I recall being focused on a butterfly that had just landed on a nearby plant. The butterfly paused revealing crisp black and yellow stripes and spots. Its wings slowly opened and closed as it tested a flower for nectar. Overhead, the drone of a prop aircraft increased until it was just above us. Then the pitch of the engine changed, as if perhaps, going into a stall. Instantly, the butterfly disappeared and the world spun as I was lifted off my feet and thrust down into the brush at the edge of the field, my mother pinning me down and protecting me with her own body. In what seemed an eternity, the sound from the aircraft engine again shifted and it flew away. This was not a war zone, it was Connecticut on a sweet summer morning in 1949 well after WWII had ended and the troops had come home.
Lt. Sylvia E. Van Antwerp was one of America’s first flight nurses, serving with honor in 1943 and 1944, carrying the wounded to hospitals remote from the North African and Italian fronts. She and 29 other RNs, were the first to be trained as US Army Aircorps Flight Nurses. She, and most classmates, was recruited from airline service by the US Army, for their inflight experience. They trained at Bowman Field in Kentucky in late 1942 and then were stationed in various areas of need in the Pacific and in her case, North Africa. Reportedly, Sylvia had the second highest number of flight hours of any flight nurse in WWII.
Sylvia and my dad, a US Army Aircorps Flight Surgeon, both left written accounts of their experiences. Both flew in DC-3 aircraft that could accommodate 14 wounded. Generally either two nurses or a nurse and a physician tended the men who were being evacuated. Since these aircraft also carried war supplies, they were not marked with a cross that would have differentiated them from combatants. They could be attacked by enemy aircraft, or gunners on the ground. Their safety between flights was not assured. Both of my parents told of jumping into slit trenches at the edge of runways as their airfield was being strafed or bombed. There is far more to tell about the extent of their experiences and the behaviors that they exhibited for the rest of their lives. What they and others of their generation have shared has been transformative to our generation and how we perceive the effects of war relate trauma.
What in the 1940’s was called ‘shell shock’ is now called PTSD. We recognize that a range of traumatic events can induce it, and in general today we do not blame or demean those who have been traumatized. Neuroscience research demonstrates that it is not just the cognitive mind that is affected by trauma. Indeed, the subconscious portions of the brain play a central role in long-term traumatic responses. Fortunately we have also learned that somatic therapies are a viableand effective route to treating trauma, including traumas and PTSD from both militaryand non-military situations. Somatic/bodymind therapies can also have direct impact on some associated medical conditions.
This is written for Memorial Day, 2018, a day reserved to remember those who died in the line of service. I write to honor their memory and to remember those who have carried traumatic wounds and who perished long after a war had ended. Their courage was enduring. It was the courage to live day to day, to kiss a child, to wipe away a tear, to see an airplane fly overhead and if they trembled, to ground themselves, to shake it off and to carry on.
You can learn more about somatic or bodymind therapies from these references and free resources at our Bodymind Practices page:
Somatic experiencing: using interoception and proprioception as core elements of trauma therapy. Payne, Levine, Crane-Godreau, Front. Psychol., 04 February 2015
Somatic experiencing for post traumatic stress disorder: a randomized controlled outcome study. Brom, Stokar, Lawi, Nuriel-Porat, Ziv, Lerner, Rossi. J Trauma Stress. 2017 Jun; 30(3): 304–312.