It took 45 years for Larry Shook’s war trauma to fully erupt. When it did, he was a long way from Vietnam.
But Vietnam – what he did there and what that did to him – had never been far from him. It was always there, lurking underneath the surface normalcy, pressing against his vision of himself as a strong, competent, capable person. He was quick to emotion, quick to cry – and quick to feel humiliated about those emotions. “John Wayne doesn’t cry,” he said. Sadness and a sense of isolation trailed him. When it threatened to bloom into uncontrollable grief, he fought it off.
“I never even had words for it,” he said. “I learned to just clench down, like taking a punch in the belly. I got good at that.”
But you can’t brace for every punch. A year ago, on a September night, Shook hit a deer on a road near the Franklin Store. He went home feeling fine and slept well, but he woke up a wreck – hands trembling, gripped by a terror he could not explain.
“It just completely turned my life upside-down,” said Shook, a longtime investigative journalist. “My life was out of control.”
Shook was experiencing the symptoms of a condition that is epidemic among soldiers returning from wars – and not just the recent ones. We call it post-traumatic stress disorder these days, but the trauma of the soldier returning to society is as old as war itself and has gone by many names: shellshock, soldier’s heart, combat fatigue. In any case, the symptoms of anxiety, sensitivity to normal sensations and the tendency to re-experience intense trauma have accompanied warfare from the beginning.
American civilian society stands in an awkward relationship to this reality; we often exhibit a kind of collective denial that what we are asking these people to do may affect them in horrible, lifelong ways. We now lose more soldiers to suicide than to combat, the Pentagon says – about 22 veterans kill themselves every day. Many of these soldiers were isolated from the care and compassion that was their due from the rest of us.
Shook’s traumatic PTSD episode last fall woke up more than just his trauma; it also awakened his sense of the unique bond he shares with fellow veterans. It prompted him to try and do something to help them. The first fruits of that effort come Saturday, when a group of veterans will present their stories about living with PTSD to the community; the event follows a retreat in which they explored their memories and stories through the creative arts. For Shook and fellow organizers of Warrior Songs Spokane, it’s as much about the community listening as it is the veterans expressing themselves.
“When the veterans tell their story, and the community hears it, that’s when the healing begins,” said Jason Moon, an Iraq War veteran from Milwaukee who attempted suicide in 2008 before going on to found Warrior Songs. “All you have to do is come and listen. You don’t have to fix. You don’t have to change your mind. It’s that simple: listening.”
Spokane’s Warrior Songs is the second that Moon has organized, along with a team, and he hopes to do more. Moon came to his own awakening about the power of art; a longtime songwriter, he found that when he returned from combat he didn’t want to write songs anymore. He found that because you often express things unintentionally through works of the imagination, he kept returning to subjects and themes and images that were painful.
“We write about what we know, whether we want to or not,” he said.
But Moon eventually wrote those difficult songs, and they make up his album, “Trying to Find My Way Home.” His music became an important part of his outreach effort as he traveled the country, performing and advocating for veterans with PTSD. He organized the first Warrior Songs event in Philadelphia in June.
Shook attended that workshop. By that point, he had begun trying to explore his experiences more fully, and to try to come to terms with what he felt was the damage to his soul from what he had done. He gave a powerful and eloquent sermon at the Unitarian Church in May; his sermon was prefaced by a reading from his memoir-in-progress by his friend and reporting partner Tim Connor. In the memoir, Shook addresses, in direct and bracing language, a young man he killed in war.
“Dear Nguyen, I’m the American helicopter gunship door gunner who killed you on the third morning of the Tet Offensive in Saigon in 1968. I’m writing to apologize to you and to ask for your forgiveness. I am doing this to save my soul.”
Later, a friend he served with in Vietnam encouraged Shook to attend the Warrior Songs retreat in Philadelphia – he even paid for Shook’s plane ticket there. Shook says he was terrified to go, but when he walked into the retreat room, saw the seven men and seven women there, he said something overwhelming occurred.
“Just like that” – he snaps his fingers sharply – “it was ‘I know you.’ ”
Shook’s experiences, at the retreat and following the sermon, changed his life. He no longer felt lost, but filled with the purpose of sharing his story and helping other vets. His friends saw it, too. Co-organizer John Hancock has known Shook for years, and he said that when he saw how good the retreat had been for his friend, he wanted to help bring it here.
“Twenty-two suicides a day nationwide by former soldiers is just very tragic,” he said. “This organization is trying to find a way to figure out how to help these people.”
Moon hopes that using art and creativity helps veterans discover and express parts of their own stories that are difficult to communicate directly. Part of the approach involves acknowledging that what happens to people in war goes beyond the medical or clinical. Shook speaks in terms of his soul. Others talk about the damage to their spirit or the conflict in their hearts.
It isn’t about a political view of war, a matter of being for or against this war or that war, Moon says, so much as the need for the society that sends young men and women into it to understand the costs and to accept their share of the responsibility. To welcome them home, to help them with their burdens, to listen to their stories.
“Soldiers can’t heal from PTSD by themselves,” Shook said. “Citizens need to step forward and say, ‘We all went to war. … We sent you.’ ”