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Sleepless Nights and Enduring Demons: The Psychological Impact of Combat

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Sleepless Nights and Enduring Demons: The Psychological Impact of Combat

A bullet came out of nowhere and hit Tom Bazouska squarely in the helmet. Stunned, the American soldier struggled to grasp what was happening. Just moments before, he had been walking along a line of fellow troops, making sure they were all set for a long night on patrol. He turned his gaze back toward the darkness. A silhouetted figure approached him. It was Ozzie, his good friend and comrade. Ozzie leaned in to Tom, so that the two men were almost head to head. He whispered as quietly as he could, “Tom, did ya…” And then, it happened. A gunshot pierced the night’s silence, the bullet ricocheting off the top of Tom’s helmet and careening into Ozzie’s face. It hit him squarely between the eyes.

Tom stayed with Ozzie all night until the medics reached them the following morning. He didn’t know it then, but the image of his friend dying in his arms would remain emblazoned on his consciousness, haunting him and tormenting him for the rest of his life.

Tom served alongside his twin brother Tony in the war. Like his brother, Tony also cradled two of his friends in his arms as their young lives slipped away. Just two years before, they were both popular students in their high school who were varsity sports stars. Now the brothers, at the dawn of their adulthood, found themselves halfway across the world, witnessing carnage that no amount of education or experience could have prepared them for.

When they came back home, everything seemed way too normal. Their friends who hadn’t gone to Korea had gone on living their lives as if nothing happened. Tom and Tony remembered going into an old high school hangout and encountering one of their old friends, who blurted out, “where the heck have you guys been, we haven’t seen you in awhile!” They didn’t dare say they had been fighting in Korea for fear of being viewed as crazy.

[Video: Tony and Tom Bazouska – Anything but Normal]

It became immediately apparent to both men, and to many other Korean veterans, that many of their old friendships would not survive. Their lives were forever changed. For years, they had been living an alternate reality, the uncertainty and violence and chaos of war invading their consciousness. Their friends know nothing of this. How could they? To them, Korea was an abstraction, a war that unlike World War II, was being fought for confusing reasons against confusing enemies.

In the years following their return, Tom and Tony experienced severe anxiety, sleepless nights and other symptoms of acute psychological trauma. Tony often woke up screaming in the middle of the night being terrorized by horrific dreams. To cope, Tom turned to alcohol. Most nights, he waited until his wife was asleep to guzzle bottles of booze. But she knew. The man who she had married just before the war had come back a profoundly changed person. Tom didn’t drink to get drunk. He drank so he didn’t have to feel any pain.

Tom and Tony experienced severe cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Of course, it wasn’t called PTSD then. In the 1950s, a name hadn’t yet been given to the horrors that people experienced following deep trauma. Ever since World War I, doctors had used the term “shell shock” to describe the impaired hearing, blurred vision, severe headaches, exhaustion and other ailments exhibited by veterans returning from active combat. But many explained away these symptoms by blaming the veterans themselves by calling them cowards or by accusing them of faking sick to avoid duty. (http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/06/shell-shocked.aspx)

Tom and Tony recalled that nobody knew much about PTSD. They thought it was just normal life, something they had to deal with in isolation. Tony remembers visiting a priest and telling him about what was happening. The priest talked him down, also shrugging it off as normal.

It is impossible to calculate how many veterans like the Bazouskas suffered with their demons in silence before PTSD became a recognized disorder in 1980. Tom and Tony suppressed much of their trauma for forty-five years, only becoming able to speak about what they experienced much later in life. The psychological toll that combat takes on soldiers is a topic often left out of history books and other contemporary accounts of wars, both past and present. Sadly, it is a reality that continues to plague veterans, their families and our entire society. Today, twenty veterans commit suicide each day, many not able to cope with the guilt of surviving while so many of their friends and comrades were forever injured or didn’t come back at all. (https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/co-occurring/ptsd-suicide.asp)