PTSD in 1945: let there be truth

I was excited to see Paula Span’s piece today in the Times, “No End to Trauma for Some Older Veterans.” She follows one 80-something vet in his struggles and notes that seeking help wasn’t popular in his war: “The prevailing medical advice — even for someone like Mr. Perna, who had fought in North Africa, Italy and France, who had been wounded and spent six months in a German P.O.W. camp — amounted to “put it all behind you.”

And as much as that may be true, I did feel she left out an important element, as well as the role played by one of the ‘stars’ of ‘my’ World War II chapter.

I said so in a comment  I made on the Times website. Below is the one I first wrote, which takes a stab at explaining why the truth has been so long suppressed.

The piece  is wonderfully thoughtful, and tells me tons I didn’t know. Thank you – and thanks to Mr. Pena, who agreed to go on the record.

Let_There_Light_001-550wI do wish you’d been able to slip in a reference to the John Huston film ‘Let There Be Light.’  In 1945, the Army sent Huston to Mason General Hospital in Brentwood, Long Island, to film a veterans’ psychiatric unit at there.  (One of its long-term inhabitants was Dr. Jacob Ochs ( a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge), long before his son Philip sang “I ain’t marching anymore!”)  The film is a little hokey by today’s standards, earnest young men learning to call their illnesses “psycho-neurotic anxiety disorders” while assured by doctors that “we’re conducting an education campaign” to erase the stigma. Instead, just as with San Pietro, the Pentagon moved quickly to suppress Let There Be Light. “They wanted to maintain the ‘warrior’ myth, which said that our American soldiers went to war and came back all the stronger for the experience.”

The truth was probably in between, but after seeing the film the Army immediately suppressed it from public viewing for 30-plus years.The Cold War was beginning, after all, so no call for admitting any kind of “weakness” in American men.

Interestingly, the film was just included as an “extra”  in the DVD release of The Master,  whose protagonist  is a traumatized WWII vet.

Thanks again for this piece. I hope it gets some families to seek help.

I watched the film when I was just starting out on this book, before learning that Phil Ochs’ dad had been a patient there.  I look forward to seeing it again,and posted the whole thing here in case you don’t want to spring for the Blu-Ray.

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