Many veterans plagued by war’s demons

Mavis Elliott, of Clovis, places flowers on the grave of her grandmother Friday at Mission Garden Cemetery in Clovis. Elliott, along with her sister Lula True, also of Clovis, were at the cemetery to place flowers. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

The winter of 1947 was a year of changes for 19-year-old Tommie Harris. She traded the dryland wheat farm she had been raised on for a rented bedroom on West Seventh Street. Months later, she met her husband.

At that time she didn’t know he was a retired staff sergeant and a returned prisoner of war. Today his memories of the war are part and parcel of her own.

This Memorial Day, Harris calls out to former POWs scattered across New Mexico, and invites them to join her June 10-11 for a POW convention at the Best Western Hotel in Rio Rancho.

“These guys get together and talk to each other in a way they can talk to no one else,” said Harris, a woman who mourns many things — the ethics of a bygone generation, a sense of nationalism and a concern for one’s neighbor. But most of all, she mourns the companionship of the husband she lost to prostate cancer 3 1/2 years ago.

The couple’s greatest battle wasn’t with cancer, however. It was a battle played out in the mind, beginning in the Philippines, where her husband spent more than two years as a POW, and continuing today, she said.

“After we had been married a while,” said Harris who settled in Rio Rancho after selling the family poultry farm, “he started having nightmares. He thought he was fighting the war all over again. He would thrash around, jump and jerk and hit. I thought ‘I better sleep on the floor.’ It was safer there.”

Her husband’s nightmares waxed and waned through the years. They returned with intensity when their four children left home. Harris says no one can tell soldiers’ story as well they can, but her renditions are still shocking.

“The fellows when they were in prison camp thought of food constantly,” Harris said of her husband, who was a bearded and work-stained mess the day they met in December of 1947. “They would eat whatever they could get their hands on — he told me that when monkeys are skinned they look like babies. Then they were shipped to Japan in hell ships — they were given nothing to eat, they had to stand most of the time, they were given a bucket to go to the bathroom in; when they unloaded, they found that several of them had died.”

In the 1950s, Harris said, there was little to do but listen.

“Back then no one knew about post-traumatic stress disorder. The wives took care of them (soldiers) before the government realized they should step in and help,” she said.

According to the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Web site, about 30 percent of the men and women who have spent time in war zones experience PTSD. The study of the disorder can be traced to World War I; it was first defined as a disorder in 1980, the Web site states. But it wasn’t until 1989 that a congressional mandate was passed to address the needs of veterans with military-related PTSD.

Janie Moseley, a long-time Harris family friend, also a widow and wife of a POW, dealt with many of the same issues as her friend.

“New Mexico sent about 1,800 soldiers (to fight in World War II) and less than 900 came home — we took them in and fed them,” Moseley said, letting out the kind of hearty laugh that is oftentimes indicative of a deeper pain, “our job was to let them know they lived to come home.”

Harris and Moseley struggled along with their husbands to pin down the war’s demons. Evidenced by the advice of a medical expert — “Offer your husband a drink” — it was a battle most military families fought alone, said Harris, comforted only by the words of those who experienced the same horrors.

“I think,” said Harris from her home, “that there should be a memorial for the wives. The women suffered just as much … they were there when their husbands would tell them these things. The women hurt for their husbands because they loved them. Looking back over the lives of all the women I know, we should be entitled to a little bit of acknowledgment.”

On Memorial Day, Harris implores the younger generation to look to the past.

“I wish they would study history; learn why these fellows say freedom is not free, somebody pays for it. We need to remember all the wars. If more did, there might not be as many new wars coming along.”

If you are interested in attending the convention:
• It will be held June 10-11 at the Best Western Hotel at 1465 Rio Rancho Blvd. in Rio Rancho.
• Rooms are $60 per night for two people.
• Registration fee will be $40 per person, which includes a Saturday night banquet.
• Registration will be held from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on June 10.
• A picnic will be held on the evening of June 10; cost is $15 per person.
• Reservations: 800-658-9558.

Facts about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder:
• The first cluster of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms are intrusive recollections.

• The disorder impairs a person’s ability to function in social or family life, including occupational instability, marital problems and divorces, family discord, and difficulties in parenting.

• Those suffering from PTSD experience both physical and psychological symptoms. With the war in Iraq, experts predict a new rash of soldiers will suffer from PTSD.

• Matthew Friedman, executive director of Veteran Affairs, defines PTSD: “It is the recognition that you’ve been in the wrong place at the wrong time or have been in a place where you’ve had to commit acts such as shooting other combatants or civilians or driven a car that you weren’t in control of and killed people or things of that sort, that these events can change the way you feel about yourself and feel about the world.”

• PTSD has been noted to occur in both men and women, civilians and soldiers alike, associated with the occurrence of a stressful historical event.

• A national hotline for veterans and their families providing crisis intervention, resource referral, benefits information and emotional support can be accessed by calling 800-777-4443.

Sources: www.ncptsd.va.gov and www.pbs.org