We were in a small neighborhood bar in San Antonio on a Saturday afternoon in November, sipping beers and getting ready for the kickoff of the Ohio State-Michigan game. There were only the three of us in the place with the bartender. The door to the bar opened and a guy in his 20s walked in.
He looked at us and began talking . . . and talking, and talking. Was that our car right outside the door? Where were we from? Columbus? Hey, he was from Whitehall! Watching the Buckeyes? Well, he was a Buckeye fan, too. What did we think of Jim Tressel? Who did we think was the best Ohio State quarterback during the last ten years? What did we do for a living? Where did Russell go to school? How did Russell like being an artist? Kish left to do some shopping, and still the questions and running commentary kept coming. What were we going to do while we were in San Antonio? Did we know that we were there during the San Antonio bad weather period?
For brief instants the guy would watch the game and root for the Buckeyes, but for the most part he was a chatterbox who simply would not stop talking or let us just watch the game in peace. We answered his direct questions politely because that’s what people are supposed to do, but also because I didn’t want to do anything to provoke him. My guard was up, because people don’t normally walk into a bar and begin a rapid-fire conversation with complete strangers. Was the guy on drugs? Was he getting ready to ask us for money? What was his angle, really?
Halftime came, and the guy got a call on his cell phone. When he took the call he walked around, seemingly agitated, and talked loudly to the person at the other end of the conversation. A minute or two later he ended the call and announced he was leaving, and after we said goodbye he vanished into the rainy San Antonio afternoon without incident. I admit that I breathed a sigh of relief.
We looked over at the bartender, and I asked if he knew the guy. He said no, he’d never seen him before. Then he shook his head sadly and said, “PTSD.” The bartender explained that the San Antonio area is home to a lot of different military bases, and therefore to a lot of returning veterans who were dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, there was a Veterans Administration facility across the street, and he suspected the guy had come from there.
The bartender himself was a veteran, he said, and he’d seen the guy’s kind of behavior before. He said that when he returned from overseas, struggling with what he had seen and done, the VA’s first response was drugs, because “drugs are easy.” So he took the drugs the doctors gave him, but he later decided that the drugs he was prescribed, and the kinds of mood swings they provoked, were just too much, so he stopped. The talker’s behavior, the bartender explained, was showing the signs of the drugs he was prescribed for his PTSD. His behavior wasn’t his fault.
We had no way of knowing for sure, of course, whether the talker in fact had PTSD as a result of his military service, because he hadn’t talked about it — but the bartender’s comments had the obvious ring of truth. It turns out that the bartender’s view of the VA’s actions isn’t unique; it’s not hard to find news stories that talk about the VA’s approach to prescribing drugs to returning veterans and question its value.
I felt bad for doubting a guy who had served his country, been scarred by the experience, and wasn’t getting the help he really needed to deal with his issues and return to civilian society. And I wondered just how many returning veterans deal with PTSD and why the government that sent them over to fight hasn’t come up with an effective approach to a common problem.
It’s just not right.