[Mb-civic] HATE THE WAR, LOVE THE SOLDIER: From Wounds,
Inner Strength - Washington Post
swiggard at comcast.net
Sat Nov 26 05:59:55 PST 2005
From Wounds, Inner Strength
Some Veterans Feel Lives Enlarged by Wartime Suffering
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 26, 2005; A01
As Hilbert Caesar told his harrowing war story one night recently in the
living room of his apartment, he patted the artificial limb sticking
from a leg of his business suit. "This, right here," he said, "this is a
Eighteen months after Caesar's right leg was mangled by a roadside bomb
near Baghdad, and after weeks of coming to terms with what he thought
was the end of his life, the former Army staff sergeant believes he has
emerged a richer person -- wiser, more compassionate and more
appreciative of life.
Asked whether he would endure it all again, he replied: "The guys I
served with were awesome guys. . . . I would go through it again -- for
the guys that I served with. Yes. Absolutely. I wouldn't change it for
Although the shattering psychological impact of war is well known,
experts have become increasingly interested in those who emerge from
combat feeling enhanced. Some psychiatrists and psychologists believe
that those soldiers have experienced a phenomenon known as
"post-traumatic growth," or "adversarial" growth .
Although war left him with a leg of plastic and steel, Caesar, 28, of
Silver Spring, appears to be among those who return home with psyche
intact and a sense that they are in some mysterious way improved.
"I'm the same person," he said, "but I'm a different person now."
Combat's potential to inflict psychic wounds has been recognized as far
back as the ancient Greeks, but so has its ability to exhilarate,
intoxicate and instruct those who experience it, experts say.
"If you think about all of the heroes and heroines in cultures across
the world . . . all of them, in one sense or another, faced some sort of
a dragon," said Matthew J. Friedman, director of the National Center for
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and a professor of psychiatry at
Dartmouth Medical School. "The transformation from that encounter has
been celebrated from antiquity."
University of North Carolina psychologists Lawrence G. Calhoun and
Richard G. Tedeschi, who have studied post-traumatic growth for 20
years, said they are careful in describing what occurs.
"We're talking about a positive change that comes about as a result of
the struggle with something very difficult," Calhoun said. "It's not
just some automatic outcome of a bad thing."
Calhoun said their studies suggest that for growth to occur the trauma
must be severe. "We tend to use the metaphor of an earthquake."
He said the person first ponders the details of what happened. "And then
there's a much more abstract process of finding some higher meaning . .
. in what has transpired," he said.
Tedeschi said there can be feelings of spiritual development, improved
relationships, a sense of personal strength, a better appreciation of
life and new interests and priorities.
Both men stressed that growth is not necessarily a goal, nor is trauma
"good." Calhoun said: "Post-traumatic growth occurs in the context of .
. . suffering. We hope everybody who goes to Iraq comes back safe and
sound and doesn't have any traumas to grow from."
Although scientists continue to worry about war's impact on mental
health, experts say research now shows that most people exposed to
combat and other traumatic events do not develop chronic mental health
"It used to be thought that virtually everybody who experienced these
kinds of catastrophic events would go on to develop" PTSD symptoms, said
Lt. Col. Charles C. Engel Jr., a psychiatrist at Walter Reed Army
Medical Center in Washington. "That was kind of a post-Vietnam War
assumption. What we've learned over time is that probably, on average,
really about two-thirds to three-fourths don't develop PTSD."
Friedman, of Dartmouth, said that research on the issue has not been
that extensive and that the "deleterious" effects of trauma have
received the most attention.
But that is changing. "The whole field, in the last four years, has
shifted to a certain extent [to focus on] resilience, on human
potential," he said.
Friedman said studies of World War II veterans often showed that they
valued the experience, even though they had serious post-combat stress:
"Yes, I've suffered," he said men would report, "but I wouldn't have
given up this experience for anything in the world. . . . The things I
experienced have made me a better man today."
Studies of Vietnam War POWs have shown similar sentiments. One study, in
1980, found that 61 percent of American POWS in North Vietnam believed
their experience was ultimately beneficial.
Tom McNish, a former Air Force pilot who was a prisoner in North Vietnam
for six years, said: "There is no question in my mind that the
experience I had in Vietnam has had an overall very positive effect on
my life. But I don't recommend it for anybody else. And I don't want to
have to do it again."
Wounded veterans of the Iraq war say similar things. Adam Replogle, 25,
of Wellington, Colo., a former Army sergeant and tank gunner who lost
his left hand and the vision in his left eye in a battle in Karbala in
2004, said that he still has ups and downs but that after his experience
in Iraq, not much worries him.
"Sometimes it takes people a lifetime to realize what it's all about and
what's important and what's not," he said. "And you go through something
like this and it grows you up a little bit and makes you realize that
stuff a lot earlier in life."
Caesar, a native of Guyana who grew up in New York City, was a six-year
Army veteran and a section chief in a field artillery unit in Iraq. He
was in charge of a long-range, self-propelled 155mm howitzer -- a huge
vehicle with treads that resembles a tank.
He was out on patrol in the self-propelled gun when the explosion
occurred April 18, 2004. When the black smoke cleared, he looked down at
his leg. It was flipped backward and "just dangling by the skin," he
said. "It was severed at three different places in the knee. . . . The
bone was splintered in different places. I knew there was no way they
could put that back together."
He tried to hand his machine gun to a comrade but realized it was bent.
He could hear gunfire and yelled for the hatches to be closed. He
thought: "Oh, man. This is it. My life is over."
But it wasn't. The insurgents who staged the ambush melted away. He was
medevaced to safety, and six days after the attack, he arrived at Walter
There, he was all right, except when he was alone. Then he would worry
about the pain -- and the future. He was an athlete but realized that he
might never run again. He wondered how women would react to a man with
an amputated leg. It was depressing. Again, he said he would think, "My
life is over."
A few days after he reached Walter Reed, he got more bad news: Eight men
from his platoon had been killed by a car bomb in Baghdad. They were men
he knew. One, in particular, had been a role model. "I was really
devastated," he said.
Not all mental health experts believe in post-traumatic growth. Some
think such positive attitudes simply stem from individual resilience or
a natural course of psychological recovery.
George Bonnano, a psychologist at Teachers College, Columbia University,
is skeptical of the growth theory. He said such reactions to trauma are
better explained by personal resilience.
"I'm saying most people are able to maintain equilibrium pretty well
after a traumatic event," he said. In addition, "it's fine to just
recover," he said. "Bad things happen, and we get over them. We get
better, and we put it behind us, and we move on."
In the weeks after his arrival at Walter Reed, Caesar met other severely
injured soldiers and heard stories about their recoveries. "You start to
build your confidence up," he said. "You start to shift focus.
"I'm a positive person," he said. "I try to look for the best. It could
be worse. I lost a few friends out there. I made it back with just one
missing limb, and I'm grateful for that. I'm thankful for just being
At the same time, he said, he believes that he has changed. "It makes me
appreciate life a whole lot more. . . . I'm looking forward to settling
down, having a family."
Caesar said he has a friend who lost both arms in the war. Caesar said
his friend once told him: "I would give anything to lose a leg. I would
give both of my legs to have one of my arms" to be able to hold a child
someday, should he ever become a father.
"Things like that make you think," Caesar said. "I can't complain. I
haven't lost enough to complain."
Since being wounded, Caesar became a U.S. citizen last year,
participated in three marathons using a racing wheelchair that he pedals
with his hands, left the Army in January and landed a job with the U.S.
Department of Veterans Affairs.
His leg still bothers him, and he walks with a pronounced limp.
At times, the opaque plastic socket of his artificial limb, which fits
over his stump, lacerates his skin. The stump hurts when the thigh bone
pokes against the skin. And he still gets down when he thinks about his
"It was a long journey back," he said. "I'm still not fully there. I'm
still not 100 percent. I'm never going to be 100 percent. But at the
same time, I can get as close to it as possible."
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