My Secondary Trauma and His PTSD

I’m a mental health professional. In a meeting in D.C. two weeks ago, I did something I witness my patients with PTSD involuntarily do sometimes. It happens when something unexpectedly triggers their trauma anxiety in a counseling session.

During the meeting, suddenly, a low flying, large sounding helicopter flew over the building. I didn’t see it, but the noise was incredible. I physically shook, fogged over, lost my train of thought, and closed my eyes at the height of the fear. Just like I have witnessed time and time again working in session with others.

Are you Okay?
A voice called to me from inside a tunnel. I was back. I looked around around the room, embarrassed, and noticed no one else had been effected by the sound. Maybe it wasn’t even as loud as it seemed.

Am I Okay?

In a flash, I just time traveled to my childhood home’s kitchen table on a sunny afternoon. I am a little girl again, sitting in my mom’s kitchen chair, at the table talking to my Dad, laughing. Suddenly, a low flying helicopter broke the serenity above our small house. The window shakes, Dad turns pale, the beads of sweat appear from nowhere dot his brow. I feel the lump of helplessness in my throat, and the pushing on my chest.

I want to help him escape, he’s scared, I’m scared, but I’m just a little girl, with little girl words, and little girl fears, and little girl ideas…seemingly, little girl uselessness…I hear him swear under his breath. Then I see him, like in a dream,  floating with gazelle swiftness, off the kitchen chair and padding quickly down the small hallway towards his bedroom. Seclusion is his safety.

“Little girl, are you Okay?”

No one ever asked me because no one ever knew my hidden world of a child of a traumatized military Veteran. Forty or so years later, I am still trapped in my deceased father’s experience of war, a war I was neither alive for, or part of.

The anxiety stopped for him upon his release from this world, but it lives on in me.

“The anxiety stopped for him upon his release from this world, but it lives on in me.”-Heather Bowser describing her painting, “Trauma on Mirror (2011)”

However, my family lived with the consequences. There were many of us children of Vietnam Veterans walking this journey then, and so many children of Veterans of other conflicts have been added to our ranks. We continue on like the children before us.

Until our world knows peace there are children of veterans navigating a lonely journey unintentionally caused by a loved ones experience of war. May we show compassion to our veterans by supporting the programs helping families readjust after a solider’s deployment. This is our minimum responsibility.

The greatest gain would stop secondary trauma from military service all together. It would be achieved by creating peace in this world and accepting nothing different. May we each do our part in 2016.

Heather Bowser is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, daughter of a deceased Vietnam Veteran, Second Generation Victim of Agent Orange, and President of Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance ,501c3.