My personal perspective of living with secondary post-traumatic stress…by Steve Sparks…
There were many years that the thought of my big brother getting hit in the head and knocked out by Dad triggered nightmares and uncontrolled emotions. Although the nightmares rarely happen anymore, the events of that time stay with me. The horrific nature of seeing my big brother almost killed by our father comes to me almost every day, sometimes more than once. The never-ending toxic turmoil and dysfunction in our home left me feeling numb and without empathy and compassion for others. The worst of post-trauma conditions is becoming self-absorbed, caring only about your own interests and survival. There is no world larger than self in the worst case of emotional challenge in life after trauma. My thoughts were mostly of self-defense and survival each and every day followed by self-medication at night. Self-talk was filled with trauma from the past and fear and trepidation of the future. I couldn’t talk to others about my feelings because no one else could possibly get it or understand. Mental health was, and still is to a large extent, a risky topic to explore with others, especially family members and those you work with in your professional life. Living in the moment and feeling safe is a life-long work in progress.
It was always challenging for me to trust others without some sort of escape plan and defensive position. My feeling was that survival was an all-consuming occupation. Even as kids we would avoid being visible or exposed for fear of being criticized and punished for being “bad, stupid, and sinful”. For many years spirituality was something connected to religion, not my soul. I didn’t know how to love until my mid-30s. I never trusted anyone completely and with unconditional love until later in life.
I have learned to live with and mostly mitigate the fear of failure and excessive insecurity in these later years. For most of my life as a child, through adulthood and midlife years, my fear of failure served me well with intense hyper-vigilance and hyper-arousal as a professional. But these persistent and less than healthy post-trauma stress symptoms did not work well for me at home when free time should be used for peace of mind and relaxation…a mindfulness existence is a gift.
At home in a safe environment, I was always on the move and could not sit still. When the pain creeped in during weekends, or holidays and sleep deprived nights, I became angry with outbursts and rage at times. The absolute worst part of my behavior is acknowledging how it hurt others close to me, especially my family. What I know from research and awareness now is the larger tragedy of post-trauma stress on children and families. The transferred emotional pain often appears as a secondary post-trauma affliction in loved ones on the receiving end who become care givers and must try to live with the toxic behaviors of a parent, partner, or mentor. The generational consequences become a much bigger burden on others in your immediate family and society as a whole.
I drank alcohol for self-medication until age 55. I got addicted to narcotic pain and sleep medications in later years due to arthritic pain and joint replacements. The combination of alcohol and prescription medications was a very bad cocktail and almost took me down. The grace of God and my wonderful, loving, compassionate and caring spouse saved my life!
I believe now that healing from a painful and traumatic past is possible. But it takes discipline, focus, and lots of love from family and friends. Healing for me is fueled by my passion to make a difference for others who suffer from debilitating mental health conditions.
On this 4th of July we celebrate freedom in many ways, including honoring veterans of all wars. This year my family is honoring our Dad by applying for a Posthumous Purple Heart for injuries suffered during 66 months of combat duty before and during WWII. The rules have changed in recent years to reflect injuries that are connected with moral injury or invisible wounds. Our father, like countless other combat veterans, suffered an entire life time from too much war time trauma starting with Pearl Harbor and during the entire Pacific War…click here.
I want to thank my dear friend and Lincoln County Oregon, Commissioner Bill Hall, who helped me connect with Senator Ron Wyden’s office to get the application process started. It is critical in the process of applying for posthumous recognition to have a congressional sponsor. It is also important to have first hand accounts and/or medical records to prove physical and/or mental injuries from combat. I personally researched Dad’s war-time service by ordering his US Naval records, including medical, as next of kin. My family holds on dearly to these records to preserve our father’s and military family legacy. Descendents will never forget and will learn from our family experience for decades to come. As descendents, we should make every effort capture and preserve forever the service of family members who served America in all wars. We should never forget the sacrifice of veterans who protected our freedoms. Honor and remembrance is also healing, especially when family members are care givers for veterans who return home with battle wounds that can last a lifetime. We served too!
Our family legacy is connected directly to America’s Armed Forces and service to America. We are an American military family with US Navy roots, and very proud of this heritage. Dad was too proud to make a case for a Purple Heart even though he earned this honor and recognition for his injuries. At one point Dad even discarded his old Chief’s Navy uniform with decorations attached because he was in such emotional pain. As a family we didn’t understand his emotional pain and too often we didn’t act like we cared. He did not want to remember his honorable and heroic service to America because his heart was broken and soul morally injured while watching his best friend and shipmate Roy Powers killed when the 2nd torpedo hit the USS West Virginia (BB48) on the morning of December 7, 1941. In the years following Pearl Harbor, serving in the Pacific, he saw too much death and carnage for too long. When he finally came home in June of 1945, Dad was a broken man. Like thousands of veterans of that time and in future wars, he had to suck it up and start the long road home to make a living and raise a family. We shall never forget!
Following is the first-hand account of Vernon H. Sparks, Coxswain, USS West Virginia, December 7, 1941:
National Park Service
Survivor Questionnaire – Persons Present December 7, 1941, Oahu, Territory of Hawaii
Vernon H. Sparks, US Navy, Battleship USS West Virginia, Coxswain, Hometown: St. Paul, Mn
Brief Account of What Happened to You Before, During, & After the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor.
“I was on the 3rd deck heading for the anchor windless room when the first torpedo hit the USS West Virginia. From there, more bombing and torpedoes-when all hell broke loose. Men in the brig were screaming for help. I could not respond, there was no time…to check where the Marine guard was with the keys to the cells. Evidently, he had already been hit. The men in the brig were engulfed in water and perished. I worked my way up to the 2nd deck with water up to my waist. By this time, I came to a hatch with the manhole still open leading to the main deck. I barely made it out of the escape hatch and was ordered by Lt. Stark to close that hatch. The men were still down there but it was too late for them. That was the first time I heard that the Japs were attacking our fleet…and the whole island. I watched one of my best shipmates get himself killed-Roy Powers. He stuck his head out the portside close to the ship-fitters shop; and about that time another torpedo hit and the concussion blew his head off. His body fell back on deck headless. After that it was a matter of surviving. There was no defense, the ship was already listing to port at about 35 degrees angle. I worked myself up further on the deck and observed the Commanding Officer, Captain Mervyn S. Bennion heading for the bridge. The strafing and bombing was still on. When I arrived on the main deck going forward to the number one turret…strafing still going on…I dived under the overhang of the turret. Communications was out, so by word of mouth heard the order, “all hands abandon ship.” Note: Capt. Bennion was lying on the wing of the bridge mortally wounded…He asked the doc, “What kind of chance he had?” And was told, “Not much Captain.” Then, Captain Bennion said, “Leave me on the bridge and this is my last order, ALL HANDS ABANDON SHIP!” He died right after that order… After that order, I jumped over the side to starboard and swam to Ford Island…Us guys that made it were standing on the beach watching the USS Arizona blow up sky high…what a helpless feeling. I had torn my white uniform up to use as emergency treatment bandages for the wounded. Anyway, to make a long story short, we dashed across the field under strafing conditions to shelter. In the BOQ, we were able shower in there and salvage clothes from the lockers, and helped organize the Harbor Patrol. And was with that duty for a few months – then assigned to new construction with the 5th Amphibious Force hitting the beaches of the South Pacific, all the way, then finally Iwo Jima, & Okinawa until the Peace Treaty was signed aboard the USS Missouri in Toyko, Japan. People like myself could go on & on…but that would take a book…”
Vernon H. Sparks, December 7, 1941, Battleship USS West Virginia
From Ship’s Crew Muster:
Sparks, Vernon H. 328-41-29 Cox. 13 Jan. 36 10/12/39
Medical documentation showing combat injury: Even though the record shows that he was recommended for limited duty, my father was deployed on the USS Andromeda during the Korean War. This additional duty aboard ship made his post traumatic symptoms far worse during the 1950s and most of his life. Dad passed away in 1998. Our entire family was affected severely by the profoundly dysfunctional family circumstances, domestic violence, and alcohol addiction connected with Dad’s post war traumatic symptoms. He was finally awarded a 40% PTSD disability during the 1980’s added to his Navy service pension. Dad retired from the Navy in 1958 after 22 years of service, then served 18 years with the Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Prisons. Dad never really recovered from the trauma of extended deployments during WWII and Korean War. He was deployed for 66 months during WWII, much of the time in hard combat in the Asia Pacific Theater, including the USS West Virginia, December 7, 1941. Dad was too proud to apply for a Purple Heart Medal.
Dad’s diagnosis following his return from WWII…
“7-23-1945: Diagnosis: FATIGUE, COMBAT, #2172. Origin: NOT Misconduct. Tense, nervous, anxious, has shoulder that is easily dislocated. Symptoms came on while at sea, tour of duty 66 months, ending some 6 weeks ago. Sleeps poorly, wakens often, nightmares of combat. Appetite variable. Sensitive to noise and crowds. Startle reaction. Moddy at times. Not suicidal. Is fatigued. Transferred this date to US Naval Hospital, Shoemaker, California for treatment and reclassification.”
It is heartbreaking to our family and healing at the same time to finally know what was going on with Dad for so many decades following the war. We can now heal. We can remember and honor his legacy. We can forgive and love again… We can have peace of mind…