Editor’s Note: This essay was originally written for publication on Veteran’s Day
This day means a lot to so many people. It is a day to honor those who served this country, both in the past and present. It is a day that we feel immense pride in being American, in living in a place known for its freedoms, freedoms that have been fought for and earned time and time again, thanks to veterans.
For me, it’s always been a day in which I can commemorate my grandfather, Mar Arradaza—or shall I say Captain Mar Arradaza—who served in the US Army during World War II. I grew up hearing stories of my grandfather, of how he fought bravely in the Philippines in one of the bloodiest, most pivotal conflicts this world has ever seen. Of how he’d escaped from being a POW three times (I’ve endearingly started joking that if there was one thing my grandpa was good at, it was escaping), one of those times being from the Bataan Death March where, according to an article written for stripes.com, up to 18,000 Filipinos were estimated to have died.
He’d been face to face with death several times, and yet each time he managed to escape its grasp. He ended up living a long life and died at the age of eighty-nine in his home with a legacy of ten children and twenty-four grand-children left behind him.
When I honor my Grandpa Mar, I tend to think mostly of the glory of his achievements. To me, he was almost larger than life. He was a war hero.
However, oftentimes I forget that these achievements didn’t come without great sacrifice. He might have escaped death during the war, but that doesn’t mean he escaped fully intact. Most who come back from war rarely ever do.
You see, my grandfather suffered from PTSD.
It wasn’t until decades after he retired that they’d finally diagnosed him. Most of my memories of my grandfather were good, peaceful memories, and most of his grandchildren could likely say the same. However, my mother, my grandmother, and many of my aunts and uncles had far different experiences.
They say he was excessively strict growing up, bordering on cruel. He was easily irate and would punish his children far too easily and perhaps far too much. For much of their lives, many of them feared him; some even grew to resent him. This is not to mention his treatment of my grandmother, his wife, who would often experience his wrath in full force. Hardly any of his family would have described him as a kind man in the past.
No one really thought that his behavior was a result of his time in the war until he had a psychiatric evaluation as an elderly man. When they diagnosed him as suffering from PTSD, it suddenly clicked for my mother, the why for his behavior: the war had scarred him far more permanently than anyone had ever imagined. By this point, however, the resulting collateral damage to his family had been done. His children and his wife had perhaps been able to forgive him in time, but the scars would forever remain.
Though he had always been the most memorable veteran in my family, my Grandpa Mar was not the only one. In fact, on both sides, I have aunts, uncles, cousins, and even my brother who have served or are currently serving in the military. Often, I tend to forget my other grandfather, Grandpa Jesus (pronounced the Spanish way, “hay-SOOS”) had also served.
Growing up, though I’d still been proud, my younger self hadn’t been quite as impressed hearing about Grandpa Jesus’s time serving. He’d been a cook in the US Navy during the 50’s. Unlike Grandpa Mar, he hadn’t served in WWII, hadn’t seen combat, and had been medically discharged within years of him joining the navy. He also never really had any stories that I remember him telling us about his time serving.
I’d always heard that he’d become schizophrenic while in the navy which had ultimately led to his discharge, that it had something to do with government experimentation, but I’d always brushed off these stories as conspiracies. After all, every memory I have of my grandfather was him sitting in his wooden chair in the corner of the kitchen, smoking and listening to the radio.
There was nothing to me that indicated that he was mentally ill, and I figured if this experimentation was true, surely I would have heard about it in my history class, or there would be some kind of letter from some politician lying around reading something along the lines of, “Hey, sorry we made you take some weird drugs that would mess up your mind for the rest of your life, that was absolutely inhumane of us to do and was totally our bad.”
It wasn’t until much later that I realized that these “conspiracies” were actually way more substantiated than I thought. There are plenty of instances between the 50’s and 60’s in which soldiers were experimented on by the government, oftentimes without the soldiers’ consent. In the 60’s, Project SHAD (Shipboard Hazard and Defense) was specifically conducted on U.S. warships, where biological and chemical warfare agents were sprayed over these ships in order to “determine how well service members aboard military ships could detect and respond to chemical and biological attacks” – Michelle Strikowsky, The National Science Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
While it’s too late to prove whether my grandfather’s schizophrenia was truly a result of whatever the government did to him, regardless they took responsibility for it. Well, what responsibility they could while still being classified at the time. When he was medically discharged, he received full medical benefits for the rest of his life, as has been given to many other victims of human experimentation by the US government since. Unfortunately, he would very much be in need of those medical benefits for most of his retirement. This was something I did not find out until recently, along with many other things about my grandfather during his lifelong recuperation.
I had not known about the voices my grandfather would hear, urging him to do violent things to his family. I had not known about how there were several instances where he almost did act on these thoughts, resulting in him being hospitalized for months at a time. I had not known that it wasn’t until they started injecting him with his medication that he finally seemed to get better, which is why most of my memories of him seem so much more “normal”.
Grandpa Jesus died in 2007, on Independence Day to be exact, and like my Grandpa Mar, left behind a large family that loved him. And yet, the impact my grandfather’s mental illness had on his family was lasting. My father as well as supposedly many of his siblings are still traumatized. Like with my mother’s family, he may be forgiven, but the wounds still run deep.
I may have different memories of my grandfathers, but their impacts on both me and their families run parallel. I am glad that I was able to experience much brighter times with them, to be able to see them at peace, without the demons in their heads. However, now that I know what they each were dealing with, it breaks my heart to see how their personal suffering affected their families in the long run. I am proud to say that both of my grandfathers were veterans, but unfortunately I cannot do so without acknowledging that they paid a heavy price.
When men and women serve our country, we sometimes don’t realize the extent of which they give themselves to do so. Mental illness is not something we tend to immediately think about when we think of what our soldiers and veterans go through to do their duties and keep us safe, yet it is most prevalent among them. Studies have shown that 50% of veterans have difficulty acclimating after returning from their service with a third suffering from at least one mental health disorder, while they are additionally more than twice as likely to commit suicide than civilians. The numbers only continue to grow, and people are only finally trying to understand why this is occurring.
It is for this reason that this Veteran’s Day I would like to honor these men and women for continuously putting not only their bodies but their sanity on the line for us. I also encourage you all to thank a veteran as well as anyone currently still in the military for all that they sacrifice of themselves to complete their duty. I can only hope we will continue to educate ourselves about this and make an effort to improve the mental health and wellness of our veterans, because they deserve to live a life of peace after all that they endure.
Veronica Valera is a Filipino American born and raised in Dallas, TX. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor’s degree in Biology and will soon be completing her Master of Science in Health Sciences, concentrating in Health Informatics.
Despite her studies and work primarily being science-related, she has always had a special interest in history and sociology. She enjoys playing musical instruments, singing, and photography, but among her many hobbies, writing and storytelling are some of her favorites.