By Ed Tick, Ph.D.
As a psychotherapist for more than 40 years, I have found my strongest calling, met my greatest challenges, and learned and matured the most in my work with troops and veterans suffering the invisible wounds we now call Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Moral Injury.
I began working with returning Vietnam veterans years before PTSD became a diagnosis in 1980. My enduring model for the service I wanted to give, the role I sought to fulfill, was “home front doc.” It was born and shaped by family and ancestral relations.
My Uncle Stan was my mother’s only sibling, four years older than her. An aspiring artist before service, he went to war as a combat medic and fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. Afterwards he and his unit were missing behind enemy lines for months. My grandmother prayed for him constantly, and her hair turned white almost overnight.
Stan came home a changed man, no longer an artist. He could function and even became a professional, but he always shook and stuttered, hardly able to utter a complete sentence. I have worked with thousands of combat veterans. Stan’s was one of the worst cases of functioning PTSD or walking shell shock that I have known. In the military he had been a “doc,” as medics are known.
My parents made Stan my godfather. My godfather, the traumatized doc.
In 1961, at ten years old, I pored over a book called “Great Battles of the Civil War.” One full-page color picture showed a grizzled Confederate soldier stooping over a fallen federal soldier, cradling him and giving him water on a field strewn with Union fallen. This soldier was 19-year-old Sgt. Richard Chamberlain from South Carolina, who did climb the walls protecting his troops, at night, loaded with canteens, to doctor Union wounded.
No one else joined him, but no shots were fired and both sides cheered. Sgt. Chamberlain is known as “the Angel of Fredericksburg.”
I framed his picture, hung it on my bedroom wall, and spent endless hours contemplating his story.
I came of age during the Vietnam War. I hated that war but always supported and feared for our troops. My opposition overrode my desire to serve. Deeply troubled, I was protesting and preparing my conscientious objector plea. I decided that if drafted I could only serve as a medic, a doc. A high lottery number erased that crisis, but something in me was missing and I still ached to serve.
As a beginning psychotherapist in the late 1970s, troubled Vietnam veterans came into my nascent psychotherapy practice. Life was giving me the chance to become that home front doc. I specialized in working with our vets even when our country scorned them. I gave all to earn my place in their brotherhood and help them come home.
Willy, my best friend of those years, had been a reconnaissance patrol leader in the jungles. One day he told me, “I judge men not by whether they were in the bush with me, but by what they would be like if they had been. You? I’d make you my medic.”
Since then I have searched the world learning to heal these invisible war wounds. I have worked and studied with Native Americans whose warrior traditions are wise and ancient. To the Plains people, PTSD was being bereft of spirit. They affirm that it was in essence a wound to the soul.
Of the many roles that the Lakota chief, warrior and shaman Sitting Bull filled, he declared his most important was Medicine Chief of the Hunkpapa Warrior Society. Sitting Bull was responsible for the spiritual health of warriors and for restoring them when depleted from combat. He was a soul doc and has been my role model.
Sgt. Chamberlain, Uncle Stan, Willy and Sitting Bull – an ancestral line of docs in a crushing series of wars – I humbly and gratefully claim them as my lineage, and I feel proudest when our warriors address me simply as “Doc.”
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