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PTSD: It’s real, it’s treatable, and you’re not alone
POULSBO — It’s been 40 years, but the memories are still fresh.
MaryAnn Harris was Lt. MaryAnn Franzino then, doing a tour on the U.S. Navy hospital ship Sanctuary four miles off the Vietnam coast, treating Marines wounded on the Vietnam battlefield, working 12-hour shifts six days a week to keep each Marine alive and stabilized so he could be medevaced to the States.
She saw indescribable courage. Like the young Marine who, after a general pinned a Purple Heart on his chest, pulled himself up with what remained of an arm and sang the Marine Corps hymn. He later died of his injuries. “He never whimpered or complained,” Harris said.
She witnessed the healing power of love. Like the time comedian Bob Hope visited the Sanctuary, visited every bedside, and held the hand of the 17- or 18-year-old Marine with the angelic face, the one who doctors and nurses worried might spend a lifetime on dialysis. Shortly after the visit with Bob Hope, the young Marine’s kidneys started to work again.
Oh, that wasn’t the hard part. Those doctors and nurses and corpsmen learned to put their emotions away, learned to lock them up somewhere deep and never react to what they saw, not even when a limb was missing or they could see internal organs or the Marine asked if he was going to die. Each case presented another race to save and stabilize. Adrenaline was running high. You kept a straight face and did what you could.
And the battle-injured kept coming.
Those injured Marines and those doctors and nurses and corpsmen did what they did “because we believed in our country,” Harris said.
And if they survived, even if not injured, they returned home changed. It was called “shell shock” in earlier wars, and America never quite knew how to deal with it. In 1980, “shell shock” was recognized as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, a disorder with specific symptoms that could be reliably diagnosed. PTSD was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” that year.
Those with PTSD included medical personnel.
“We weren’t on the front line, but we saw the effects of the front line,” said Harris, who helps other veterans with PTSD.
“PTSD is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. When you recognize what it is, you can treat it. There is no cure; you learn to cope with the symptoms.”
‘The real healing point’
Harris is a native of New Jersey. The Navy paid for her final two years at Syracuse University, and upon graduation in 1967 she was commissioned and stationed at Oakland Naval Hospital where she treated war-injured Marines. She served a year in Oakland, a year in Guam, a year on the Sanctuary, then returned to Oakland for four more years.
She served eight years on active duty, transferred to the Reserves and went to graduate school to become a nurse practitioner. She helped establish the first drug and alcohol treatment facility in the Navy, and in Bremerton became the first woman commanding officer of a Reserve medical unit. She served a total of 22 years, retiring as a commander.
Post-Navy, she owned the Port Gamble General Store and stores in Bremerton and Port Ludlow. In March 2001, she produced a local version of the award-winning play, “A Piece of My Heart,” at the Navy Undersea Museum in Keyport. The play tells the true stories of six women sent to Vietnam and their struggle to make sense of a war that irrevocably changed them. After the play, Harris’ husband — also a Vietnam War-era Navy officer — said he understood her better.
After her husband died, Harris returned to VA to counsel veterans with PTSD.
PTSD can be treated with therapy and/or medication. People also learn to identify and avoid situations that may trigger PTSD symptoms. Harris said she left a Halloween party where a lot of people were dressed as zombies. She was having trouble breathing; she realized a lot of the makeup and costumes reminded her of battlefield injuries she saw. During the Fourth of July, she avoids fireworks because of obvious reasons.
Another therapy: Working through your feelings.
“Going to the Wall was a real healing point for me,” Harris said. “I had thought, how could I dare go to the Wall? These were the guys I couldn’t help, nor could I remember the names of the guys I couldn’t help. I found that other women felt the same way I did. Knowing other people felt that way normalized the experience and helped me cope.”
Harris is proud of her Navy service; that year on the Sanctuary stands out. “We were on the forefront of medicine,” she said. The ship had 20 wards and four operating rooms, three X-ray units, a frozen-blood bank, a hyperbaric chamber, an artificial kidney machine, and ultrasonic diagnostic equipment. The staff included an open-heart surgeon and a neurosurgeon. The lives they saved included Vietnamese civilians, including children.
She remembers her Marines — if not their names, their faces. And their injuries. And for years she wondered what their lives were like. What was their quality of life? Could they be happy after experiencing the ravages of the Vietnam battlefield?
She got her answer when the Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. The memorial depicts three nurses, one on her knees holding a wounded veteran on her lap.
Harris and other military nurses paraded down Constitution Avenue, grouped according to their branches of service. On both sides of the street along the parade route, veterans stood 10 to 12 deep. “They saluted us, they applauded us, they hugged us,” Harris said. “They told us they were happy we helped them survive. They were happy. They had families.” One veteran wrote her a note: “Thank you for my life.”
The healing power of love.
On Monday, Veterans Day, Harris will be in uniform, attending a salute to veterans in Bellingham.
“I feel very strongly about Veterans Day and what happens in war,” she said. “The effects of war are devastating, and it’s worst now because soldiers and Marines are serving multiple tours.”
During the Vietnam War, a soldier or Marine did a year-long tour and returned home. “Today, these guys go home and come back, go home and come back,” she said. “Incidents of PTSD are higher because of repeated deployments.”
Today, Harris is a Red Cross volunteer, serving with a group that visits military bases to work with returning veterans and their families. She’s also on a Red Cross disaster relief team.
Her message: If you have PTSD, you don’t have to go it alone. If you’re active duty, see an active-duty doctor. If you’re a veteran, go to VA. A good place to start: The Veterans Service Office, 19068 Jensen Way, Suite 3A, Poulsbo. The office is open Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and is supported by American Legion Post 245 in Poulsbo.
“Get screened,” Harris said. “Medical people know what PTSD is. You’re not penalized for having it. You’re not crazy. And you can’t avoid it. Acknowledging it and dealing with it will lead to the best possible outcome.”