Carol thought she was the only one. After her paratrooper dad came home from World War II, she didn’t understand why her family was so dysfunctional. Tom Brokaw coined them the “Greatest Generation,” but Carol and many others like her know better. They know about the nightmares and the drinking and everything that was said, but more importantly, everything that was left unsaid when these soldiers returned home from combat.
In her emotionally charged, thoroughly researched book, “The Hidden Legacy of World War II: A Daughter’s Journey of Discovery,” Carol details her life as the daughter of a WWII veteran. She is not afraid to confront the truth of what war and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) did to her father and the effect it had on her and her family, but she also recounts the beautiful moments she experienced with her father.
Below Carol discusses why she felt her story needed to be told.
What made you decide to write this book?
I was going to originally write my father’s story. He had been written about in books, but I had never really asked him questions. So I said, “Dad, I wanna write a book about you.” And he said, “Well I really appreciate that you want to write a book, but do it from your perspective.” He said, “My story’s been told, my battles have been told. Tell what it was like growing up with me as a veteran of that war and what you dealt with and went through.”
I started to ask him more detailed questions about the war, because there have been family tragedies and problems. I really was in the process of putting that together in terms of the whole post traumatic stress thing, because you never think of that with WWII. So I started asking questions like, what did you really see in the war, and what did you really experience? He started to open up to me.
Why do you think people are so resistant to acknowledging that WWII combat vets have PTSD even now?
It wasn’t even a diagnosis until 1980. Many people just envision the Tom Brokaw ‘Greatest Generation’ model. A lot of what Brokaw said was true, but he left out a big piece of it. I think it was easier for people to accept, but in my research, what I was surprised to find out was that only twenty-five percent of WWII veterans had been in combat zones. So if you have three quarters of the men not in combat zones, the majority might come back with no problems, but that 25 percent is still four million men.
I just think because they didn’t talk about it. There wasn’t any good treatment. When I got my dad’s VA files, I saw how long he had been trying to get help and they pretty much dismissed him for a long, long time. He finally got 100% disability rating when he was 80 years old. He had been trying since 1946. They really did not acknowledge it, so the children didn’t even know. A lot of us children have connected and we had no clue that our families weren’t the only ones. We didn’t even know to talk about it, I guess.
It just seems strange that it took the medical field so long to realize that these men might have PTSD.
It even took a long time after Vietnam. I spoke to the doctor who is a director for the National Center for PTSD, which is like an offshoot of the VA. I had a phone interview with him about three or four years ago and he said he and a number of other psychiatrists in the late ‘70s were beginning to notice a similar pattern with the Vietnam vets that were coming home and they called it post-Vietnam syndrome. He said it took them five or six years to really get the attention so that it became an actual diagnosis. I don’t know why after every war, it seems we forget the lessons of the previous war.
What do you wish would have been available to your Dad and other vets like him?
Counseling. Understanding, support and support for the wives, which they have now. They have a lot of military wives support groups. I guess what’s happening now with Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, in terms of the military family, is that there is more of an understanding of what the military family goes through and what the veterans went through.
When the veterans were going for help back then, they should not have been dismissed. They were dismissed constantly and it caused more and more problems. I know in my own situation, my mother’s family basically thought that my father was a failure and a bum. There was no support or understanding. The children were sort of caught in the middle. I just wish there had been a lot more support, understanding and discussion about it.
I was interviewed for a paper in New Jersey a while back and the columnist was the daughter of a Vietnam vet and she asked what it was like growing up not knowing the reason for your father’s problems, because growing up as the daughter of a Vietnam vet, you just always thought, well he’s a Vietnam vet.
Growing up, did you know your father was in WWII?
Oh yeah, and he stayed in the service until the late 1950s. He went back in because he couldn’t get a job. A year after the war, he went back into the service as counter intelligence for the Army. So I knew that, but he didn’t talk about it. He just didn’t talk about it. It wasn’t until his last marriage and he was a lot older in the ‘90s when I visited him in California that he had all of his war stuff out and was more open about it.
Why do you think he embraced that aspect of his life in his later years?
My dad got a call from Steven Ambrose saying that he wanted to interview him for a series of books he was doing. My dad was interviewed and he also did some writing for Steven Ambrose, so I think he revisited it. And then at that point, Steven Ambrose’s books and “Saving Private Ryan” were coming out, and that’s when the “Greatest Generation” book was written too, right around that time. So they were getting all of this attention that they really had not gotten before this and that’s why I think he embraced it, because people were seeking him out.
You detailed a lot of more well-known combat vets. Do you think they were affected more than the less-known ones since they had such a public profile and went so high and then fell so low? Do you think it was the fame that sent them spiraling or just because they saw combat?
I think it was because they saw combat. They didn’t get any more help after the war than anybody else did and they didn’t get any more understanding. It just happens to be documented. What sort of struck me with that is, that they had lots of parades and welcome homes and honors, and they still had problems.
Are there any studies on children of these wars and how they were affected (statistically)?
Just after the Vietnam War. I found one study of five families for WWII that said the children were affected negatively. That was it. When I did the interview with the director, he said, you’re right, there are no studies of the children. The studies I have found have been on children of Vietnam vets and I’m sure all of those dynamics are pretty much the same. The VA’s website now has information on what to do if your parent has PTSD and the typical reactions of children. It’s so hard to go back and do research on something that was never done. So what’s happening is that we are finding each other organically, anecdotally, through books, online, etc. It took our generation so long for that to come to the level of our consciousness that it wasn’t just our family and the war had a lot to do with it.
What affect do you think PTSD from recent wars will have on our country?
I think there’s a lot more understanding, a lot more discussion and a lot more support. However, I don’t think that the resources are there to the extent that they need to be, but I definitely see a lot more support groups and web resources. There’s a lot more help out there, but it seems to me the veterans are still having problems, because the anecdotal information I’ve heard is that there is a wait that you have to go through to get seen at the VA. The treatments aren’t really all of that helpful, a lot of medications. The research is still very young and they still don’t know why one person is susceptible to PTSD when another person is not if they were in the same situation. However, I am a little more hopeful.
What would you tell a child who is growing up with a parent who may have PTSD?
Make it clear that you are confused and struggling and need to understand. Ask if you can get some kind of psychological help where there is a safe place you can talk about it, some kind of support group. I think that would have been helpful when I was a child if I had a neutral party, some kind of therapy. I didn’t start therapy until my forties. I’ve achieved a lot, so I can’t say I was dysfunctional, but there was always a lot of struggle in the back of my mind.
I think the community needs to take more of a role in being sure that these children have safe places where they can go to express how they feel. I guess that was the biggest thing. My sister and I didn’t even know enough to be able to express anything. We were so isolated that it was kind of like, should we take mom’s side or dad’s side. It wasn’t anything that was more of a societal thing. Who knows if other families were having similar problems, although there weren’t a lot of divorces in the late ‘50s.
What advice would you give to adult children of vets who are still trying to understand and deal with their WWII vet parents?
Talk about it. Some people have said to me, I’m going to read your book in a while, but I don’t know if I want to open up that area of my life. One woman emailed me and said she sealed up that wound, “shrapnel and all” and it’s healed over and she didn’t know if she wanted to rip it open again quite yet. I’ve had quite a few people say they have to get the courage up to read my book, because they know it’s going to parallel their lives. I think in some ways it’s better to be able to talk to people who went through it because you start feeling like you have a support system.
I known some adult children of vets are still really, really angry. They will say things like, “my father slept with guns under the pillow and I don’t know how my mother stayed with him” and “he was just full of rage.” I can see the anger part, but with my dad, I could just never really stay angry at him for long because I knew he basically was a decent guy. Especially when I was younger before my mom divorced him, he was fairly functional. So I knew his assets and I always had an intuition that something was going on with the war, because my mom had told me about the nightmares. She was torn. She divorced him, but she always felt guilty that she didn’t stick it out because she said for two years he had these awful nightmares. So I knew something about the war and my aunts had told me he wasn’t the same person. So I was always somewhat sympathetic, but I can still understand the anger, that’s for sure.
It seems like your sister had a harder time understanding.
She did. I don’t think she got as much of his fathering years as I did and I think that was a big thing because she was seven when they got divorced and things got really strained. Whereas, I was 11 and I had a lot of really good fathering years leading up to that point. I really had a tight bond with him and she was lost.
As your father got older, it seems like it required a lot of patience and understanding for you to have a relationship with him.
That was even harder in some ways to go through so many years later when I had been such a loyal daughter. I remember my therapist said it’s almost like you have secondary PTSD. You’ve dealt with all that stuff when you were younger and here it is being thrown back in your face. I started to read about the delayed or reactivated emotions and behaviors. There was no happy ending for him.
Did you finish this book before or after he died?
I had started a few chapters. We had gotten the daughters of D-Day website (daughtersofd-day.com) up. We now have a Facebook page as well and I have my own website for the book, www.carolschultzvento.com. When my friend came with me to go to the hospital when my father was dying, we were able to bring printouts to show him that we created this website. He kept saying, “tell your story, tell your story.”
Was writing the book a therapeutic process for you?
Oh yeah. Some of the chapters were hard. The chapters where I was doing a lot of academic research were much easier. The chapter about my sister and the chapter about Las Vegas were difficult. Those chapters were hard to write.
What reaction have you received to your book?
It’s been pretty positive. I thought it was a story that needed to be told, not only for my generation, but for subsequent generations. It’s very hard to fight against that ‘Greatest Generation’ myth. When I tell some people about the book, they say, well those vets didn’t have any problems and that was when I was sending out queries. I went with a small publisher finally because I didn’t easily fit into any one category, memoir or military. One publisher said, well your dad’s not famous enough. I said, that’s not why I’m writing the book! Shouldn’t matter if he was famous at all. But I feel like I’m still coming up against this big societal myth that no one came home with problems. People say that, but then when you go a little deeper, people will say, “Well you know my uncle was in and out of VA hospitals,” etc. It seems like everyone from my generation, the baby boomer generation, has some story, even if it’s not their own fathers. I don’t know how you break through that. I just don’t, but there’s more and more of us who are speaking up.
The stories are getting out now. There are more books. More and more people are opening up.
Why do you think it’s taken so long?
I think it was shameful that they didn’t adjust. I remember thinking, my uncle was in WWII, why didn’t he have problems? Well he wasn’t in combat. I didn’t realize that at the time. I said to my dad, “Didn’t you have a parade when you came home when the 82nd marched down 5th Avenue?” He said, “Well the 82nd did, but they were mainly newcomers, the guys were in combat had the points and they got out sooner.” So they weren’t even the guys that did the bulk of the fighting that marched out that day. I said, “Well, didn’t people want to hear what you went through?” He said, “Are you kidding? No one wanted to hear about it.”
I think my book is basically just that untold piece of the war. It’s important to talk about it now because it’s happening again. Every generation, they come home from war and there’s a lack of understanding of the pain and suffering they bring home with them.
I wonder with technological advances, as there is less actual physical combat, if PTSD will become less of an issue.
That’s interesting. You wonder in terms of guilt if you aren’t looking a person in the eye. It would be interesting to see a study done on that and maybe to look at the Army vs. the Air Force from WWII and see what the differences were in the men that came home.
What do you think about the recent decision to allow women in combat and what affect do you think this will have on families in regards to PTSD?
I think that the recent decision to allow women in combat is overdue. In the recent wars, women have been exposed to hostile fire and more than 130 have died. Excluding women from infantry positions has not necessarily protected them, but it has limited their opportunities for advancement and leadership roles. So the change is beneficial for those women who will choose infantry instead of support roles. In regards to PTSD, women will suffer from it to the same degree as men and their children will feel the effects. It remains to be seen whether a mother’s PTSD will have a greater impact on the children than a father’s. My concern is that women may be reluctant to seek help so as to not be perceived as weak — a stereotype with which a woman would not want to be labeled.
You can get more information and order “The Hidden Legacy of World War II: A Daughter’s Journey of Discovery” on Carol’s website, www.carolschultzvento.com.