Why We Miss the Navy and the Ships
My take on PTSD
By Garland Davis
When the General Quarters klaxon sounds, whether for fire, taking on water, collision, crash on the flight deck, or preparing to engage the North Vietnamese on a run into Haiphong port, the adrenaline kicks in. They say that when you are faced with a life or death situation, your training takes over and you don’t really think about what you are doing. It all becomes muscle memory. You are on autopilot.
It’s true, to a degree. Training is just a safely repeatable replacement for near death experiences.
I remember a helicopter crash on the flight deck of an FF I was serving in. The flight deck fire party had the situation in hand, but almost by the time the general alarm was finished we were crowding each other running fire hoses through hatches and doors to the flight deck and main deck. Did I stop to think, I will have my galley crew breakout and run a fire hose to help? No, the ship was in danger, my training took over and I reacted automatically.
In his book, “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that becoming an expert at a skill requires 10,000 hours of practice. Perhaps that is true, but one fire at sea or near death experience has a similar effect to those 10,000 hours, ingraining in your memory every action, no matter how small, that kept you alive.
And when any portion of that experience is recreated, the smell of smoke within the ship, the sound of artillery rounds alongside, the sound of machine gun bullets against the steel, the unthinking responses that save your life are triggered automatically as if they were forged by 10,000 hours of practice.
The hormones released by highly stressful situations instruct the brain to imprint those memories more deeply. We can thank evolution for that trick. The pre-historic man who could best remember how he escaped an attack by a saber-toothed tiger had a better shot at surviving the next one.
Time seems to slow down in a car crash or when you are getting mugged or any casualty situation, at sea, with no one to call for help. The adrenaline boost to your system triggers your brain into hyperactive memory storage. Your mind and senses go into overdrive, absorbing every sensory detail with almost superhuman lucidity.
Because of this, an event that might only last a split second occupies as much mental storage space as a week or a month. Years later you can recall details, feelings, colors, smells, and sounds more vividly than you can remember this morning’s breakfast.
After decades you remember with perfect clarity every aspect of the event. I remember being in the galley baking cinnamon rolls as the shells were exploding in the water and air around the ship. I remember the Super Arboc firing chaff into the air to confuse the enemy fire control radars and the two gun mounts periodically going to “rapid continuous” fire. Forty-four years later I can smell the cinnamon and butter of the baking pastries.
This hyper-alertness often extends for a time after the actual experience. For hours or days after the experience life just seems better. After returning to safety and even after returning home from a hectic and stressful deployment life just seems better.
You want to talk and re-talk it with your shipmates who experienced it with you. You seem to live harder and truer than you ever have before. The liberties were more intense, the drinks colder, the girls lovelier and yes, it felt good. You felt so alive. I remember thinking, “I wish I could live my whole life like this.”
It is the inability to ever match the excitement and stress of living that you achieved at sea and in war. It’s the letdown of having it end, you survived and you worry that a normal civilian life is just a slow letdown and a fade away.
Ask any sailor to tell you the worst experiences of their lives and they will tell you it was life aboard the ships, underway, and the war.
Now here is the confusing part. When you ask them to tell you the best experiences of their lives, they’ll usually tell you it was life aboard the ships, underway, and the war.
This is why it is nearly impossible to talk to someone who wasn’t there, didn’t live it, and cannot understand. That is why we talk among ourselves and rarely try to explain to civilians how we lived our lives and fought our wars.
High school classes schedule reunions about every ten years until there is no one left who cares. Sailors and ships seem to hold reunions almost annually. We go through the time between reunions living in two worlds. One, the world of little excitement, of civilians and, the monotonous, never changing, nine-to-five job. The second world is in our minds and in our memories, once again looking into a westward sunset over a placid sea. With the reunions you meet once again with the best men you will ever know and consider yourself fortunate to just be one of them.
You drink the beer and tell the stories reliving the worst and best experiences of your life. You laugh with them at the stories you don’t remember being so funny at the time, and you shed a tear for those who have sailed over the horizon.
That my friends is PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and I am afraid we are all afflicted.
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A native of North Carolina, Garland Davis has lived in Hawaii since 1987. He always had a penchant for writing but did not seriously pursue it until recently. He is a graduate of Hawaii Pacific University, where he majored in Business Management. Garland is a thirty-year Navy retiree and service-connected Disabled Veteran.