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Thoughts from Dr. Joe: The ongoing tragedy of PTSD

September 05, 2013|By Joe Puglia

My sophomore English teacher, Brother Raymond, once asked, “What do you want to become?”

“A writer,” I replied.

“Joey, boy,” he said, “you couldn't write the alphabet if I spotted you the first 25 letters.”

I think of his words each morning while I struggle to write the great American novel. James Joyce said, “Before I write, I stare at a blank page until my ears bleed.” I know what he meant.

Currently I'm working on a story about Seamus O'Grady, Elijah Bravo and Ophelia Hawkins, three kids growing up in the hill country of South Texas circa 1965. Seamus and Elijah join the Marines and find themselves in Vietnam, engulfed in the hill fights of 1967. Ophelia, a National Merit scholar, becomes a leader in anti-war movement. She's the girl with the purple ribbon, which she wears to memorialize the dead of the Vietnam War.

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It's a story about friendship, loyalty, commitment and love. It's a platform for expressing the insanity of war, the flawed tactics, the backlash against the soldiers, and the ill-conceived political philosophies of the time. It's also about post-traumatic stress, which destroyed so many lives.

To write this story, it became essential to understand the evolution of post-traumatic stress. I needed to get into the mind of the soldier. What happens when darkness extinguishes the spirit and soul of the soldier, causing him to take his life? I couldn't garner insight from my memories, so it had to come from another source.

In a serendipitous meeting, a La Cañada neighbor visiting Starbucks overheard a conversation I had with a prospective editor. She offered suggestions relative to my story and said, “I have something to give you that might help.”

The next morning, she brought three years of letters written 44 years ago by a young man chronicling his service in the Army from enlistment through Vietnam and the war's aftermath.

People write things in letters they wouldn't say in person. They write feelings and observations using emotional syntax more intimate and powerful than speech. These old and dead letters took on amazing intimacy. I read every word and studied every hop and skip of the pen, trying to understand what made him end his life.

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