Last week marked the 42nd anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. For many from the first generation of Vietnamese to flee to the United States and other locales, the bullets have stopped, but the noise never vanishes.
My father, 72, is a war veteran who fought for the South, the Republic of Vietnam. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disease, just as do so many American troops who returned from Vietnam in the 1970s and so many veterans who, more recently, served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to the PTSD Foundation of America, one in three returning troops are being diagnosed with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disease In fact, the organization’s website says as many as 400,000 service members “live and struggle with the invisible wounds of war.” PTSD can develop after someone experiences or witnesses “life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or physical or sexual assaults in adult or childhood,” the organization says.
Additionally, according to the group, less that 40 percent of the sufferers will seek help.
My father is one of those.
Like many unsung heroes whose war stories and pains are often ignored and untold, my father — after 42 years in peacetime — still experiences nightmares and flashbacks of war trauma. A first generation Vietnamese who immigrated to California after the war in Vietnam, my father’s generational identity takes second place to what I call “the war identity.”
Some nights, when I still lived with my parents, I heard loud noises like those of an elephant that just fell to the ground. I would open his bedroom door to find him on the floor — a result of falling out of bed.
“Oh, I was just trying to avoid the Viet Cong’s bullets,” was his usual response when I caught him trying to climb back into bed.
Some mornings, my mother would wake with swollen eyes and a lumpy head.
“Your dad hit me because he was defending himself in his dream,” she would say.
My father was one of the many in Vietnam who stayed behind and fought until the war’s end. He was confined to a re-education camp, where he experienced extreme hunger and despair. At times, he thought dying was better than living.
But he survived and lives on.
Michele Rosenthal, an expert about PTSD who wrote “The Science Behind PTSD Symptoms: How Trauma Changes The Brain” for the PsychCentral website, noted that “During a traumatic experience, the reptilian brain — innermost part of the brain — takes control, shifting the body into reactive mode. Shutting down all non-essential body and mind processes, the brain stem orchestrates survival mode. During this time the sympathetic nervous system increases stress hormones and prepares the body to fight, flee or freeze.”
In other words, the survival switch turns on. Everything else is secondary. One must live.
Rosenthal also explains that people normally have the ability to turn the switch on or off, depending on the threat perception. Their brains know when to to relax or be alert accordingly. Those who go through trauma find it extremely difficult to turn this switch. One explanation might be that the brain’s electric circuits overheat and burn out. It needs time to reconstruct and reconnect.
However, for my father and those like him, there is no way to convince others of their reality. Instead, they are forced to come to the realization in private that the switch exists in the first place and seek help.