I Watched Friends Die in Afghanistan. The Guilt Has Nearly Killed Me.

By Adam Linehan: For More Info, Go Here…

I was convinced the deaths of my friends in combat were my fault. It took me years to realize this feeling had a name: survivor guilt.

My grandfather stopped talking about the war long before I was born, and very few of his stories survive. One is of a low-flying mission over Crete, during which half his squadron was gunned down by German antiaircraft batteries. B-24 crew members had such a high fatality rate during World War II that the aircraft was nicknamed “the flying coffin.” Between the Luftwaffe and the German 88s, there was only so much a crew could do to avoid being blown out of the sky. More than 52,000 American airmen were killed in the war. For many of those who made it home, existential questions over the role luck played in their survival would eventually take a heavy toll on them and their families. “The flyer who returns to his home and is lionized for heroic exploits may still torture himself with the feeling of unworthiness and guilt,” the sociologist Willard Waller cautioned in his landmark 1944 book, “The Veteran Comes Back.”

In May 1944, a pair of psychiatrists with the U.S. Army Air Forces Medical Corps, Lt. Col. Roy R. Grinker and Maj. John P. Spiegel, presented a paper on the mental-health status of returning airmen to the American Psychiatric Association (A.P.A.) in Philadelphia. They reported that “one of the most amazing revelations derived” from their clinical work was “the universality of guilt reactions,” which were “related to the most varied, irrational and illogical experiences.” They continued: “Hundreds of little acts which the patient did or did not do are the bases of self-accusations, and we often hear the guilty cry, ‘I should have got it instead of him!’ The intensity of these guilt feelings is proportional to the severity of the inner conflicts.”

Clinical studies found survivor guilt to be so pervasive among Vietnam veterans that the A.P.A. initially listed it as a core symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, which itself became a formal diagnosis in 1980. But the diagnostic criteria for PTSD has changed four times since the disorder was formalized. Today, survivor guilt is scarcely mentioned in the broader discussion around PTSD, and mental-health experts worry the condition is being chronically underreported and overlooked in trauma survivors.

“Survivor guilt” is a problematic term because it describes two different experiences. Some psychologists acknowledge this by subcategorizing the condition into two types: “content survivor guilt” and “existential survivor guilt.” Essentially, the former describes the guilt people experience when they believe that something they physically did or failed to do directly contributed to another’s death.

Existential survivor guilt — in which the survivor feels culpable or contaminated merely for having survived — is resistant to logic, as from a rational point of view the innocence of the survivor is often not in question. Psychologists studying Holocaust survivors in the 1960s and 1970s often referred to it as “survivor syndrome.”

Dr. William P. Nash, the former director of psychological health for the U.S. Marine Corps and a veteran of the Second Battle of Falluja, says the lack of awareness about survivor guilt extends specifically to the V.A.

You feel the guilt, but it doesn’t feel outsize; it doesn’t seem misplaced and unjustified. Your own innocence is precisely the thing you can’t see or feel.

Leave a Reply