Spencer Rendahl: PTSD And Me

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(Host) Forty years ago this weekend, then National
Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Vietnamese politburo member Le Duc Tho
signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending the Vietnam War. Writer and
commentator Suzanne Spencer Rendahl, a daughter of that war, reflects on its
legacy in her family’s struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Rendahl) On the day of the signing, I was two years old. So of course, I
had no conception of who President Nixon was, or that we had been at
war, or that my father had fought in it before I was born – or that my
family would never stop fighting it.

My childhood of climbing
trees and riding bikes was typical – except for my Dad’s occasional
outbursts of rage. I spent my teens hiding behind a pile of books to
keep out of the line of fire. And I spent most of my twenties trying to
understand why someone who clearly loved his family more than anything
else in the world would behave so hurtfully at times. For years the
sound of his voice on the other end of a phone would send one of my
sisters into a panic attack.

But at the same time, I learned
that he had been awarded a Bronze Star for his service in a US Air Force
Tactical Fighter Wing attached to the Army’s 101 st Airborne Division.
He’s never shared why. And I realized that his quick temper wasn’t a
choice; it was post-traumatic stress disorder.

Like too many of
the more than nine million men and women who served in that war, he had
suffered a trauma that took away his ability to calmly respond to
everyday affronts.

And like too many veterans, he was followed
back home by Vietnam’s violence: first in the casual contempt of his
service by those who disapproved of that unpopular war, and later in the
form of cancer, which the Veterans Administration treated because he’d
served in areas our military had sprayed with Agent Orange.

Eventually, my sister’s panic attacks overwhelmed her, and she broke off contact with my parents.

time, Dad realized he needed to return to the VA. His cancer was in
remission, but he sought treatment for his PTSD, a different war-related

Two summers ago I flew with my children to Washington
State to celebrate Dad’s 70th birthday. Our family had reunited with my
sister, and we shared a dinner in the same backyard in which I had
played during my early childhood, before I understood what was wrong.

day, I thought about how much Dad had sacrificed not just for his
country, but for us. How he had commuted long distances for work so he
could send his four kids to good public schools and then to college, but
somehow he’d still managed to attend countless soccer games and school
performances. And when my other sister suddenly became a widow at age 26
and a single mother of a 4-month-old, he’d helped her navigate the
devastating aftermath. And I realized that we’d all chosen forgiveness.

repeatedly insisted that he didn’t want birthday gifts, but I gave him
one, anyway: a copy of "The Things They Carried," Tim O’Brien’s haunting
fictional account of the Vietnam War based on his experience as a

Dad called me a few months later to tell me he’d read it.

And he thanked me.

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