Second Prize in the AVCAT Essay Prize 2020, ‘Safe’ by Jane Wotherspoon.
By Jane Wotherspoon
“Posttraumatic stress disorder may be one of the most important explanations for the effects of deployment on the sons and daughters of military personnel reported on here.”
“Sons and daughters have been found to constantly monitor and modify their behaviour to protect their father from known triggers for distress.”
Vietnam Veterans’ Family Study, 2014
The question took me by surprise – did anyone know about outcomes for children of Vietnam veterans? It certainly had its place in a lecture on child psychopathology, but, as always, I needed time to consider – should I say anything? If so, what? Statistics? Personal experience? And to what end? Seconds passed, someone started talking about a distant connection. I listened, looking down, heart racing.
So to a question about the impact on children of Vietnam veterans, my response was to become vigilant, alert, uncomfortable. Would speaking suggest a childhood of anger, alcoholism, and an emotionally distant father? And what did being the child of a Vietnam veteran qualify me to contribute anyway? What did I actually know about outcomes beyond statistics? Because I have never been able to determine exactly how the Vietnam War has impacted myself or my family.
All I have are stories, changing over time. Sometimes it has been hard for me to accept the uncontrolled nature of the experiment, to not be able to say, “Because of a, then b.” “Because that date was drawn in that lottery in 1965, our lives have unfolded like this.” But at other times, I have been intrigued by the uncertainty, the shifts and glimpses and little epiphanies, as we have tried, together and by ourselves, to understand. From my perspective, it seemed at first like I was born into a happy ending.
Once upon a time around 1980, Vietnam was 13 years in Dad’s past. He now had a beloved wife and little daughters, a public service job, a hard-earned university degree after leaving school at Year 10. The war wasn’t spoken of, at least to those daughters, so at five, I had no understanding of it. Although, I’d seen that scar on his leg. Oh, and that time Dad was shut in the loungeroom with a strange man, both quiet, serious, drinking beer, as they watched a parade on TV. He didn’t seem like Dad that day. Vietnam Veterans’ Day didn’t exist in 1980, Vietnam veterans didn’t march, didn’t frequent the RSLs. Dad had tried once, he told us years later, to drink in an RSL after he came back, but was asked to leave – not having fought in a real war.
By the time I was nine, I still didn’t know much about Dad’s experiences, but it’s astonishing how anything war-related I came across caught my attention. I read any war-themed book available in my small school library, mostly War World Two era, mostly The Diary of Anne Frank. It was the human aspect of war that fascinated me – how could it be endured? How could it be survived? Why was it allowed to happen? Everything I read confirmed war to be a terrible thing. And one day in Year Four, I learned that war wasn’t just history. I sat with my class on the carpet in the TV room, watching Behind the News. It was 1984. Someone decided the children of Australia should know about the Cold War arms race. I’d never heard of nuclear weapons, but I watched and listened intently at first. Seeing images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and learning how much more destructive modern weapons were than those used 40 years earlier, I was sickened with horror. I didn’t want to watch or listen any more. I put my head down, covered my ears. My teacher asked if I was all right.
I wasn’t all right. Afterwards, I feared for everyone. Even before, nothing seemed more dreadful to me than war, but I didn’t think it would actually happen, and now nuclear war was a possibility? I would lie in bed with visions of mushroom clouds and searing white lights in my head. Usually, I would find Dad at night when I was scared. My brother and sister and I all knew he would never turn us away if we were frightened – understanding, as he did, night-time terrors. Sometimes late at night, when he was unable to sleep himself, or maybe just wanting to watch the cricket, I’d find him in the loungeroom with only the light from the television flickering. Sitting beside him on the couch as he watched TV, nothing felt safer.
Now, though, I kept my fear to myself. Did I decide to do this to protect him? Because I didn’t want to add to, or witness, his distress at the mention of war? Did I decide that nothing could make it better, that war was just too much? I started to prowl the house before bed, checking the windows and turning off power points – trying to keep us all safe.
In 2017, over afternoon tea, my younger son says that his friend told him North Korea would be sending a nuclear bomb to Australia. It is his way to quietly speak a few words to me when he’s worried. (“Have you heard of global warming, Mum? Do you know about coronavirus?”) Despite the drop in my stomach upon hearing ‘nuclear’ – I can barely read the word ‘unclear’ without the sensation – I think about how we’ve mostly survived so far, about sensationalised headlines, and about that small, defiant belief in humanity that got me to the point of even being a parent, and say, “That’s not going to happen, buddy. No-one wants that,” and he returns to his milkshake. It appears I’ve come around to the mutually assured destruction as deterrent view. Regardless of my body’s fearful reaction to my son’s words, I think, “I am grateful he brings his terrors to me,” and wish, at his age, I’d done the same, because Dad would not have left me alone with my fear, if he’d known, if I’d told him.
Late ‘80s, and we started talking about the war at home a little. Now I would liken it to a ghost story, to something that’s haunting Dad. He hadn’t left the war in the past after all. Jumping out of helicopters has led to physical pain, along with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Dad wasn’t working at this time. Instead, it was a neck brace, and us sitting in the car with Mum after school, waiting for Dad to finish appointments with his psychiatrist. It was down moods and medication. And for me, a tiny, self-centred, adolescent questioning that would break through the caring sometimes, saying (just whispered, or glanced, between siblings, mind you, not to him), “If we are so important, why can‘t we just make him better?”
1991, I was 15, when I told my parents I want to go to the protest against the Gulf War. They allowed it, they allowed me a lot. If I took on responsibilities, I was given rights as well. I gained a small sense of comfort at doing something in the face of fear, and at understanding I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. Because I was terrified at the prospect of an actual war, not realising wars had been fought continuously throughout my life somewhere in the world. The invasion of Iraq began while we were on holidays in St Kilda, with rolling TV coverage. I didn’t have any sense of distance, it was war and it was terrible and people were being killed. We visited Luna Park late one afternoon and, looking up at the sunset sky and the old wooden rollercoaster, I saw missiles and tracer rounds. I thought of the randomness of where we’re born. I thought the world was ending. I still didn’t tell Dad how scared I was.
1996, I was 21. Dad had returned to work, having decided, with Mum’s support, that he wasn’t prepared to be found totally and permanently incapacitated in his 40s. I interviewed him about Vietnam for a uni assignment, and tried to imagine him at my age, spending his 21st in a training camp. One night, at a uni function, I met a friend of a friend who had joined the defence forces. I mentioned that the anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan was coming up. Dad had only recently told me that, for him, his worst day was the day after Long Tan, 19th August 1966, when his company of 6RAR was tasked with burying the dead in the rubber plantation. I realised the man I was speaking to knew about Long Tan and it was odd to see not just awareness, but was it respect in his eyes? Looking back, I wonder was this around the time a new story of the bravery of Australian soldiers in yet another battle against the odds started to emerge, and Vietnam started to be seen as a ‘real’ war after all? It unsettles me, because it doesn’t feel new at all, rather it’s the ANZAC myth transposed to a different location. Regardless of my comfort or discomfort with it, this rehabilitation, this welcoming home of veterans was 30 years too late to ameliorate the impact of shame layered upon trauma, for veterans and their families.
The following ten years passed, without anything specific I would tie to Dad’s war experience, to growing up with a parent with depression and PTSD. My sister and I moved out, started work, met partners. My brother finished school. We were still close, even if not under the same roof. I think, if my siblings and I considered Vietnam at all, we might have supposed that we’d all had a lucky escape.
A few more years, and my partner and I started thinking of children. The first pregnancy ended badly, unexpectedly, at 13 weeks. I felt a loss I couldn’t even understand the dimensions of, but also fear. Six weeks later, I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, didn’t want to leave the house. At first, I thought it was physical but it was anxiety – of course. Nothing major, I was told, easy enough to address. I started to wonder about mental health, heritability, modelling. Nature, nurture. The thought that maybe it wasn’t only Dad, but all of us – that certain themes might run through all of our stories, although ‘case study’ might be a more accurate description than story for this particular period. A little later, I started studying psychology – of course.
By the time the Vietnam Veterans Family Study opened to participants in 2008, I had one young son, and was close to having my second. My parents, siblings and I all responded. I ticked boxes and marked scales assessing physical and mental health, social and educational outcomes, parenting. Then I filled the open text boxes with polite rage that the war and conscription had ever happened, and crashed through my father’s life. Years passed and I waited for findings to be published, gradually wondering less about the physical, and more about the psychological outcomes, and how a parent’s PTSD might impact on children.
When the findings were finally released, I was initially disappointed. Not in the study specifically – it had achieved its aims, confirming what had been suspected in the veteran community – poorer outcomes for mental and physical health, social and economic well-being in children of Vietnam veterans. My disappointment was with the mechanisms suggested, and what I perceived to be their limited applicability to my family. Two of the three were harsh parenting and school problems. I thought, “This has nothing to say about us, nothing to add to the story.”
Harsh parenting? In 2018, my brother visits and I try to describe an image I have of a house and a family. The father, a Vietnam veteran, comes home and the war comes with him, there’s violence, anger, shame. There’s fear in the house. Watchfulness, vigilance. War – large-scale interpersonal trauma – becomes interpersonal trauma in the family. “But,” I say to Tim, “that wasn’t our house.” Violence was not welcome. No toy weapons. No violent movies. No fighting. No angry speech. Instead it was Dad singing us to sleep with his lullabies, or Bridge Over Troubled Water, or Famous Blue Raincoat. It was Mum’s quiet love and sacrifice, and Dad’s joy and gratitude for his family. For us, the picture I have is of a house with the doors and windows barred against violence. But the act of barring something tells you that it’s there, outside, waiting, and that something has hurt Dad. Harsh parenting was not our experience, but we understood that there are things to fear in the world, that people could do terrible things to each other.
The report mentioned one other mechanism– the serviceman’s posttraumatic stress disorder, with children learning to monitor and modify their behaviour to protect their father from distress. We watched for signs of distress – tension in the back, Dad’s head down, eyes shut. We tried not to make sudden loud noises or to shout or to tell each other you hated them. Not because we’d be in trouble, but to avoid that distress – not wanting to see pain in his eyes. Not scared of Dad, but worried for him. So the war and violence were prohibited, yet awareness was always there.
But this awareness had been so much part of life, that it was hard to clearly see it. Eventually, like the denouement of a mystery, with enough hints and clues, I realised something that had been there all along, for more years than my brother and sister and I had been alive. I’d studiously avoided anything about the topic of trauma for years, thinking I should leave it to the experts, then realised I’d grown up with it. I’ve rewritten my stories about the impact of Vietnam on our family over time, but the theme of trauma runs through them all. The experience of it, the impact of it, intergenerational transmission – colouring my fears, teaching us ways to relate to each other, keeping us vigilant.
Maybe I still can’t say I know anything about the impact beyond the statistics, but over decades, as I’ve been able to add to my stories of our family, I’ve been better able to make sense of how Dad’s war experiences and PTSD might have influenced us, I’ve been able to build an understanding that can not only take into account the effort and determination that my parents put in to give us as joyful and loving a childhood as possible, but one that also recognises the insidious nature of trauma and war. You can try and bar the doors but that won’t make it go away.
Reference — Forrest, W., Edwards, B., & Daraganova, G. (2014). Vietnam Veterans Health Study. Volume 2, A Study of Health and Social Issues in Vietnam Veteran Sons and Daughters, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.