Joe Parsetich is a service-connected disabled Air Force veteran of Vietnam who was elected national commander for Disabled American Veterans in August 2022.
It’s been 55 years, but I can still hear the whizzing and feel the concussive force of incoming rocket and mortar fire at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Vietnam. It’s a chilling feeling, but not nearly as horrific as witnessing another human being’s life violently come to an end.
I was only 17 when I volunteered to go to war, loaded with youthful naivete that meant I never expected to bear witness to that kind of cruelty and carnage.
Although I didn’t know it then, the truth is that my time in Vietnam would live with me long after I returned home. For many years, I couldn’t shake the echoes of the enemy rockets whistling past my post, and I carried with me the memories of those who lost their lives on the battlefield.
I shouldered the burden of surviving Vietnam for decades until 2009, when I woke up in an intensive care unit. That’s because, after 59 years, I no longer saw my life as valuable. I saw myself as an unworthy burden and attempted to end it.
Had I not failed in doing so, my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would have served as a sniper’s bullet shot decades ago from thousands of miles away and amounted to another kill for the enemy.
Since my diagnosis, I have a better understanding of what PTSD is and how to mitigate its effects on my daily life. I’m fortunate in that regard, but I know the reality is that what works for me may not work for others. PTSD isn’t a one-size-fits-all condition, because it manifests differently in each patient. Some are still yearning for peace while finding ways to lessen the severity of its impact on their lives. Others are completely overwhelmed by its symptoms, which can pervade every aspect of daily life.
Tragically, many of our fellow Americans do not properly understand the condition.
While I cannot speak for every afflicted veteran, I am comfortable asserting that having PTSD does not mean someone is weak or broken. Having PTSD doesn’t mean someone is on the verge of a violent outburst. It also doesn’t mean they are a risk to their employer. Having PTSD means someone suffered trauma and is experiencing a natural reaction to it. There shouldn’t be any stigma involved in that.
I’m fortunate to have woken up in that hospital, and I’ve made it my mission ever since to let others know they aren’t alone. The military does a beautiful thing when it brings people from every walk of life together under the same flag, unit and mission. But the tragic reality is that far too many veterans, especially those suffering from PTSD, feel isolated and alone. That can be deadly.
So, rather than shying away from this unsettling topic that too many veterans like myself have come to know, I encourage my fellow Americans to go beyond the headlines to learn more about what PTSD is and isn’t. Doing so will not only shed the stigma associated with this invisible scar of war, it can also save a life.
Veterans and service members experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 988, Press 1. They also can text 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net.