Crisis Management: War Horrors Linger For Years: personal crisis
The recent Memorial Day and wars have knocked at our emotions as we contemplate the sacrifices of our servicemen and women. I think often about my friend Lt. Col. Janis Nark (ret). This striking, extroverted resident of tiny Nebo, NC, who now lives in Aspen, CO, has been a familiar presence at veteran ceremonies including the World War II Memorial dedication. I learned her story in fragments of conversation over the years. Here it is:
During the Vietnam War, the then 21 year-old Army nurse treated wounded and dying soldiers in Southeast Asia for more than a year. An experience so traumatic, she shut it out for 20 years. She didn’t talk about it. Or cry about it – or about anything, she said – until about 10 years ago when she let the demons out. They had been sniping at her as nightmarish flashbacks. (The faint smell of blood on a band-aid would throw her.) A particularly nasty flashback that I will describe later literally struck her to the floor. With such episodes increasing, Janis chose to discuss her war past and even give speeches about it. The catharsis – while helpful – initially shook her. Hair-trigger emotions often made reflective conversations tearful. She cried the first time I met her as she told of her speech at the Vietnam Wall in the presence of the President.
Later, Janis went deeper. She said she felt helpless in Vietnam because the parade of grievously injured young men she treated had no end. Some she mended only to watch return immediately to fight. While in-country nursing was tough duty, a West Coast military hospital was worse for her. Jets carried the injured from the frontline to her U.S. care within mere hours. Soldiers would lose consciousness during the shooting and awaken half a world away in her hospital. They would open their eyes to see Janis and other nurses hovering. Patients called them “angels.” Some asked if they were already dead. The contrasts were awful.
Her next hospital, a civilian one, was central to the flashback that knocked Janis to the floor at home. She said she had been rehearsing a speech while running on a treadmill when a far-off memory blindsided her. She fell into the past.
Intensive Care Unit, 1975. A boy on the bed next to her patient goes into cardiac and respiratory arrest as his family stands around him. Janis, now in the Army reserve, is the only nurse present. She pushes past the bewildered relatives to pound her fist on his chest to restart his heart. She orders the relatives to find others to help. They won’t or can’t. In these days before M*A*S*H and E.R., the family doesn’t understand why Janis is hammering their boy and are horrified. All is unfolding in slow motion. Janis knows she is the only hope and there is no way out. Finally, assistance arrives. She and others revive the boy. He lives. Janis, however, is seared.
She walks out of the hospital that night and never returns. She quits nursing.
Still in flashback on the floor, Janis remembers more. For the first time in 20 years she can see the features of the 18 year-old boy she saved. She had “buried” his face along with the faces of many soldiers she had treated. Also for the first time, she understands why she left her profession. She could not bear to see one more person die while she survived. This was the pain she no longer held back.
Today, Janis talks about the war without crying, most times. The past doesn’t bite so hard. She credits years of truth-telling to set herself free. Nevertheless, it took about half her adult life to declare a truce with her demons.
With Janis in mind, let us reflect on those military men and women who, as you read this, are seeing, hearing, smelling, and feeling events that will embed themselves as deeply as they did in Janis. They will need our support and understanding long after they return.