The Silence

Earl Shaffer

In 1948, a combat veteran named Earl Schaffer set out to “walk off the war” and hiked the entire Appalachian Trail (from Georgia to Maine), becoming the first thru-hiker on record. Since then, hundreds of combat veterans (recently aided by the Warrior Hike “Walk off the War” Program) have hit the trail as they try to decompress from their wartime experiences and come to terms with civilian life. For many, one of the things they struggle with is post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), which effects at least 7.7 million American Adults, 31% of Vietnam Vets, and 20% of Vets from the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Shady at the top with both arms raised in celebration!

On October 4, 2013, I celebrated the completion of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike with my fellow thru-hikers and trail family. Zach “Shady” Adamson, a fellow thru-hiker and a United States Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom War Veteran was one of the friends celebrating with me. It had become apparent to me as we hiked together that Shady had left the war, but that the war hadn’t left him. Like many combat veterans I’ve known, Shady didn’t sleep well, had vivid flashbacks (more back story here), and seemed to be suffering from PTSD. I saw that he was struggling, and I tried to help but I didn’t really know how. I hoped that maybe my dad, a Vietnam combat vet, would know how to help, but I didn’t get the chance to introduce them to each other. That afternoon as we parted ways at the summit of Katahdin none of those struggles were evident. He was on top of the world, full of hugs and smiles, and celebrating just as much (if not more) than the rest of us.

On January 9, 2014, just 3 months after completing his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail and less than a year after completing his military service, Zach “Shady” Adamson committed suicide (his obituary). The hearts of all of the people that he had even known collectively broke. We learned in the harshest possible way that sometimes it takes more than walking 2200 miles to “walk off the war.” As I struggled to wrap my head around Shady’s suicide, I learned that  22 veterans a day commit suicide and “the number of male veterans under the age of 30 who commit suicide jumped by 44 percent between 2009 and 2011.” Holy sh**!

On March 21, 2014, what would have been Shady’s 25th birthday, there was no mention of the War in Afghanistan in the news. The media silence about the war that started in 2001 may, in part, be because of the changing demographics of our military force, the nature of modern warfare, and the nature of it’s casualities. “As of December 2008, more than 4,200 troops have been killed and over 30,800 have returned from a combat zone with visible wounds” and “an estimated 25-40 percent have less visible wounds—psychological and neurological injuries associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).” What was perhaps the most disturbing thing that I learned about our modern wars is that “since 2009, more soldiers have died from suicide than combat.

A silent war, with invisible wounds, and a higher death-toll from suicide than from combat… I just couldn’t make sense of it all. As I tried and failed to put my thoughts in order, I started doing something that I hadn’t done since high school. I started writing poetry and came up with these verses before finally putting my laptop away for the night:

There are heroes that walk among us
Carrying burdens we cannot see
Silently we thank them
Using words they cannot hear

They’ve seen the horrors for us
They shield us from the pain
They are our strength, our soldiers
They will never be the same.

There are heroes that walk among us
They look like you and me
But inside they’re empty, hollow
Shells of who they used to be.

Silently we love them
Deafened by their pain
In silence they can’t hear us
And peace they cannot claim

The silence it surrounds them
Yet silent we remain.
But our silence is betrayal
Our silence is our shame.

There are heroes that walk among us
carrying burdens we cannot see.
Let’s break the cage of silence
And talk about PTSD.

It is a silent killer
Our heroes are its prey
It seeks the strong amongst us
And whittles them away.

It hits our soldiers hardest
Though others aren’t immune
Survival shouldn’t be a crime
It shouldn’t be their doom.