Ron Capps on PTSD and Recovery from Serving in Five Wars in Ten Years
A veteran of five wars, Ron Capps, who served both as a senior military intelligence officer and a U.S. State Department Foreign Service officer in conflicts from Kosovo and Rwanda, to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Darfur, provides a wrenchingly honest account of his experiences and his struggle with PTSD, which he suffered as a result of the horrors he had witnessed yet was helpless to prevent.
How is one man unlucky enough to be called upon to take part in five different wars in only ten years?
Well, it’s not a matter of luck. I voluntarily joined the military and the Foreign Service. I volunteered to go to all the countries I served in. Honestly, I think I was quite lucky to have the opportunities I had. It was a privilege to serve this country for twenty-five years. The problem is that I didn’t take care of myself and just kept going back; too much exposure for too long with insufficient rest and medical care is what nearly killed me.
You spent time in conflict zones in Kosovo, Rwanda, Chad, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Darfur—all places where scenes of extreme violence played out across America’s television screens. But you saw all of them in person and participated in them to differing degrees. Not many people can say that. Many academics and military professionals try to make sense of conflict in the post-Cold War, post-9/11 world. However, not many of them have as much experience on the ground as you do. Are there any common threads that run through them all? Is there some larger lesson we’re missing from these wars which spanned one decade? Can it be tied together around a theme or is it just chaos?
If there is one theme that I saw repeated in many of these wars it’s that the rebellions were often the result of the inequitable distribution of resources—one ethnic group withholding access to water, food, political representation, land, education, and so on from another group or groups. In Kosovo, Rwanda, and Darfur there were rebellions that triggered ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity or genocide. Many observers wrote that these were either ethnically-based or religiously-based conflicts. But having spent a couple years in each of these areas, I came to believe that the core grievances were that one side denied another access to what are fundamental rights. In Central Africa there is a maxim that when the elephants dance, the grass gets trampled. It means that when the powerful take any action it is often the poor who suffer. This has and will likely always be the case; bad political leaders act in the interests of their own supporters, often to the detriment of other groups.
It’s been said that anyone who experiences trauma—such as five wars in ten years—and does not comes away from it changed has something wrong with them. You were clearly affected by what you experienced at war. When did you first realize you were seriously not alright? What did you do? Was there help for you? How have you coped?
When I left Kosovo and returned to Rwanda, I knew I had changed, that I had been changed by the war. I stayed in Rwanda for another two years and then went to Afghanistan. That’s where being “Seriously Not All Right” came up. I was in pretty bad shape, suffering badly with PTSD. At first I tried to hide my symptoms, but realized after some time that to do so would be to put at risk the soldiers I was sent to Afghanistan to lead. So I sought help. My doctor told me to keep track day-to-day of how I felt, but didn’t give me any further guidance on how to do that. So I developed a simple continuum: I felt All Rightwhatever that meantor I felt Vaguely Not All Right, or I felt Seriously Not All Right. Since then, this was in the early days of the Afghan War, in 2002, my condition has waxed and waned. It reached a nadir in 2006 when I nearly killed myself out in the desert in Darfur. How I coped in the mean? I tried lots of different approaches including medication, therapy, and alcohol in varying portions. What helped me in the long run was staying on my meds, and writing about my experiences. Writing became the road home for me. It allowed me to take control of the memories rather than allowing the memories to control me.
What is the Veterans Writing Project?
At its core, the Veterans Writing Project is a group of veterans who found a way to continue to serve others. Our instructors are all veteranswe have all services representedwho are working writers and who also hold graduate writing degreesMA or MFA. We provide no-cost writing workshops and seminars for veterans, service members and their families. We teach both creative writing and expressive or therapeutic writing. We’ve taken our creative writing program from DC into Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Iowa, Arizona, Colorado, and Kentucky with partners like the Wounded Warrior Project, the Association of the United States Army, the Wilderness Society as well as colleges, county arts councils, and with private funding. We teach our expressive writing program at a Department of Defense research center called the National Intrepid Center of ExcellenceNICoEon the campus of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and at the Washington DC Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. We also publish writing by veterans and their families in our literary journal, o-dark-thirty.org.
In WWI it was called shell shock; in WWII it was combat fatigue. The Canadians call it a combat stress injuryas for just getting over it, I wish that were possible for me and for the hundreds of thousands of other returned veterans who are struggling with PTSD.
Every so often one comes across these commenters or, more recently, people like Michael Savagewho say that there is no such thing as PTSD. They say things like, “I did a tour in Korea or Vietnam and we didn’t have that back then.” Some claim that it’s a side effect of a sort of “softness” in our military or our culture today. Basically, they say you should just get over it. How do you respond to that?
I normally just don’t respond to folly like that. In point of fact, PTSD exists throughout society, not just among combat veterans. As for the ‘we didn’t have that back then’ idea, I would encourage anyone who says that to read The Iliad and The Odyssey—the seminal war and return stories. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is evident in the stories and they are 2700 years old. During the American Civil War, doctors called PTSD nostalgia. Just think about that for a minute: nostalgia, an inability to move forward, focusing entirely on past events. In WWI, it was called shell shock; in WWII, it was combat fatigue. The Canadians call it a combat stress injury, referring to the physical changes that occur in the brain as a result of PTSD. And there’s a move afoot in the U.S. to drop the word disorder from the name and simply refer to it as post-traumatic stress. And as for ‘just getting over it’, I wish that were possible for me and for the hundreds of thousands of other returned veterans who are struggling with PTSD.
ISIS has forced America to turn its attention back to Iraq once again just as we were hoping to put it behind us. It could very well be that U.S. troops will have to fight on the ground there again. The phrase that has been going around is that average Americans are “tired of war.” Yet, less than 1% of Americans serve in the military. Many of these few—like you—have served multiple tours “over there.” For 99% of Americans, life goes on as normal. What are they tired of exactly? War, as you can attest, is undoubtedly a terrible thing. But how can we strike a balance between ensuring we don’t go to war unnecessarily versus not going to war when it is necessary? How can we be sure that our will to avoid sending men and women to war does not give way to wishful thinking?
Well, I won’t speak for the 99% of America as to what people are tired of. But we have been at war for thirteen years now and I sense that the military is tired. As for ISIS, we won’t beat them with a bombing campaign or really even with ground troops. You beat an ideologyan ideawith better ideas. We need to help the people of Iraq and Syria provide a better narrative for their people so that the ISIS narrative is exposed as the corrupt, vile poison that it is. We can probably do that, but it will need to be in conjunction with a very broad coalition of nations and done more with diplomacy and development activities —actions designed to overcome poverty and create democratic governments that care for their people—than with military force, and it will take a very long time.
Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years
by Ron Capps
Schaffner Press, 279 pages, $25
[Photo: Flickr CC: U.S. Army]
Ron Capps served as a U.S. Army intelligence officer from 1983 to 2008 and was a U.S. State Department Foreign Service political officer from 1994 to 2008. He served overseas (inter alia) in Kosovo, Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Darfur, Sudan. He is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University. In 2011, he founded theVeterans Writing Project, a nonprofit that provides no-cost writing seminars and workshops for veterans, service members, and their adult family members.