My Dad: The Effects of War

I recently saw the new movie American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood and based on the real life story of Navy SEAL Team 3 Sniper, Chris Kyle. Kyle was later killed by twenty-five year old United States Marine Corps veteran Eddie Ray Routh, who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  I listened to many interviews and read the positive reviews.  The Oscar buzz also made it seem worth seeing. However, I must admit I was a little apprehensive.  I knew it would be a very emotional, raw and honest movie about the effects war has on our United States veterans and service members.   This subject is near and dear to my heart and one for which I am most passionate.  

My late father, Army Sergeant Michael Petrilli was drafted by the United States Army at the age of 19 to serve during the Vietnam War. Around the age of 12, he emigrated with his family from Italy in the 1950s.  He had much difficulty in school due to the language barrier and never completed high school.  When my dad's lottery number was drawn he had no choice but to go and serve.  My grandmother tried everything in her power to prevent him from going to war.  Although my father did not serve front line, he still experienced the effects of the war.  The only time he spoke to our family about serving in Vietnam was when he told us he and his platoon buddies were out driving in their military jeep.  They happen to drive past fellow platoon buddies, also in a jeep, which was bombed right at that moment, in front of their very eyes.  Can you imagine seeing your fellow "brothers" killed right in front of you? It must have been horrible to witness!  I know this and other experiences of the Vietnam War, such as hearing bombs in the distance and being on constant high alert had a detrimental effect on my father.  

I was told that when my father returned from Vietnam, he became very isolated, depressed, barely spoke, experienced extreme night terrors and did not leave the house for close to a year.  The depression, anxiety and night terrors would continue years later, even after he was married with children. As kids, when my sister and I would wake up my Dad from a nap, he would "jump" awake and it would frighten us. In order to cope, he self-medicated for many years by using alcohol, which caused his untimely death at the young age of 62. 

At the time of the Vietnam War, veterans suffered from the trauma of war, but it wasn't until years later, in 1980 that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) added Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or "PTSD" to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) (United States Department of Veterans Affairs)

Throughout their marriage, my mother made numerous requests for my father to seek treatment for his PTSD and alcoholism. My father's alcoholism had a profound effect on our family.  Growing up with an alcoholic, emotionally unavailable father was certainly not easy.  It was hard for him to be affectionate with my sister and me because he was angry most of the time.  My mom always worried about leaving my sister and I alone with him for fear he would drink instead of looking after us.  Financial problems escalated as my Dad continued to make poor business decisions.  After almost twenty-five years of marriage, my parents divorced, but my Dad continued to self-medicate. I was angry with my dad for so long, but with the help of wonderful mental health professionals, I was finally able to accept that his PTSD and alcoholism was not something he asked for, but a direct result of serving in war.  

The Vietnam War was the longest war in United States history until now.  As a result of the Case-Church Amendment passed by the U.S. Congress, direct U.S. military involvement in Vietnam ended on August 15, 1973. The capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese Army in April 1975 marked the end of the war. The number of Vietnam service members and civilians killed vary from 800,000 to 3.1 million and more than 50,000 U.S. service members also died in the conflict (Wikipedia)   Of the 2,709,918 Americans who served in Vietnam, Less than 850,000 are estimated to be alive today, with the youngest American Vietnam veteran's age approximated to be 54 years old. (National Vietnam Veterans Foundation)

While the story of Chris Kyle is a heroic one, let us not forget that he died at the hands of a fellow veteran who was suffering from PTSD. Like my Dad, I can only imagine what this young man was going through. I am sure he was plagued with anger, depression, nightmares, survivor's guilt and a host of other PTSD symptoms. Had this young man received the mental healthcare and support he so desperately needed, perhaps the death of Chris Kyle would not have occurred.  It is my deepest hope that Operation MCP and other veterans' organizations provide much needed support to United States veterans who so selflessly sacrifice and courageously fight to protect our freedoms. From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you!