“The arts help bring home those who have put and continue to put their lives in harm’s way to protect and promote the values and way of life we cherish.” Tom Smith should not be alive. In Vietnam he was a helicopter scout pilot for the 1st Cavalry Division. In Vietnam, helicopter pilots flew through the heaviest concentrations of enemy fire and an attrition rate twenty times that of U.S. Air Force pilots, and of them, the Cavalry pilots were hit hardest having a forty to fifty percent survival rate and a life expectancy of three weeks. His job was to fly at treetop level, often at 30 mph or less to locate the enemy usually by drawing their fire. Smith describes the cause of his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) not as a result of such horrific experiences of being shot down, the rotors being snapped off by the trees, or looking at the gunman bellow whose bullets are ripping through the fuselage, but by living with the daily grind of fear.
“For me PTSD comes from living in an environment of fear more than the events that precipitated it,” said Smith. “When I got shot down and was on fire that was really scary. There was no place to put the helicopter down. I had to fly a burning helicopter for an inordinately long time to crash it and that was terrifying. When I got shot down through 150 feet of trees and had the rotor blades ripped off it was quite terrifying and painful as my jaw and back were broken. I went in knowing what I was getting into, but it’s the daily living in an environment of fear – the fight or flight fear that doesn’t go away, that stays with you after you leave the hospital and into civilian life - it changes you as much if not more than the combat situation itself.”
For Smith, it was writing, taken up decades later, that helped him come to terms with and finally be able to speak openly about what it means to living with PTSD and its impact on himself and on his family. Smith’s experience is one that many veterans across the country are increasingly coming to realize; the arts can help them connect with themselves, with others who have shared similar experiences, with their family, and with their community.