then?

What veterans have in common are a few things. First, many veterans joined the military to prove themselves to either their families or society; to leave an abusive situation in their home lives; or because of recruiters’ promises—later known to have been broken. Second, plenty of veterans have members in their families who are or were war veterans, and how they came home—or didn’t come home—affected not only the immediate family, but the rest of society. Third, many veterans joined the military thinking they would get college money and/or job training that could transfer into a good job later. Finally, many returning war veterans have been denied disability compensation.

The common thread of PTSD
PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) has many names. Buck fever, soldier’s heart, shell-shock, and now PTSD. “The average and healthy individual … has such an inner and usually unrealized resistance towards killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility …” says S.L.A. Marshall in Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s book, On Killing: The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War and Society. “At the vital point,” the soldier “becomes a conscientious objector,” Marshall says.

PTSD is the normal reaction a human being has to an abnormal, violent, fearful situation or event. Some of the PTSD signs are: suppression of feelings, inability to sleep, nightmares, hyper-alertness, flashbacks, depression, constant thinking about the traumatic event, not wanting to be in large crowds, being by the door for a quick exit, low self-esteem, unable to maintain an intimate relationship, not able to hold down a job, guilt, anger, paranoia, mood swings, excessive usage of alcohol or drugs, inability to concentrate, suicidal thoughts or attempts, and domestic violence.

In World War II, “more than 800,000 men were classified 4-F (unfit for military service) due to psychiatric reasons. Despite this effort to weed out those mentally and emotionally unfit for combat, America’s armed forces lost an additional 504,000 men from the fighting effort because of psychiatric collapse—enough to man 50 divisions! At one point in World War II, psychiatric casualties were being discharged from the U.S. Army faster than new recruits were being drafted in.” “Swank and Marchand’s much-cited World War II study determined that after 60 days of continuous combat, 98 percent of all surviving soldiers will have become psychiatric casualties of one kind or another.”

“A recent study of soldiers and Marines who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan found that about 17 percent met criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or generalized anxiety disorder. Of those whose responses were positive for a mental disorder, 40 percent or fewer actually received help while on active duty.”

However, I would venture that the numbers are much higher, and many veterans will not show any signs at first, but will later. World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Iraq and all the conflicts, police actions and military interventions since then, have given back to society military veterans who have and will suffer for the rest of their lives from the unseen wounds.

Veterans like me call each other the walking dead. And for the Atomic veterans, Agent Orange and Depleted Uranium victims, the VA still fights against the compensation claims, forcing veterans to resubmit numerous times for their compensation. For some like Saholt, it takes more than 30 years. In the meantime, it is the veterans, their families and our society that suffers with them and through them as the wounds come home to fester. For some cases that go untreated, they become the Oklahoma City bomber, or like a Gulf war veteran who shot three nurses at Arizona State University, the Washington, D.C., sniper, or like the four husbands at Ft. Bragg who, in one weekend, killed not only their wives, but two also killed themselves.
Now, Iraq war veterans who have refused to return to Iraq—such as Pfc. Suzanne Swift—due to sexual assault and other trauma from her first tour, are being treated as if they are criminals. For Swift, the Department of Homeland Security arrived to take her back to her base for AWOL processing.

Other current war veterans have been charged with cowardice when they had PTSD reactions to their traumatic situations, thus sending a huge message to other war veterans who are suffering—keep your mouth shut or you will receive a court-martial and be labeled a wimp and traitor to the cause. Even the Marine’s poster boy—the new Marlboro Man you may have seen—is having a very rough time. Only thing is, neither the military nor the White House can give us what exactly that “noble cause” is—as they draft budget cuts for the VA claims from World War II and Korea to make room for the next batch of wounded.

So what does that message say to the troops? For folks who slap a yellow “Support Our Troops” magnet on the trunk of your cars—what is this “noble cause”? In what way do you support the troops, and what is it worth for you to do anything about it?

Keep in mind that the number of Vietnam veterans who have committed suicide since 1972 is more than the number of those 56,000-plus names on the wall in Washington, D.C. The number of Gulf War I veterans who are on disability is more than 200,000 out of the 690,000 who served, and those numbers are “twice the rate of vets from World War I, Korea and Vietnam.” It is true that the conflicts of today also affect the soldiers of yesterday. It takes its toll because we are all “soldiers with heart.”

Chante Wolf served in the Air Force, 1980-92 and also in the Persian Gulf War I.