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Vietnam vet reaches out to young soldiers with "Facing PTSD"

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Tom Smith grew up in Connecticut, but his family has owned land in Keene Valley for four generations. He was drafted in 1968 and flew helicopters in Vietnam. Smith saw lots of combat, was shot down numerous times, and when he returned to the States, he says he was a changed person - easily irritated and angered.

In the '70's and '80's he moved around, living in Alaska, Hawaii, California and then back in the Adirondacks.

He turned to writing as a way of coming to terms with post-traumatic stress disorder. He calls his third book, Facing PTSD: a Combat Vet Learns to Live with the Disorder, an auto-ethnography. It includes heartwarming stories of family and friends and also comical adventures. Tom and his wife, Kathy, have two sons. He told Todd Moe that while he is still dealing with bouts of pain, anger and sadness, life is good. Todd spoke with Smith from his home in Keene Valley about his time in Vietnam, writing the book and reaching out to a new generation of "wounded warriors".

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Todd Moe
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This summary only contains a portion of what’s in the audio interview. For the full interview, click “listen with NCPR player”. To hear Tom Smith read an excerpt from his book, click here.

As most people would tell you, you never really get rid of PTSD, you learn to live with it.
Smith says his job in the military as a scout pilot involved flying "literally in the tops of trees". "My job was to go out and get shot at, basically." He says he was only shot down "traumatically" twice during Vietnam.

Smith dealt with his pain just after returning from Vietnam, he says, "by fast cars, driving and drinking." He also distracted himself by moving around a lot, since planning, moving and getting settled could take up "years of your time."  

Smith distinguishes "distractions" like gardening and carpentry from "escapes" like drugs and drinking, saying distractions can often be productive. "I think distractions are a…very viable alternative to medication."

Talking with younger veterans

Smith says he's heard from younger veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. He says it's been "heartwarming" talking to young vets about their experiences. "They see no difference. It only takes minutes for any barriers that might be between us to disappear. One thing that has become very obvious to me is that we, most people that have experienced quite a bit of combat, are changed people." He says that's not necessarily a bad thing—and one of the best things is the camaraderie and brotherhood that combat veterans feel for one another.

"We've done something quite unique, and it's hard to say to be proud of it, but we can only be proud of it in the respect that we did our jobs well. And our job basically was to help our fellow combatants.

"My meeting these young men has been a very rewarding experience, but its' also been disturbing in that so little progress has been made in helping these individuals recognize the cause and effect and the symptoms, and how they can deal with the symptoms, of PTSD. There really seems to be very little progress, and I'm not blaming the military or the VA for it, I think it's their approach, the basic clinical approach just doesn't work for them, it just doesn't resonate.

Life is good

"Life is good. It's surprising, I just recently had one of my first real depressions in a long time, not quite suicidal, but very interesting and I was very surprised by it. As most people would tell you, you never really get rid of PTSD, you learn to live with it. And it is stress-related, anxiety-related, so it is still there, but life is very good, I've been very fortunate, my wife stayed with me through the whole experience."

Smith and his wife have two children, and he says he's actually thought that his happy marriage and family might make it harder for others with the disorder to relate to him—but he hasn't found that to be the case.

Smith says he wrote the book "primarily for veterans, of course, because it is such a singular experience." But many in the U.S. experience PTSD, including firefighters, police, and others including victims of abuse and rape. "It's an astronomical number, so there's a lot of people out there I think trying to find why they're being so troubled by the symptoms of post-traumatic stress." Many aren't as bothered by the more extreme symptoms of PTSD like intrusive thoughts and suicidal depression, but they experience anger and other symptoms. "There's a lot of trauma out there, and people aren't all dealing with it perfectly."


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