The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

November 12, 2012

Vietnam vet discusses PTSD with veterans

By Justin Jones, Staff Writer
CNHI News Service

Monday, November 12, 2012 — Those that gathered inside the Stanly DAV Chapter 12 building Thursday evening were reminded of the physical sacrifices a soldier must go through in their time of service. The group that gathered to hear former Vietnam War chaplain James Johnson saw that even when a soldier has completed his time in service, those memories may not be done with the soldier.

Johnson, who graduated from Albemarle High School, told the story of his time in the Vietnam War. As a chaplain, he was told by superiors not to enter firing lines, but Johnson insisted he continue to be with his battalion. During his eight and a half months in Vietnam, he saw 96 of his fellow men die, 900 men wounded while witnessing the death of many Vietnamese men, women and children.

Speaking to veterans who once fought in wars or conflicts in Vietnam, Korea or Iraq, among others, Johnson shared those memories as he led into his passion for living, speaking about what he called “unseen wounds to the soul.”

“If someone is wounded and lost a leg, it is very obvious what the wound is,” he said.

“But what is not seen is the combat and what men were exposed to of the horror and the terror of being under fire. That lives with you forever.”

As a chaplain on the battlefield, it was his job to help others through counseling and prayer. In the years following his service, he’s worked as a counselor, often speaking to other soldiers and speaking to churches. While he looked fine on the outside, Johnson said he was hiding a full spectrum of other feelings, all of which embodied Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

He described how PTSD can come about for a person in two ways.

“It’s where a person is exposed to the potential of death or serious injury or witnessing death or a serious injury,” he said.

“It’s been described as a very natural reaction to a very unnatural situation.”

Before he decided to seek help about 15 years ago, Johnson said he could be described as having a James A and James B. The A part of him was funny, well-educated and a helper. But the B part of him, the section that he kept hidden, was troubled.

“But the B part I suffered alone, very much alone. It was like bad pneumonia, but no one else knew it,” he said.

PTSD Symptoms

Once Johnson was diagnosed with PTSD, which he admitted publicly Thursday evening, he continued in the treatment he needed, which he has helped give others today in the form of writing.

Fifteen symptoms of PTSD he touched on with some resonating more than others. Although Johnson had spoke on PTSD in similar settings before, his emotions and memories of his own battles were apparent in his delivery.

The veterans and their families could hear the sincerity in his voice as he talked about numbness and, later, guilt.

“Many, many people who have been in combat have a lot of guilt. Like I went on R & R, and the guy who took my place got hit. Or I went to the rear and someone else got hit. Or survival guilt, ‘Maybe I’m not even entitled to live,’ ” he said.

Each of those symptoms along with the others are included as a part of Johnson’s new book, “Combat Trauma: A Personal Look at Long Term Consequences.”

While the information was helpful to both the men and women who may have been suffering from PTSD, either knowingly or unknowingly, the information was also helpful to their families. Johnson said that after the release of his first book, he received calls and e-mails from children of fathers who served in a war. Their message, while each time different of the specifics, was always the same.

“They would say, ‘Now I understand why my dad was that way,’ ” he said of their testimonies.

Veterans, who will be kept anonymous to protect their privacy in dealing with PTSD, wanted to know more following Johnson’s seminar.

They asked questions such as what personalities are most susceptible to get PTSD and another wondered what did the government do about these soldiers before PTSD was known?

While Johnson and others could only speculate the answers to some of the questions because each case is unique, he did answer by saying the government should not be blamed for PTSD, which was not recognized until about 1981. At the time many of the soldier’s Johnson’s age and older returned from war, there wasn’t the available research and studies that are known today.

And often times, he said, it was too concealed for anyone at the time to take notice.

“Often times it’s a macho thing. [We think it] couldn’t happen to me. You can’t cry as a man,” he said.

Johnson urged the veterans to get help from somewhere if they haven’t already, because of PTSD’s ability to hide, yet difficulty to bear alone.

“I encourage you to go somewhere. It’s nothing wrong you did. You didn’t cause it, and you can’t fix it on your own,” he said.

“[People] expected us to go on, but it’s not going to happen.”