Uncle Sherman, World War II, and PTSD (Before We Called It That)

Uncle Sherman

Uncle Sherman

It’s Veteran’s Day 2013, when we remember men and women who fight  and those who gave up their lives in wars — wars fought largely to maintain democracy and take stands against extreme hate and cruelty. Each year, I think about my Uncle Sherman, because while he did not die fighting, he made an ultimate sacrifice — forever losing any quality of life after he suffered extreme shell shock (now called post traumatic stress disorder or  PTSD) in World War II. Sherman was a B-24 tail gunner.

These days, as various groups make life complex by telling  people what to believe, how to worship best, and who they should and shouldn’t love, I remember Uncle Sherman, precisely because of how a kid from a poor family told his mother that he had made a complex decision with understated simplicity. He told her he wanted to fight Hitler because of what he learned in Sunday School about freedom, evil dictators, persecution, and even a bit about world religions. Not many people were talking about religious persecution back then, but somehow in American Baptist Sunday school in Terre Haute, Indiana they were.

Uncle Sherman told his mother that he understood that we were fighting evil — and that he could lose his life — but that he wanted to join up. His mom, my grandmother, who was a short order cook with a fifth grade education, made a deal with him. She would sign the papers as soon as he graduated from Gerstmeyer Technical High School. He graduated, she signed, and he was still 17 when he went to war.

Before the war my uncle was a kind and honest teen, and while he wasn’t great in school, he did amazing things with his hands — an original kinesthetic learner. My mom lovingly remembers Sherman, as a thoughtful and protective big brother who could take apart, fix, and put together anything, so it was no surprise that he ended up working with B-24 planes during the war. Had he not suffered from shell shock mother is certain he would have worked his way through school on the GI Bill and become an engineer.

Uncle Sherman in Front of a B-24 Bomber

Uncle Sherman in Front of a B-24 Bomber

In Europe he flew mission after B-24 mission manning the plane’s tail gun over Germany, Austria, and maybe Italy. One morning he was grounded with a fever, and the crew flew without him. We think that day his plane and crew went down that day. My uncle talked about that  and other things and blamed himself for the loss of that plane and his buddies — experiencing an ongoing emotional disability for the next 60-plus years — until he died a few years ago.

Uncle Sherman suffered from debilitating post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), though for the first 45 years no one, and especially no one in the United States military, called it that or tried to help. Despite a loving and supportive family, dedicated to figuring our a way to make him better, he spent at least some time on the street — a person who in those days was called a “bum.” He aged into elder hood, eventually ending his life in a sheltered community home.

As a child, because of Uncle Sherman’s extreme disability, I grew up hearing stories about the war, the airplanes flown and crashed, and the evils of Hitler — my uncle had the written commendations and the medals to prove what he did, and sometimes he did talk about it. But more often I saw him scream in terror or anger, roll on the floor after a fight with his brother after inflammatory language in front of us kids, or when he came in from the street, disheveled, dirty, and smelly. And he talked and mumbled to himself all the time, sometimes getting up in the middle of a conversation as the mumbles turned to ranting, going up the stairs, and slamming the door to his bedroom at my grandmother’s house. Yet I also clearly remember joy on his face the one Christmas in my childhood when he was neat and tidy and got it together to give his nieces and nephew presents — crisp two dollar bills tucked into little bank envelopes.

And there is one more memory — my parents.  Despite their anxiety, the worry, the frustration that they could not get any help, and the concern about what we kids might see — I know they protected us from so much more — they never spoke of Uncle Sherman with anything but love in their voices. We all knew  weren’t the only family coping with a war-traumatized relative.

My uncle finally got Veteran’s health system medical help when he was in his late 40’s. (The first few times my mom, a junior college psychology professor, tried to get help for her beloved big brother, VA officials called my uncle and told him his sister thought he was crazy.) Once I visited a locked mental ward —  that’s what it was called —  with my parents, and I saw Uncle Sherman, temporarily hospitalized there along with so many others who experienced mind-debilitating war injuries, and many in much worse than he was. To me, a fairly mature young teen, some seemed to be so emotionally scarred that they might not ever see any life outside of a hospital setting.

I wish I had known my uncle before his war-time injuries, but I am grateful for my mom’s memories and for his life. Uncle Sherman’s education, both in church and in public school, inspired his concern for others, fortified his courage, and taught him not to try not to fear people who were so different from himself when he went off to join the war effort. Yet I also wish that our country had been strong and knowledgeable enough to support the people whose bodies showed no physical wounds, but who minds were gravely injured.

I pray we remain committed to doing much more with our vets today.

Editor’s Note: When I wrote this several years ago and updated it recently, I had not read Memories of a Veteran’s Son: Living With Undiagnosed PTSD by Gene Beresin, M.D., published as a column at WBUR’s (Boston public broadcasting) Common Health site.

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