Tales of Survival

Some people enjoy talking to hear their own voice or just to fill the void of silence. However, l discovered when working at the Veterans Administration Outpatient Clinic in San Diego this was not always the case.

“Morning, Miss Betty. Did you know today is free day at the zoo? I think that’s very generous and good for the children. Founder’s Day you know? I am always going to go the zoo but then I forget,” Steve said then continued.

“The traffic was really bad this morning. Most of the cars are gray or black. Did you know that? The red and white cars are stopped most often. Guess the highway patrol can see them the best. They stand out on the road and when they change lanes. I have a green car, I guess I won’t be stopped,” the veteran rattled on and on.

“Wait a minute, Steve. First, good morning to you too. Have you forgotten it is polite to allow Allan and others to reply,” I responded finally able to break Into Steve’s stream of chatter.

“Yes, of course, I do. I am sorry. I do forget sometimes. Guess, I don’t need to talk full bore anymore,” he explained sheepishly.

“That’s true. You no longer have to talk continuously You are safe now,” I reassured him.

“Yes, I know,” he murmured

Steve   often forgot to      control his constant verbalizations In Occupational Therapy he sometimes chattered so much that others became annoyed with him. One day I decided to try something I had used with children at Twin Pines Hospital, the kitchen timers. I set the timer near Steve and quietly asked him, “Please remain quiet until the bell rings.” I hoped this would ‘not insult him.

Steve was good natured and accepted the restrictions pleasantly. Though it was difficult for him, he faithfully refrained from talking until the bell rang.

Once in our case management session I asked, “Steve, I see you were a POW Are you able to tell me about that experience?”

“Well It was with the Japanese on Mindanao, an island in the Philippines. The Japanese had taken the island and rounded up some of us who had not been able to get back to TawiTawi with the rest of the unit. They took us up to Luzon to a prison. There were many prisoners there: Americans, Australians, Filipinos and even some British. The Japanese were cruel, and one was never sure what they’d do at any moment.” His voice became almost a whisper as he related his story. it was clear he was again vividly remembering the horrors of the prison camp.

“How long were you a prisoner?”

“it was three years before help came.”

“Tell me, if you can, what did you do as a prisoner? Did they force you to work?”

“Yes, sometimes we had to repair their barracks or dig trenches but mostly they moved us from one place to another. Some of our guys died of untreated wounds or dysentery. Most tried not to think of what was happening and made up games or songs to pass the time,” Steve described in a monotone voice as if absent of feeling. He turned his emotions off, like many POW’s did in captivity.

“How did you pass the time? -Did you make up games?”

“No, I told stories aloud, most of the time the stories didn’t make sense. Once I built an imaginary house. No one seemed to care or stop me.”

“It is apparent to me that you talked, “non-stop” to make life a tiny bit better since you didn’t have to think.” “Yes, of you didn’t think or count the days, it was as

If you weren’t there. Of course, some guys did keep a calendar to mark off the days. But I didn’t”.

“Those were terrible, terrible days that I know you’ll never forgot Yet, you are safe now and the need to talk constantly is no longer necessary. Perhaps we might work on it together, how about it?”‘

“It would be good. I know I annoy people; my family and friends. Though, it’s hard to be silent. It’s scary.”

“Remember the kitchen timer I used the other day? How did you feel about that kind of reminder to help your talking?”

“That was okay.”

“Better than always asking you to be quiet?”

“Oh yes, it was not so embarrassing. People don’t know about the timer.”

“Good we’ll try It again. Do you realize that you are not the only World War II vet who had similar experiences? Others do understand, I’m sure,” I reassured him.

It took a year for Steve to train himself to control the talking. He had a few relapses, yet he was able to form closer friendships and even began seeing a woman named Gloria he had met at an American Legion meeting. However, this didn’t please his daughter who complained to me she felt the woman was just after his money. “Your father is finally happy. Be glad for him. He will not be around forever, and he deserves a few good years,” I told her. She did not like it, but she stopped bothering him about his “affair” as she called it.

Steve and Gloria were married. They were happy and even did a little traveling. He passed away after four years of bliss. Relationships do not always end “happy ever after” but this time it did.

Surviving the ravages of war is not kind to survivors Another veteran had been aboard a ship In Pearl Harbor on December 7th when the Japanese bombed the island. He told me of his nightmares of swimming through flaming pools of ship fuel that puddled on the surface of the water. By some miracle John was able to make it to shore. He then turned to see in horror his ship sinking and dozens of men swimming in the flames. The whole harbor appeared to be on fire. The noise was terrifying: screams, the explosions, the roar of airplanes above and the shore guns firing at the Japanese aircraft. He heard and smelled this scene each night and awoke in terror.

John wept as he spoke and murmured. “Why did I make it and so many of my shipmates didn’t?”

“Maybe you still have a mission here on Earth. There is a reason the Lord saved you, this is the only reason I can imagine,” was the kindest message I could offer, for I didn’t understand it either. The veteran fought his demon for years with alcohol and sleepless nights. Though with encouragement of other veterans in my group therapy he slowly began to “let go” of those frightening scenes that captured him. He will never forget them but to be able to move on, he guarded them in the back of his mind. He enrolled in a community college as his life took on a brighter phase.

“Miss Betty, Jim in Regional Office suggested I take a class to become a VA counselor. i think, maybe that is my mission, as you once told me,” he confided.

He later became a Regional Office representative helping other veterans

Two veterans in my group both had been POWs in Europe. Their stories were not as devastating to their lives as those in the Pacific. They were both officers who were treated more kindly than the enlisted men by the Germans. Another European war veteran was forcing to repair railroads in France.

The experiences of war changed so many lives. I can imagine the harm done to both the servicemen and the civilians near the battlefields: the loss of life, the destruction, plus the scattered orphans who were forever marked by their horrifying experiences. Sometimes it is difficult not to weep with the veteran

it was no wonder why these men and women had nightmares, drowned themselves in alcohol and with the Vietnam veterans used drugs to calm their fears. In spite of this the veterans are all HEROES, all those men and women had great courage and loyalty.

“When we are strong, we are always much greater than the things that happen to us.” – Thomas Merton


An excerpt from “Once Upon a Career” published in 2011 This book is the original work of the author. All included information is common knowledge and the names of the clients in these tales are fictional, but their stories are true. The names of places and staff are real, though a few of the staff names have been changed and are part of the author’s account of her past.

Copyright 2011-2018, Betty Kaseman all rights reserved.

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