Retired Captain Charlie Plumb, who was shot down in Vietnam and survived the Hanoi Hilton, is a true hero, although he and almost all of his fellow “sur-thrivers,” if I may coin a term, are not at all comfortable referring to themselves that way. For six years, he was tortured, lived in an 8’x8’ cell with a bucket for a toilet, at times was nearly naked and covered in boils to the point that his eyes were swollen shut, and endured tropical heat under a tin roof. John McCain was “two doors down” from him at “the Hilton.”
One would have expected Charlie to have come home irreparably broken, but instead, he not only returned to America with absolutely no trace of PTSD, he actually has chronic symptoms of something far more powerful, known as PTG. PTG stands for Post Traumatic Growth, the medical term described first by philosopher Fredric Nietzsche, and later anecdotally by Martin Luther King when he stated, “What don’t kill ya just make ya stronger.” Far more than something that you would hear from a motivational speaker, which Charlie has gone on to become most successfully, University of North Carolina Charlotte researchers define PTG as “positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event.” It is a huge departure from therapeutic thinking prior to 2001.
UNC went on to say that: “Although we coined the term posttraumatic growth, the idea that human beings can be changed by their encounters with life challenges, sometimes in radically positive ways, is not new. The theme is present in ancient spiritual and religious traditions, literature, and philosophy. What is reasonably new is the systematic study of this phenomenon by psychologists, social workers, counselors, and scholars in other traditions of clinical practice and scientific investigation.”
Charlie will be the first to say that as he lay in squalor, he used to pray nearly every waking moment and often in the night. He would also plan for the future, and in his mind build his career and his life. He leaned hard on the compilation of wisdom he had received over the years from his parents, teachers, preachers, Boy Scout troop leaders, mentors and coaches. He learned the “tap code,” (an alphabetic system of tapping sounds made on walls when guards weren’t near), and encouraged his fellow prisoners, which is an important part of not succumbing to victimization. As if he hadn’t gone through enough, when he got home, rather than wrap his arms around his waiting wife, he was told that she had filed for divorce three months earlier because she just “….couldn’t hang on.”
Interestingly, around 4% of our soldiers came back from Viet Nam with PTSD, as opposed to 30% of troops returning from combat today. Why is that? I think much of it comes from the belief that has invaded our culture that if something horrible has happened, you have no choice but to be permanently damaged by it. Mind you, I am not dismissing the existence of PTSD, its severity, or its complexity. I was diagnosed with it myself in the early ‘90s as a result of an assault in which I was handcuffed and one of my fingers was broken. I just know that my beliefs about it have changed, and Charlie Plumb is one of many upon whom I will cheerfully hang the blame.
If you are a vet or anyone who is struggling with PTSD, I would highly recommend that you devour everything you can on Charlie Plumb and PTG, and partner with those who won’t give up on you because they know you can literally change the landscape of your brain, and therefore, your life. Your future still awaits you, and it is not bound by your past.
Or, as Charlie would say, “"Life is a choice - a choice every day. You can become the victim or you can become the victor."
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner