PTSD Affected Each, But With Far Different Outcomes

By Derek Turner

Not even a year had passed since the Japanese surrendered. The world was still celebrating and America was in the honeymoon phase, welcoming its boys back home.

In West Virginia, two farm boys, now veterans of the war’s great battles, sat across from each other at the kitchen table. Though recently reunited, in many ways the distance between the brothers had never been greater.

President Harry S. Truman shakes hands with Medal of Honor recipient Hershel “Woody” Williams at the White House on October 5, 1945. | Photo credit Marine Corps photo

One brother came home a bona fide war hero. President Harry Truman invited him to the White House and presented him with the Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism on Iwo Jima. The commandant of the Marine Corps shook his hand, and the citizens of his home state fawned over him, begging to hear his stories. Upon his discharge, the Veterans Administration offered him a job as an advocate for veterans or their surviving loved ones. He took it and embarked on a new career.

The other brother took two bullets during the Battle of the Bulge and later barely survived when a German fighter pilot strafed the train he was riding in, sending all the passengers scurrying for cover in nearby woods. When the fighter returned and strafed the woods, dangerously close to where the soldier hid, that was about all he could take. He cried, he shook uncontrollably and he could no longer string together a coherent sentence. He finished out the war in England in a psychiatric hospital.

It would be decades before the term “post-traumatic stress disorder” entered our cultural lexicon and longer before it became the signature wound of our most recent wars. In those days, the VA’s preferred term was “psychoneurosis.”

The stigma was severe and it hung like a dark cloud over the kitchen table where Hershel “Woody” Williams, the war hero, and William Gerald Williams, the broken soldier, sat facing each other. After William returned from England and left the Army, he had received no further treatment. Not that the care he got at the psych hospital did much good.

Hershel held a pen above a 526 form, the required VA paperwork to request compensation for wounds suffered in service of your country. William had agreed when his brother suggested filing a claim.

Hershel wrote, “Gunshot Wound, Left Shoulder. Through and Through.”

His brother nodded.

Hershel wrote, “Gunshot Wound, Left Ribcage.”

His brother nodded.

Then Hershel wrote, “Psychoneurosis” and his brother did not nod.

“Take that off there,” he said.

“No, you need to claim that. You can get compensation for that.”

“Take it off.”

William received a 20 percent disability rating for his gunshot wounds. There was no further discussion of his psychological trauma and certainly no treatment of it. He never did free himself of the symptoms and, if you ask Hershel, the condition proved fatal.

“He didn’t live very long. He died just a few years later,” Hershel remembers now, nearly 70 years after that day at the kitchen table. “It was one of those things where he’d just worried himself to death, I think.”

What Hershel did not tell his brother, what for decades was a secret known only to him and his wife, was that the war had taken a psychological toll on Hershel, too.

Photo credit Marine Corps photo by Corporal Michael Ito

Hershel “Woody” Williams received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. Since then, Williams has supported veterans and his West Virginia community by raising awareness and advocating for veterans’ rights around the country.

The Cost of Heroism

Williams never expected to set foot on Iwo Jima. The word on the ship was that the troops in the lead would take the island and Williams’ services as a demolition specialist would be unnecessary.

The word on the ship was wrong.

When tens of thousands of American troops died in the initial invasion, Williams found his way ashore. He was a corporal, 21 years old, when he landed on February 21, 1945. Two days later, Marine tanks were stymied trying to clear a path for the waiting infantry. Japanese soldiers, well concealed inside reinforced pillboxes, kept them at bay.

Williams was trained in the use of flamethrowers, a particularly vicious short-range weapon. A commanding officer asked him if he and his flamethrower could make any headway.

Herschel “Woody” Williams gives the benediction during the USO of Metropolitan Washington’s 30th Annual Awards Dinner in Arlington, Virginia, in 2012. | Photo credit Army photo by Staff Sergeant Teddy Wade

Williams doesn’t recall his response but someone later told him that he looked up and said, “I’ll try.”

With four Marine riflemen assigned to provide him cover, Williams advanced alone, on foot, toward the deadly pillboxes with 30 pounds of flamethrower strapped to his back. What happened next took hours, though it unfolded like a dream—or perhaps a nightmare.

He destroyed seven enemy pillboxes, spraying fire and instant death at those waiting inside six of them. On the seventh, he managed to maneuver behind the pillbox, climb on top and point the end of his flamethrower inside a ventilation hole. The occupants of the pillbox saw this and scurried out—three, four, maybe five of them. No matter, Williams eliminated the threat.

The mission was successful, forever branding Williams as a hero. But it came at a cost. Two of the four riflemen providing his cover were killed.

When the war ended and the Medal of Honor hung from his neck, Williams walked into the office of the commandant of the Marine Corps, General Alexander A. Vandegrift, himself a Medal of Honor recipient. Vandegrift told Williams the medal did not belong to him. It belonged to all those who fought and did not come home.

It belonged to those two riflemen. Williams never forgot that. He never forgot all the horrors that he saw. And those horrible scenes—those horrible days—found him later and lingered for years. They found him too often when night fell and the house grew quiet and all he wanted was a decent night’s sleep.

Accidental Therapy

If you had asked Williams in the immediate aftermath of the war if there was anything wrong with him, he would have told you no. It would not have been a lie, per se. Yes, there was anxiety. Yes, there were nightmares. Yes, sometimes he awoke to find himself frantically trying to put out an imaginary fire on the bedroom wall.

Despite all he went through, he would not admit to something called psychoneurosis. That was what his brother had and it was crippling. He was functioning just fine, for most of the day anyway.

“Well, the word ‘psycho’ had a terrible connotation,” he says now. “If you called a guy ‘psycho,’ you were absolutely insulting him. You’d get a fight out of that pretty easily. So nobody wanted to be diagnosed with the … psychoneurosis.”

Like his brother, he never sought treatment, and there were precious few options had he wanted it. The closest VA hospital was five hours away in the southern part of West Virginia. It was an inpatient facility, and there was no way he was going to admit himself for psychological treatment.

Years later, however, he realized that he did get therapy in his own way.

“As a recipient of the Medal of Honor, in my hometown, I had no choice but to talk about what happened and why I received the Medal of Honor. I was forced to do that or go crawl in a hole somewhere because I was invited someplace night after night, day after day,” he said.

It was the first time in the history of my hometown or my part of West Virginia that they’d ever had a Medal of Honor recipient. Nobody knew anything about it or how it came about. That was the best therapy I received was being forced to talk about it.

Today, one of the leading treatments for post-traumatic stress is something called prolonged exposure therapy and one of the critical elements is imaginal exposure, in which a patient is asked to talk about their traumatic experience over and over as a way to confront it and learn to take control of those memories.

That was Williams’ therapy, prescribed or not. Gradually, over the course of decades, the symptoms subsided. The only other thing that came close to helping him as much, he said, was faith.

For most of his adult life, he had no use for church. He was a Marine. And Marines, he figured, didn’t need God. But he had a wife he loved and two daughters he adored. They asked him again and again to attend church with them. On Easter Sunday 1962, he relented.

His girls wore their prettiest dresses and new Easter bonnets. They walked into church as a family, three Christians and one Marine. They walked out as something else.

“That day, my life changed,” Williams said. “I finally realized that I couldn’t do this thing all by myself. I needed some help. I accepted the Lord as my savior and walked out of that church a different man than when I walked in. … Those nightmares and those things that I was having, they went away. I don’t know where they went, but they went away.”

Always Helping

Williams grew up on a dairy farm in a little place called Quiet Dell, a few miles outside of Fairmont. He always figured that he’d eventually return home and spend his life on the farm. Honest work, something to be proud of, but nothing extraordinary.

During the war, however, his mother was forced to sell the farm. Then came Iwo Jima and a moment of heroism that would sustain him for a lifetime.

It led him to his job with the VA and a career that lasted more than three decades, all spent serving those who served their country. He moved with his job to southern West Virginia, where he remains today, living in a small town called Ona, between Huntington and Charleston. “Assisting veterans has been such a fulfilling thing,” he said. “Every evening you went home, you felt like maybe you did a little bit of good that day.”

Then-Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., left, laughs with Woody Williams in Guam during the Iwo Jima Reunion of Honor banquet on March 20. | Photo credit Marine Corps photo by Sergeant Gabriela Garcia

He’s 91 now. He’s still active with the VFW and frequently drives the 20 miles to the local VA medical center. Often, he just sits in the waiting room and visits with the veterans there.

“I sit around and talk to these guys and I don’t get any complaints. Some of them, they didn’t get their appointment quite as quickly as they’d have liked. Something like that, but nothing major. The amount and the methods and the benefits that are available today to the veterans is just, I think, very generous of the country. I really do. If he really has a need, they’re going to find some way of fulfilling that need. They’re going to take care of him.”

Whether across the kitchen table or across the tile floor of a waiting room, for seven decades Williams has been there to help. He’s seen psychoneurosis become post-traumatic stress. He doesn’t use the word disorder. It’s not a disease, he says. It’s not something you catch. It’s something that happens to you.

And if you’re willing to ask for help, it’s something you can overcome. There’s no shame in it. He’s learned that now. He’s proud that his country is learning it, too.

—Derek Turner is a Maryland-based freelance writer and former senior editor of On Patrol. This story originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.