Detail from 1919 Red Cross poster, “Facing the Future: Uncle Sam offers training to every man disabled in the service.” Credit: Library of Congress.

Coming Home

A History of War Veterans

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created thousands of new combat veterans. But what is it like for these soldiers once they return home? How were veterans of America’s earlier wars treated, and what kinds of challenges did they face? Are veterans only as popular as the wars they’ve fought in?

As Veterans Day approaches, we’re taking a look at the experiences of veterans throughout American history. On this episode, we’ll explore how the psychological impact of war was understood before PTSD was a diagnosis, take a look at the evolution of expectations for veterans’ wives and mothers, and probe the symbolic place of Confederate veterans after the Civil War.

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This is a transcript of an earlier broadcast of this episode; there may be slight changes in wording in the rebroadcast.

ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers. Each day in the United States, an average of 22 military veterans take their own lives. It’s a grim reminder of the deep psychological toll that wars take on the people who fight them. So how did Americans in a pre-psychological era understand the impact of war?

EDWARD TICK: Physicians of the 19th century believe that there were literal physical changes to the heart and how it functions as a result of exposure to war.

ED: Today on BackStory, we’ll ask whether vets are only as popular as the wars they’ve fought in. And we’ll consider how best to remember those who fought for causes in which we no longer believe.

FRANK EARNEST: We’re not necessarily promoting a secession again, a separate country, the Confederate States of America. That didn’t happen. But we still honor our ancestors for standing up for what they believe.

ED: The history of coming home from war.

BRIAN: Major production support for BackStory comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and an anonymous donor. Today’s episode was originally broadcast in 2008.

MALE SPEAKER: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century Guy. And I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: 19th Century Guy.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.

PETER: 18th Century Guy.

BRIAN: At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 95 years ago this week, World War I officially came to an end with the signing of the armistice in France. The following year, Woodrow Wilson declared November 11 Armistice Day, a day to honor the veterans of the great war.

PETER: How much our nation honored those veterans the other 364 days of the year, well, that’s debatable. Let’s listen to this interview with Frank Buckles, who was the last surviving American veteran of World War I. In 2011, he spoke to a Library of Congress interviewer about his homecoming after the war.

FRANK BUCKLES: The YMCA did give me a one-month free membership. That’s the only consideration I ever saw given to a soldier after the war.

PETER: A one-month free membership to the YMCA. Now, compare that to this.

KEN BERGERSON: It was really amazing that when I went back to school, about half of the student body was veterans going to school on the GI Bill.

BRIAN: That’s Ken Bergerson, a Navy vet from the Korean War and one of the millions of veterans of his generation educated courtesy of the GI Bill.

ED: So which of these two veterans’ experience was more typical? That’s the question we’re asking today on our special Veterans Day edition of BackStory. How have we, as a country, treated returning vets over the course of our history? Are the challenges they face today the same ones that veterans faced in the past? And how much do the answers to any of these questions depend on the war? Our veterans only as popular as the wars they fought in?

BRIAN: We’re going to start by listening to a little more of my conversation with Ken Bergerson. A few weeks ago, he invited me out to the American Legion Post in Shadwell, Virginia, where he used to be commander. And he introduced me to a couple of his fellow vets.

LEN HARTMANN: I’m Len Hartmann. I was in the Korean conflict. I did not go overseas.

ART ORDELL: I’m Art Ordell. I enlisted in the aviation cadets in 1942. And I got my wings as a Bombardier and ended up with the Eighth Air Force in England.

BRIAN: We got to talking about the treatment of World War II vets while that what was still going on.

ART ORDELL: The people were 100% behind the veterans. Now, my brother went and enlisted in the Navy about two or three weeks after Pearl Harbor. He was at boot camp down in Norfolk. Now, he said he was there early enough to see signs around Norfolk at restaurants saying no dogs or sailors allowed in here. But that attitude certainly did not last very long. When the shooting started, the people were right behind us.

BRIAN: Those good vibes, they didn’t go away. Len Hartmann, the Korea era vet who did not go overseas, even got a little choked up when he talked about the gratitude perfect strangers sometimes show him even now.

LEN HARTMANN: It does me a lot of good to go have my hat on and go into a store and somebody will shake your hand and thank you for what you did for your country.

ART ORDELL: That embarrasses me when someone says that. I feel like I didn’t do anything. I was just doing what everyone else did there. The people that stayed home and built the bombers and the Jeeps and everything, it was just about at 99.9% effort by the American people.

BRIAN: Towards the end of our conversation, I asked them how veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would answer my questions.

LEN HARTMANN: I don’t think they would think any different than us. They’re doing the same thing thing that we did. They’re doing their duty and just praying that they can come home alive.

ART ORDELL: I don’t think our people are opposed to them as they were in Vietnam. I think we’re ignoring them. I mean if you don’t have a member of your family there, I think the way we live we just don’t think about it. We’re all mad that we’re in a war. But it’s not as personal to us as it was in World War II.

ED: If you want to think about wars that were personal, nothing like the American Civil War. It took place right here on our own land. It involved virtually everybody, killed massive numbers of people over issues of fundamental difference. And people simply could not put it out of their minds for generations. So decade after decade, people carried the grudge on both sides against their countrymen on the other side.

I want to play for you guys an interview I did recently with a man who continues to live with this struggle. He served for more than 20 years in the US Navy during Vietnam and the first Persian Gulf War. But he continues to identify very strongly with a very different group of veterans.

FRANK EARNEST: I am Frank Earnest, representing the Virginia Division Sons of Confederate Veterans. I am the immediate past commander of the Virginia Division and currently serving as International Chief of Heritage Defense.

ED: Perhaps you could give us a brief overview of the history of the organization.

FRANK EARNEST: Well, with the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other organizations, to put it simply, the Korean veterans take care of the older World War II vets. The Vietnam vets take care of the Korean vets as they get older. That was not going to happen with the Confederate veterans, because there would never be any more Confederate veterans generated. So in 1896, the veterans said, well, who will take care of us as we get older? And they formed the organization I’m currently associated with, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which actually started out with the genuine sons of veterans.

ED: And what’s your personal connection?

FRANK EARNEST: Well, a great-great-grandfather who rode with the Ninth Virginia Calvary, great-great-uncle who rode with Stuart in the First Virginia Calvary. I came in under a great-great-uncle, who served with General Pickett in the 18th Virginia Infantry.

ED: It sounds like you have your bona fides lined up there.

FRANK EARNEST: Right. If you find out you have a Confederate ancestor, I guarantee you have at least a dozen.

ED: So let me ask you this. Literally, it’s something I’ve never understood is how you are a veteran of the United States Navy, I understand, 20 years, correct?


ED: I’ve never really understood how somebody could be loyal to the United States and loyal to a nation that tried to leave the United States. Perhaps you can explain that to me. I’ve never understood how people have a Confederate flag and an American flag on their car, since the whole point of the Confederacy was to leave the United States.

FRANK EARNEST: We thought it was a pretty good idea in 1776, when we left England. And that turned out to be a good idea.

ED: But you don’t see Union Jacks on our cars though.

FRANK EARNEST: Well, that’s because we’re the side that separated from England. But you do see Union Jacks in Williamsburg. And you don’t see anybody get upset about that fact, because they’re celebrating the history of what happened. The Confederate flag, we’re the only section of the country that has a regional flag.

I can go anywhere as a Virginian in the South, and when I see that flag, it simply ties me to my brothers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama. I know that my ancestors, like theirs, fought alongside each other to stand up for American freedoms and rights as expressed in the Constitution of the United States of America.

ED: What do you say though to black people about that?

FRANK EARNEST: Again, with these misconceptions about it, I say read and study and found out the truth. Not only did conscripted slaves fight on both sides because they were conscripted.

ED: No, sir. This is not true. And we won’t argue about this on the air. But we can’t go down this road of all these black people fighting for the Confederacy.

FRANK EARNEST: So no black people ever fought for the Confederacy?

ED: Any numbers of those are trivial compared to the 4 million people held in slavery for 200 years and the 180,000 who fought for the Union. So it’s a trivial thing. Some I’m just going to ask the question again.

FRANK EARNEST: That’s fine. And I’m not here to defend slavery.

ED: I understand. And I’m not trying to put you in a corner on that. I’m just going to ask you the question again and ask, what do you say to black people when they see the Confederate flag, and they think it means something else?

FRANK EARNEST: Well, the Confederate flag has been misused. We don’t deny that. We can also show you films that exist of 40,000 clansman marching down Pennsylvania Avenue with the US flag. So that’s certainly been misused. We don’t approve of these radical racist organizations using our emblem, which we consider a sacred emblem.

The flag as used historically by the Confederate States of America was a grouping of people fighting for a number of reasons and for their rights as they saw them under the Constitution of America. And it’s not against anybody, black, white, or otherwise.

ED: What do you think that the heritage of the Confederacy has to tell us about the situation of veterans today coming back from the war in Iraq?

FRANK EARNEST: Well, as Sons of Confederate Veterans, our job is to honor the veterans, just like any other veterans’ organization. A lot of that comes down to as simply as taking care of monuments and marking graves. And as I’ve told city councils, you’re marking an American soldier’s grave. We’re not getting into what he did or didn’t fight for or what his government did or didn’t believe. They are veterans.

We’re talking about veterans today. These are American veterans, who, like any other American in any other war from the Revolutionary War on, believed strongly enough to fight and die for their beliefs. And we feel that they should be honored. As a matter of fact, I’m really happy to see, as a Vietnam-era Veteran, that although there are quite a few people not satisfied with the war we’re currently in and how it’s being conducted, at least they’re not taking it out on the troops, like they did in Vietnam.

ED: And it does seem, certainly compared to Vietnam, that people, whatever their thoughts about the war, do have a different attitude about the veterans and where blame lies, if there’s blame to be assigned.


ED: I appreciate you giving us this time for the interview. And thanks very much.

FRANK EARNEST: Thank you, sir.

ED: Frank Earnest is the Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. I spoke with him in 2008.

PETER: Well, Ed, that was an interesting interview. And I would wander as a son of the North how you do feel about this invocation of heritage to justify honoring people who made war against their country.

ED: Well, I’ve looked at this for decades now and spoken to SVC groups. And I find that they want to talk about the constitutionality of secession. And it strikes me that there is some truth to what they say about that. It was not clear in the Constitution itself that states could not leave.

PETER: No, I would say that’s right, Ed.

ED: Right? So I guess what struck me most in our interview here was the way that he framed this in terms of veterans, that putting one’s life at risk is really what is honored. And they say that the cause is not really salient, because the cause is defined by the politicians. The cause is defined by the state.

PETER: Right. But I think one of the things we’re celebrating when we celebrate Confederates is their patriotism, that is they’re saying it wasn’t that we were just cannon fodder and we had no choice. And you’ve got to respect our existential dilemma. No. They’re saying we need respect because we made the choice to defend our country.

ED: They’re trying to have it both ways.

PETER: Yes, that’s what I’m saying.

ED: And that’s the reason it goes back to the very first thing I said. What do they think that they are fighting for then? It’s the very same values that are inscribed in the American Constitution. So there’s a lot of sophistry involved in all this I think it’s fair to say. And it would be better if we had some quick language to excise all this. But apparently, we can’t find it, because we keep going over and over and over this ground and not being able to persuade each other of even what we’re talking about.

BRIAN: We’re going to take a short break now. When we get back, we’ll consider the role that mothers and wives have played in the lives of returning vets.

PETER: We’ll be back in a minute.

PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf, 18th Century History Guy.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, your 19th Century History Guy.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh, History Guy of the 20th Century. We’re talking today about war veterans in American history. Some of you have already sent in your questions and comments on the topic. And we’ve invited you to join us on the phone.

PETER: First up, we have Curtis calling in from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Curtis, welcome to the show.

CURTIS: Thank you very much. I’m just wondering if there is evidence out there that shows that when black veterans returned from World War I or II that they became more civic minded and/or politically active?

BRIAN: Yeah. Curtis, that’s a great question. You’re asking did African Americans get more involved, more engaged when they came back from war. And the answer is an emphatic yes. Now, you probably know that during World War II, blacks finally were allowed to fight and especially that active-duty service in the military certainly encouraged blacks to feel great things would happen after the war. And in fact, a lot of historians feel that the very origins of the modern Civil Rights Movement came out of rising expectations on the part of African Americans for what they might realize when they returned home from the war.

PETER: Brian, your answer is really interesting to me because World War II seems to be a lot different from World War I. And maybe you could talk about why it was that World War I did not create the kind of mobilization that could lead to lasting social and political change for African Americans.

BRIAN: Yeah. I’m going to bounce that to Ed, because it’s a southern kind of thing I think.

ED: Well, I feel a lot of pressure here. But I think that your point is correct. It’s not that the language of aspiration and of pride and responsibility was absent. W.E.B. Du Bois reluctantly supported World War I precisely because he thought it would have the kind of consequence that World War II ultimately had.

BRIAN: So what happened? What went wrong?

ED: Well, several things went wrong. First of all, black soldiers and sailors were not given the opportunity to be on the front lines in World War I the same way they were in World War II very intentionally, because white Southerners, in particular, also agreed that the war could be a turning point in black Americans’ lives and sought to prevent it. And they segregated the camps. They segregated the units and tried, certainly in the South, to downplay the actual accomplishments of black Americans.

The other thing that happened, of course, is that when the war ended, World War I, a giant backlash against all kinds of expectations, so there were anti-labor acts, anti-immigrant acts. It was a great way of trying to contain the social consequences of World War I. And I think partly containing the aspirations of black Americans was one part of that. So lots of different parts to it.

BRIAN: And Curtis, I’m going to add one more layer here, which is a factor that really put the African American effort over the top after World War II, not that anything happened quickly as you know, a factor that was crucial was the nature of the enemy we were fighting– Adolf Hitler– so that all Americans, including Southerners, were faced with this great paradox after World War II. Well, wait a second. If racialist ideologies enforced by the state are what we just fought and died for, white and black, what do we make of these Jim Crow laws in the South? So the nature of the enemy is really important here too.

CURTIS: Well, I’m just wondering, because we know that the Jim Crow didn’t topple in 1945 after the armistice was signed. How were they able to reconcile this struggle to save the world for democracy and this insistence that blacks stay in their place?

ED: Well, ironically, white Southerners laid claim to the threat of another war as one more reason to delay the fulfillment of black freedom, which was the Cold War. And of course, what they would say is, well, yeah, I see your point. But we have much bigger problems right now than your freedom. We’ve got to stick together and not rock the boat to fight the Russians and the Chinese.

You think about back in the Civil Rights Movement. The most effective charge that white Southerners would make, at least each other– and they certainly tried it to the rest of the country– was these are Commies who are coming in, outside agitators who are disrupting America, who, if your remember, just saved the world and is going to have to save it again. So it’s ironic that they used communism to say that we simply can’t fulfill what we began in World War II.

PETER: Curtis, great call. Hope to hear from you again.

CURTIS: OK. Thank you so much for the excellent answers.

ED: Thank you very much.

PETER: Bye, bye.

BOBBY WALLACE: Once we got out there in the Pacific, we landed at Espiritu Santo. And we joined the Marines there. And we fought with them. We handled the ammo and everything.

PETER: This is World War II Navy veteran, Bobby Wallace, in an interview for the Library of Congress Veterans’ History Project. He says that even though blacks were allowed to fight alongside whites, prejudice was alive and well in the military. And his fellow sailors didn’t mince words.

BOBBY WALLACE: You black SOB and you this and you the other. We gonna see that you don’t go home and all this. Some of those same men when they got hit and a lot of the black sailors or black Marines responded to their needs, those same men looked up with not shock but surprise, maybe, that some of the men that they had called names and looked down on, they were the very ones that put bandages on their wounds and calmed them down when they were out of it.

They done told us we would never amount to nothing. So we had to prove that we were who we said we were. So that’s what made me the man that I am today. No doubt if I hadn’t went through the prejudice and hatred of World War II, I wouldn’t be here today. But because I went through those things, few things I run into now, piece of cake. Can I get a swig of this coffee?

PETER: That’s World War II veteran, Bobby Wallace, from to 2002 interview for the Library of Congress. We’ll link to the entire interview at our website,

ED: If you’re just tuning in, this is BackStory. And we’re talking about the history of American War veterans coming home.

PETER: We’re going to take another call now. And it’s Mary in Phoenix, Arizona. Mary, welcome to the show.

MARY: Thank you. I have a question about World War II veterans. I conducted oral histories with about a dozen of these veterans. And I found that a lot of the white veterans, the men, took advantage of the GI Bill. But it was very common for the women to not use that GI Bill. And also, it seemed like a lot of the minority men did not use it. Can you comment on that?

BRIAN: Yeah, Mary, there’s no question that white men took advantage of the GI Bill disproportionately, even allowing for adjustments as to how many women, for instance, were even eligible for it. The main reason for this is that, like a lot of things in our country, the GI Bill operated indirectly. So let’s take a benefit like the subsidized mortgages under GI. Well, if you were African American and you had served loyally, you probably would have had a lot of trouble getting a bank to give you that same GI loan. You would have had trouble because of the segregated neighborhood that you lived in. And you would have had trouble just for larger reasons of discrimination.

Or let’s take another major GI benefit. Let’s take the education benefits. A lot of schools did not admit African Americans. A lot of African Americans didn’t have enough high school education to even qualify to go to college. Now, I’ve always wondered. I think 3% of the beneficiaries under the GI Bill were women. And I’ve actually always wanted to know more about those women veterans. So I wonder if you could tell us something about the women that you interviewed?

MARY: Well, they were in different branches of the service. There were WACs and WAVES. And I interviewed a WASP. But she wasn’t in the service because they were excluded.

BRIAN: Yeah, Mary, I have a really simplistic question. Now, I married a WASP. But I don’t think that’s what you’re talking about. What’s a WAC and a WAVE and a WASP.

MARY: You’ve heard of the WASPs, haven’t you? They were Women Air Force Service Pilots.

BRIAN: And WACs were?

MARY: In the Army. And WAVES were in the Navy.

BRIAN: So that all makes sense.

MARY: But it seemed like the women did not go to college afterwards, because they married quickly or even during the war. And then they started having babies. But the WAVE that I interviewed did go to college. She had always wanted to. So she used that GI Bill to do that, even though she did get married.

BRIAN: Right. So in the case of the women you interviewed, it was not overt discrimination. And I say overt. But it was more societal pressure about what women were expected to do.

MARY: Yeah, yeah. But I like what you’re saying about the minority men, because restrictive covenants were in place here in Phoenix too and in Arizona. So of course, that would have limited where they could buy. Plus probably a lot of them just thought they had to work. They didn’t have a family history of going to college.

BRIAN: And this has really huge consequences for the kind of society that emerges after World War II, because that package of benefits launched a lot of lower middle class people into the middle class. And it disproportionately served white veterans. And a lot of African Americans, as you point out, a lot of women who might have been launched more independently, were not. How did you get involved in this project?

MARY: I worked at the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tempe. And we did an exhibit on World War II.

BRIAN: Well, that’s a really, really cool idea.

MARY: Yeah, it was fun. It was really interesting to meet all these people.

ED: Did all of them consider World War II to be the good war?

MARY: The good war. Oh, my word. They considered it to be life-changing. It was probably the most important event in their life or one of the most important. I didn’t hear them call it the good war, because it was hard. But it was a way for them to get away from their little towns, away from their families and their parents, and just see different parts of the world. And it was just a real change for women’s roles to be involved in that war.

PETER: Thanks very much, Mary. We’re glad to hear about your veterans in Phoenix, Arizona.

MARY: All right. Thank you.

BRIAN: Thanks very much. Bye, bye.

ED: So Mary brought up the struggles faced by women service members in World War II. These days, of course, there are a lot more women in uniform. But in all of America’s wars, it’s probably fair to say that women’s biggest role has been on the home front.

BRIAN: There’s a historian named Rebecca Jo Plant at the University of San Diego. And she’s spent a lot of time looking at the ways that role shifted between the two World Wars. She says it was a big change and one that left a lot of war wives feeling downright confused, especially those whose husbands came home was psychological wounds. Take, for example, this letter written by the wife of a traumatized war vet in 1947.

REBECCA JO PLANT: As one of the millions of war wives, I am repeatedly told that my husband has just been through a terrible ordeal, that he is nervous and confused, and that it will take time and infinite patience and understanding from me to help him return to normal. Then again, I am told as a wife and a mother that our servicemen suffered from a new disease called “momism.” And it is up to we mothers to teach our children to be independent, to help them stand on their own feet and think for themselves. These two attitudes contradict one another.

BRIAN: So on one hand, this woman feels like she’s just supposed to be patient. On the other hand, she’s worried about this new disease that’s called “momism.” The idea was that overbearing mothers could be blamed for everything that was ailing America, including what was then being referred to as combat fatigue. The term “momism” had been coined five years earlier in a best seller by novelist Philip Wylie. Plant says he was lashing out against a certain kind of mother– conservative, frumpy, disapproving, schoolmarmy.

REBECCA JO PLANT: The argument that Wylie made was that these mothers were overly possessive with their sons. And sons, in particular, were the heart of the concern here and that they tried to dominate them in the guise of mother love and sentimentality. So they overprotected them. They coddled them. They effeminized them. And he’s saying we’ve created this nation that is not manly enough and that lacks the fortitude to stand up to the threat of fascism.

BRIAN: Let me stop the tape here and point out that moms weren’t always seen as a threat to democracy. During the First World War, being a mama’s boy was just about the most patriotic thing you could be. Soldiers overseas didn’t yearn after pinup girls. They pinned up mom.


REBECCA JO PLANT: I think that it’s best to understand this just by looking at the way that boys were raised in the 19th century versus the 20th century. In the 19th century, the notion of how you make a moral man was very much that you internalized the maternal figure, that the boy needs to basically have his mother’s voice as his conscience. And for all kinds of complex reasons, that’s changing in the 20th century, where people, their sense of how they operate as individuals, is becoming much more focused on autonomy and strict ego boundaries and defining oneself really in opposition to family members rather than almost as extensions of family members.

BRIAN: So what did this new 20th-century version of manhood mean for all those traumatized war vets trying to readjust to civilian life? Well, it wasn’t entirely clear.

REBECCA JO PLANT: You have all this anxiety about mothers and how mothers might encourage sons, returning sons, to enter this regressive state in which they come back. And they expect that society should just provide them with all of these benefits without actually becoming hardworking, contributing citizens themselves.

BRIAN: Leading to that age-old phrase, what’s a mother to do?

REBECCA JO PLANT: Get out of the way was the answer that a lot of these experts said at the time. So it was the girlfriend and the wife who really bore a lot of the pressure to reintroduce men, re-civilize them, and make them functioning members of society.

BRIAN: So if moms were the problem, were wives the solution?

REBECCA JO PLANT: Yes. Basically, that’s right.

BRIAN: So Rebecca, today the neuropsychological illness that comes from war and other situations is called post-traumatic stress disorder. I’d be really curious to know where are moms and where are girlfriends in the causes and the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.

REBECCA JO PLANT: Well, I think they’re, as always, bearing a very heavy burden, because it often falls to mothers and to girlfriends to absorb a lot of the emotional trauma that initiates on the battlefield. I would say though that in the past when people thought about an injured veteran or certainly a deceased veteran, their thoughts immediately went to the mother, the maternal figure, the gold star mother who was seen as and assumed to have suffered the greatest loss, even if the soldier was married.

And now, I don’t think that’s as true. I think that our thoughts go first to the wife and the children. There’s much more of an emphasis now on gold star families and not simply the gold star mother per se as the person who, in a sense, has given up something she created. Motherhood was thought of in very civic terms. So she showed her citizenship by rearing a citizen, by rearing a citizen soldier that she then sacrificed.

BRIAN: Yeah. Well, thank you so much, Rebecca.


BRIAN: Rebecca Jo Plant is an Associate Professor of History at the University of California– San Diego. She’s the author of Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America.


ED: It’s time for another short break. When we get back, we’ll look at PTSD in the age before the concept of psychology even existed.

PETER: More BackStory coming up in a minute.


PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. Today on the show, we’re marking Veterans Day with a look back at the history of soldiers returning home.

ED: I had a remarkable experience this last week of a veteran, my predecessor as President of the University of Richmond, 82 years old, Bruce Heilman. Got on a Harley and is riding across the United States, retracing the path that he followed in the wake of World War II, when he was 21 years old and hitchhiked from California to Quantico. He’s stopping all along the way to meet old comrades. He titled his new autobiography, An Interruption That Lasted a Lifetime. And the interruption was his four years in the Navy, which he joined when he was 17 years old.

And so now as he’s thinking about what else do I want to do my life, riding across country, connecting with his old comrades is the main thing that’s doing.

BRIAN: It’s true. We think about vets and we think about the war ended. They come back. They’re adjusted. But we forget the way the military that, as you point, Ed, that short experience in the military can sometimes just shape an entire lifetime. It becomes almost the organizing principal or the narrative of one’s life. This image, I’ve never met this man, but of him riding back against his trip East.

PETER: I would add that wars are the stuff of national identity and national mythology too. So it’s not as if we have veterans who cherish their unique memories. Of course, they do. They are incorporated into a broader understanding. And i think one of the problems with so-called bad or unpopular wars is they don’t fit neatly into a triumphal, forward-looking, progressive national mythology.

BRIAN: Which is why we literally have a black gash as our formal official public memory of the Vietnam War. The memorial is often referred to as a black gash. And if you juxtapose that to your point about the making of a national story, wars we lose are wounds. They’re black gashes in a national story.

PETER: That is a profound point, Brian.

ED: It strikes me that historians spend too much of our time talking about the causes of wars and not enough time talking about the consequences of wars. I have this little canned speech that I give against the concept of antebellum, because I said, actually, it’s always antebellum. We just don’t know when the war is coming. But we cannot organize our lives around a war that we do not know is coming.

And so I said get over this concept of antebellum America. On the other hand, postbellum America or postbellum Americas actually makes a lot more sense. And so I think that one way you can understand American history is a series of wars followed by unfolding consequences of those wars back home.

BRIAN: So today’s show is our Veterans’ Day show. But before there was Veterans’ Day, there was Memorial Day. Here’s an excerpt from one of the more famous Memorial Day speeches delivered in the 1880s by a prominent Bostonian, a man who had fought for the Union in the Civil War.

MALE SPEAKER: We attribute no special merit to a man for having served when all were serving. We also know very well that we cannot live in associations with the past alone. And we admit that if we would be worthy of the past, we must find new fields for action or thought and make for ourselves new careers. But nevertheless, the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience.

Through our great good fortune, in our youth, our hearts, we’re touched with fire. It was given us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. Oliver Wendell Holmes, May 30, 1884.

ED: In our youth, our hearts were touched with fire. That’s one the most famous lines in American Civil War memory. Now, Holmes spoke for a generation of men on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. But his lofty language belied the war’s darker effects. Matter of fact, you might not know from that quote that he, himself, was desperately wounded in the war.

The years after the war ended, hundreds of thousands of men struggled to rebuild their lives. And they had no official government services to assist them, no language to describe the terror and isolation that they continued to feel. Psychotherapy hadn’t been invented yet. So a lot of soldiers just turned to alcohol or rootless wandering.

Recently, I had a chance to talk about some of this with Edward Tick, a psychotherapist who has spent almost three decades working with traumatized veterans of many American wars. He explained that, ironically, given Oliver Wendell Holmes’ quote about hearts being touched by fire, in the decades after the Civil War, another metaphor of heart was used to explain what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. It was called soldier’s heart.

EDWARD TICK: The dominant medical model of the time put our afflictions in our heart rather than put it in the brain and central nervous system. So physicians of the 19th century believed that there were literal physical changes to the heart and how it functions as a result of exposure to war. They believe the heart enlarged. The heart beat harder.

They also had the poetic meaning that soldier’s heart was referring to the deep changes in how we feel, what we value, how we think, how we behave that result from experiencing war.

ED: So it’s very interesting soldier’s heart coming from the Civil War era. Then how did that concept evolve over the 20th century up to our time?

EDWARD TICK: There are some fairly famous terms that the public is aware of. In World War I, we know of shell shock, in World War II, battle fatigue. Post World War II, for a while, it was called combat neurosis. Though that term was thrown out in the 1950s. And then there was nothing for a while between the ’50s and 1980, when post-traumatic stress disorder was introduced. Vietnam veterans and other survivors of trauma had to lobby for years and years to even get the public and the health professions to admit there was a problem.

ED: So how did we come to PTSD? What is it that that conveys that the earlier names for this did not?

EDWARD TICK: Well, let me say that many veterans hate the diagnosis post-traumatic stress disorder, because to them it sounds too scientific and medicalized and pathologized. Veterans returning from combat do want public and professional help and understanding. But they don’t want to be treated as if they are individuals with an illness and then separated out from the culture.

On the other hand, as a diagnosis, many veterans also find it helpful to finally understand that there is a complex and holistic wound that they’re carrying. So PTSD is diagnosed as a stress and anxiety disorder that can and will be developed by anyone who goes through severe, sustained, life-threatening stress. Normalizing it helps veterans realize that what they’re carrying is an inevitable response to the horrors of warfare rather than any individual weakness.

ED: So is it your sense that this is getting worse?

EDWARD TICK: Yes. Post-traumatic stress disorder is getting worse with modern American war conditions. And there are a lot of reasons. One is that the technology of destruction has become so brutal, moving at such lightning speed that it has surpassed the human capacity to tolerate and endure without breakdown.

Then the nature of warfare itself changing from large, massive battles, where armies range against each other, struggle for a few hours or a few days, and then break off and have days, weeks, or even months to regroup, to talk about what happened, to try to heal some wounds, and to reposition themselves for their next battle. That used to characterize warfare up through World War II. But these kinds of wars like Vietnam and Iraq, Afghanistan are very different kinds of wars where guerrilla fighting, urban street war, not knowing who the enemy is, not being able to differentiate enemy combatants from civilians, and civilians and the infrastructure becoming recognized and acceptable targets all contribute to massive confusion, pain, dislocation on the part of anybody serving. And all of these factors contribute to post-traumatic stress disorder.

ED: Well, we have a few clips here that illustrate the feelings of dislocation that soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are facing. These were gathered by Youth Radio out in Oakland, California. Let’s listen to them.

JESUS BOCANEGRA: In the combat zone, you’re going 100 miles an hour. You’re like a little radar turning everywhere. Coming from a combat environment to a civilized environment, that’s really hard.

RICHARD DENNING: That transition from always knowing you’ll have three hots and a cot and there will always be someone right there to tell you what the hell to do if you’re not so sure yourself to being a functioning young adult, the pressure is huge.

CAPTAIN WALTER: If you’d give me the choice, I’d rather be deployed than not be deployed. In Iraq, I knew where I was. I knew what I was doing. In Afghanistan, I knew where I was. I knew what I was doing.

JESUS BOCANEGRA: I wish I would have stayed in the military, because when I was with my unit, it was sort of a bubble. The outside world does not get in. The hard part is when you go home and there’s no 10, 20 guys you talk to in the morning in PT formation. And that’s the difficult part when you wake up in your own bed and you don’t have that guy or those people you talk to every day.

CAPTAIN WALTER: I know when I go back home on leave and I’m with people that I knew before who don’t really know me now, I tell them a story that’s amusing, because it’s not that they don’t really want to know the rest of it. They care. It’s just that I don’t know how to tell them. There’s a huge portion of your life that they’re never going to understand.

ED: That was Jesus Bocanegra, Richard Denning, and Captain Walter. The interviews were conducted by Youth Radio. And we’ll link to the full version on our website. So Ed, if the incidence and severity of PTSD is increasing, would you say our means of dealing with it are increasing too?

EDWARD TICK: I would say that’s partly true. There’s more attention to it. There’s more publicity. On the other hand, the way we’re practicing war, our power politics, and many of our methodologies ignore some of the root causes of PTSD. One of the most troubling dimensions of post traumatic stress disorder is what I call moral trauma.

That is that people who have served in the military, people who have fought and, perhaps, killed in combat are very troubled by what they did and why they did it and whether it was necessary. One World War II Bombardier he was in the Flying Fortresses over Europe during World War II as a 19-year-old. And he came in for therapy and his late ’70s, because he said, I have felt like a mass murderer my entire life.

I know World War II is called a good war. But I dropped bombs on civilian targets all over Europe. And I know I helped burn European cities and kill thousands and thousands of civilians. So I don’t want to die torn to shreds by this legacy. I want to be able to go to the other side, face God, whatever happens next with a clean conscience. And I don’t know if I can do that. So please, help me find some peace before I die.

That’s emblematic of what many vets feel. And so we always have to help our veterans ask the moral questions too. Why did I serve? What was I serving for? What were my original values in serving? And how was I used in the political climate of the times? And how do I feel about that now afterwards? And how can I give meaning to my experience and turn it from a moral wound into something that teaches me about human nature and guides me to live a good life afterwards?

ED: All that’s wonderfully eloquent. I guess I would just end our interview by pointing out that all those are historical questions as well. If you don’t understand where we were in that moment, and why these things happened, and why the leaders said the things that they did, and how what you did fit into a larger pattern, it seems to be impossible for people to answer those larger moral questions.

EDWARD TICK: Yes, the historical questions are very important. However, some veterans achieve healing by identifying with the worldwide warrior tradition rather than with a particular service they had. So I’ve had veterans declaring as they’re going through their healing process, I am no longer a Vietnam veteran or a Somali veteran or a Korean veteran. Rather I declare myself to be a warrior whose historical service was in Vietnam or Somalia or in Korea.

ED: Kind of de-historicizing it in a way, right? Taking solace in the universality rather than the particularity of their experience.


ED: Ed, thank you very much.

EDWARD TICK: You’re very welcome. And thank you, again, for giving airtime to this very important topic.

ED: Edward Tick is a psychotherapist specializing in veterans’ issues. He’s the founder of Soldier’s Heart, a veterans’ healing center based in Troy, New York.


BRIAN: Well, Ed, to re-historicize things, I just want to put three interesting issues of historical context on the table. One is literally how veterans are reintegrated into society. Does it really make a difference that folks returning from World War II come back on ships? They’ve got weeks, sometimes even months, before they get back to their home communities, as opposed to getting on a plane. And a day later, they’re home– boom.

The second is the shift from a draft and a war effort, where there’s a sense of everybody being involved to an all volunteer army, which, in many ways, further isolates our fighting men and women, maybe makes reintegration more tough. The third cuts the other way. We now have folks before they engage in combat, they’re text messaging and they’re on the worldwide web, sitting over there in Afghanistan and Iraq. And these are all issues of historical context that dictate how veterans are going to feel when they return, how they feel when they’re away and serving away from society.

PETER: I thought it was really interesting this notion of a worldwide universal warrior cult, because, of course, that is defining yourself apart from a larger population. It’s really part of the mythos and ethos of the modern military.

ED: I think that these are all great questions, of course. It strikes me intrinsic to the military experience, the fighting experience, is that you are simultaneously embodying what your society is all about and forever alienating yourself from most of the experience of other people in that society.

BRIAN: And what strikes me about all of these questions and issues is how little control the veteran himself or herself actually have over any of these.

ED: And that’s the spirit, I think, of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, as we heard at the very beginning of today’s show. They’re saying, look, cut the individual foot soldier some slack. Whatever you think they were doing, they were just doing what seemed right at the time. So if we took it from the experiential frame of reference rather than the political frame of reference, you can see the logic that they try to follow on that.

BRIAN: Well, guys, I think that’s a good note to end the show on. Listeners, the conversation continues online. Visit us at to see what people are saying. We’d love to hear your thoughts on today’s show.

ED: And while you’re there, sign up for our free podcast and our weekly newsletter. That’s at Thanks for listening.

BRIAN: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Rachel Quimby, and Catherine Moore. Our staff also includes Jess Engebretson, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, and Emily Charnock. Jamal Millner is our technical director. BackStory’s executive producer in Andrew Windham.


PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel– history made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Windham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.