Wilfred Owen was a British soldier who fought on the frontlines of France in World War I, and who was eventually diagnosed with shell shock, or in more contemporary terms, post-traumatic stress disorder. Influenced by the poet and fellow British soldier Siegfried Sassoon, Owen wrote extensively, through poetry, of his experiences fighting on the front lines in France. Owen’s writing was revolutionary at the time in that it refused to glorify war, but instead captured vividly the grotesqueness of on-the-ground fighting. For instance, in his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Owen described in gripping detail the horrific effect of mustard gas exposure:
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
The speaker in the poem continues:
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
The latter two lines of the poem speak to the specific experience of PTSD that veterans experience—the images and sounds that invade one’s life even in one’s dreams. Owen’s choice to write about such gruesome images rather than more patriotic images of flags or homelands or heroes—heroes sometimes of mythic proportions—was at times criticized as too morbid. But he continued to write what he wrote nonetheless, out of need as much as out of choice.
In War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Edward Tick addresses why Owen may not have been able to shift the focus of his writing, even if he wanted to. Tick describes a Vietnam veteran’s memory of being in a bunker with a fellow soldier and stepping away to get something to drink. As he moves, he hears gunfire, and turns back to see his buddy shot in the face and dying. Of experiences like this, Tick writes, “Because the simplest matters—stepping away to refill a canteen—can be linked to such dire and unalterable consequences, they take on a transcendent quality. The glorified political causes that produced the conflagration do not matter, but the immediate and particular radiate a power that dims all else.”
Tick refers to another poem of Owen’s, “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo,” to show how acutely anything from the mundane to the divine is transformed in its significance by war. He quotes Owen’s line, “The world is but the trembling of a flare, and heaven but…the highway for a shell.” Imagine. Imagine associating the heavens—the sky—as merely a highway for a shell, a path for missiles, bombs, artillery. Imagine, similarly, the gesture, the mere thought, of getting a drink becoming associated with the sudden, violent death of your friend. War veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder—or as Edward Tick calls it, soul wound—are burdened on an ongoing basis with every day things being associated with the trauma they have experienced.
In a March 28, 2017, article in The Oregonian, Rob Davis reports about an Iraq War veteran named Aaron suffering from this exact kind of trauma. Davis writes, “Aaron, a former infantry sergeant, was repeatedly struck by explosions in Iraq. One improvised bomb went off while he was eating. Ever since, he’s struggled to swallow.” Davis continues, “Thinking about food makes him anxious. His weight has dropped more than 60 pounds since he was deployed in 2007.”
People close to veterans living with PTSD—family, friends, co-workers, classmates—may be blind to the triggers that suddenly send a person back to the trauma. Simply having the awareness and understanding of how seemingly ordinary objects or experiences—sounds, sights, smells, temperatures, textures, tastes, etc.—can spark a trauma-based reaction can be a small but significant step toward healing the soul wound that far, far too many veterans carry with them every day.
Eli Addison, QMHA, is an individual continually seeking to better understand the human experience and explore our diversity. He serves as Veterans Housing Specialist at Medicine Wheel Recovery Services. His passion and careful persistence drive his advocacy and support for those in need.
Eliza Galaher, QMHA, has lived all over the country, especially the Northeast and the Southwest, working in publishing, education, liberal religious ministry, and many others. She is back in her native Oregon, serving as a Veterans Housing Specialist at Medicine Wheel. Addiction and recovery have always been a part of her life and she now offers her lived experience in service to all seeking healing.