Flashbacks

Posted on August 18, 2009

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When I went in the military, I thought I knew what flashbacks were. There was a lot of talk back then about Viet Nam War veterans and flashbacks to Viet Nam. I thought I knew what that meant – that you lost track of where you were, and actually thought you were back in that place at that time. The first Gulf War didn’t give me any information that changed that idea.

My first job after the military turned out to be a case of life providing what I needed, even if I wasn’t looking. I went to work selling, servicing, and building PCs for ADPS ComputerWorld in Seattle. Many of my co-workers were Viet Nam veterans. Over the next two years, they taught me a lot. I learned that flashbacks could be very small. One told me about walking down a street and seeing a woman, and for no reason he could understand, he suddenly saw her as Vietnamese, wearing a traditional ao dai. Nothing else about the scene changed.

About that time I was playing an RPG with a mix of friends and strangers. Some of the players were adolescents with less RPG experience than we had. After we’d been playing for awhile, the guy running the game took me aside and asked me, “Did you just have a flashback?” I had to think about it for a few minutes, then I realized he was right. The responsibility for the younger people had triggered an emotional response, and I had started barking orders. I turned into “lieutenant man,” and took charge – even though no one expected or wanted me to! It scared me, and I didn’t know what to do. I had my Viet Nam veteran friends, though, and I talked to them about it. They agreed: I’d had my first flashback. I didn’t see anything strange or hear gunfire or experience phantom smells of gunpowder and kerosene. I experienced an emotion that had nothing to do with reality, and everything to do with memory.

Years later, another friend was helping me move from our apartment into our first house. It was rainy and cool, which was pretty typical for a Seattle September then. I started getting very anxious and tense, and I couldn’t understand why. Then it hit me: Wet cardboard. As I said in my series on why I have a Bronze Star, the winter of 1990-1991 was the wettest in recorded history. Our water was bottled, desalinized sea water delivered in cardboard cartons. We had stacks of cardboard boxes outside the sandbagged hole in which we lived. The smell of wet cardboard was everywhere. When I was moving, the cardboard moving boxes got wet, and the smell triggered a flashback. My poor friend had no idea what to do, but self-identifying the source of my anxiety was a huge relief to me. This time, a real-world scent put me back into an emotional space from my war experience.

Recently we had a three days of 100+ degree weather in the greater Seattle-Tacoma area. I was very worried about our pets, because we (like most people in the area) don’t have air-conditioning. I really shut down most of the things that I normally do. I wouldn’t have blogged at all, but I’d written a week’s worth of posts the Sunday before the heat started. I worked on my computer in the morning, keeping up my consulting work and my networking, then I focused on staying cool and caring for our pets. After the weather broke, a writer I know professionally posted that the recent heat made him appreciate what our veterans had been through. A light bulb went on in my head: The heat and the responsibility for other lives had triggered a three day flashback. Again, something in the real world triggered an inappropriate emotional response. It must have been pretty mild, because my wife didn’t notice anything particularly unusual.

So if a veteran you know starts acting oddly or inappropriately, ask, “Are you okay? Are you having a flashback? What’s happening now that reminds you of that time in your life?” Then listen. Don’t judge. When your veteran winds down, just say something like, “Thanks for sharing that with me.” Even after almost 20 years, my 100 hours of war is still with me, but now my wife knows how to listen, and she does. Your veteran needs that, too.

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