Real-life Rambos Struggle with PTSD

Rambo is a term that has become synonymous with gung-ho action and a persona that has become attached to the identity of movie action star Sylvester Stallone. Today, “Rambo” is a word that is used to denote military or individual aggression. It is also used to refer to a person who is heroic and, at the same, time capable of perpetrating extreme violence.

Taken from the 1982 movie that was originally entitled First Blood, the film is about the character named John James Rambo, a member of the elite U.S. Army Green Berets. Deployed in Vietnam, he fought against the Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers by using guerrilla tactics and jungle warfare strategy. Based on the novel where the the screenplay was adapted from, Rambo was caught by North Vietnamese soldiers in November 1971 and was subjected to inhuman torture and abuse in one of the infamous POW camps. Together with other American prisoners of war, Rambo suffered extreme episodes of physical torment in the hands of his captors. He experienced almost daily beatings, water torture, electrocution, and other forms of inflicting pain. After six months of “living hell”, Rambo was able to escape from the POW camp. After a period of recuperation, he was again re-deployed to Vietnam and was finally honorably discharged from the U.S. Army in 1974.

Rambo’s return to civilian life was not easy. The ’70s was a period of student activism that was characterized by the growth of the so-called peace movement and “flower power.” During that period, the United States became divided over the issue of the Vietnam War. Many student protests centered on the claim that the Vietnam War was an unjust war and that the United States was actually committing an act of aggression. Many soldiers and veterans like Rambo, most of whom were only drafted into the war, were subjected to protest, ridicule, and contempt. Civilian protesters saw men like Rambo as warmongers and anti-peace. But during that time, now many were aware of the depression experienced by many soldiers who had to fight in Vietnam. They, too, were against the war but had to fulfill their duty as military servicemen. The stress and anxiety of always being under fire and not knowing if it was already their “last day” made soldiers in Vietnam oppose the war as much as the civilian protesters.

Like many Vietnam veterans, Rambo suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. The novel depicts Rambo as a person who was deeply struggling with his past experiences in Vietnam. After losing his job as a mechanic, Rambo became a drifter and wandered from town to town. In the movie, Rambo got into trouble after a local sheriff imprisoned him for possession of a jungle knife. In jail, he was again subjected to torture. The injustice he suffered under the hands of his captors made his decide to escape. The police, together with the National Guard, launched a manhunt. However, Rambo was able to elude and deter the armed troops who were sent to hunt him. He again used his Green Beret skills to survive and deter his pursuers. Later in the movie, Rambo attacked the town center where the cruel sheriff was hiding. To avert the further escalation of violence, Army Colonel Trautman came and persuaded Rambo to surrender to him. The colonel was Rambo’s commanding officer in Vietnam.

Like the movie and the character of Rambo, thousands of Vietnam veterans suffered from PTSD. Many fell on a path to self-destruction by getting hooked on drugs and committing violent acts. Others were not able to manage the guilt, frustration, anger, and rage they felt after completing their tours of duty in Vietnam. Many veterans were diagnosed with PTSD and other psychosis.

While the movie did not show that Rambo received professional help for his struggle with PTSD, in real life, many war veterans had to receive psychological or psychiatric treatment. These veterans were made to take antidepressant prescriptions in order for them to manage their symptoms of depression, guilt, rage, and other self-destructive emotions and behavior. For many war veterans, getting through a day with some semblance of normalcy required the use of anti-anxiety medication. Their treatment was also complemented by counseling, a process that helped them vent out their anger, frustrations, and fears.

Unlike the movie, real-life soldiers are not invincible Rambos who can go through life without seeking professional help in dealing with the war-time experiences, emotional struggles, and psychological burdens.

Another installment of the Rambo movie series will be shown in 2008. It remains to be seen whether the issue of PTSD would be made a central issue in the movie since it is now a highly relevant matter. Today’s conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are producing more and more soldiers who, like Rambo, have to fight and win their own internal battles.

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