For Lou Conter, the psychology of war is simple: It’s kill or be killed.
The 95-year-old Pearl Harbor veteran remembers escaping the USS Arizona at age 20, after a Japanese bomb burned the ship to pieces. He remembers his patrol bomber being shot down, then hiding in the jungle with no choice but to survive. And he remembers the three weeks it took to get home to San Diego, and reflecting on everything he had seen.
Seventy-five years after Pearl Harbor, Conter, who now lives in Alta Sierra, California, credits those three weeks with preventing post-traumatic stress disorder and the intense military training he endured with helping to keep him alive.
“There was no turning around, no getting off (of duty) in six months or anything else unless you were in a coffin,” Conter said. “There are men today, calling their wives . . . then get(ting) off the phone to go cut someone’s throat. . . . I can’t imagine.”
Today, soldiers can more easily talk to their families while overseas or be back home within hours of stepping off the battleground, Conter said. After six months of deployment, soldiers are eligible for leave, according to the U.S. Army website. But at the end of the day, “war is war,” he said, and all conflicts boil down to the same thing: a fight for survival.
Even beyond the battlefield, service members from all time periods share a common notion of “the warrior identity” and their experiences before and after they served, added Craig Bryan, a clinical psychologist who’s the executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah.
“Feelings of honor, duty, sacrifice, self-reliance, toughness . . . what is considered to be the ideal warrior, is consistent,” said Bryan, who was deployed to Iraq in 2009 and served as a psychologist in an Air Force hospital. He added that symptoms of PTSD have “probably been around since there’s been human war and conflict, and (are) something that’s central to the profession.”
Today’s service members should get training and downtime to prevent injuries like PTSD, Conter said. After World War I, PTSD symptoms were known as “shell shock,” named for soldiers’ reactions to the trauma of battle. In World War II, this diagnosis was relabeled “battle fatigue” or combat stress reaction, according to the National Center for PTSD.
Despite the trauma he faced, Conter wanted to ensure that other soldiers preparing for combat in Korea and Vietnam would also survive. In February 1954, he became a lieutenant commander and created training camps in locations such as Florida, Wyoming and California, where he taught pilots and crewmen survival, evasion, resistance and escape skills like how to stay alive in a prison camp.
He also returned to Pearl Harbor in 1965 to establish training bases and write materials for soldiers going to Vietnam, according to The Arizona Republic.
“The mothers were thinking we were hurting their men,” Conter said. “We weren’t hurting them. But they thought they were, because they’d come in and lose 10, 15, 20 pounds in 20 days, and so we had people from Washington question our ability.”
Conter recalled when Jim Stockdale, who would later become a vice admiral for the Navy, went through one of his training camps. Stockdale later received the Medal of Honor for his service in the Vietnam War, during which he was a prisoner of war for more than seven years.
“When he came back to the U.S., he called me and said, ‘I want to call you, Lou, and thank you for the tough job that you put in those prison camps,’ ” Conter said. “He told me, ‘Without that tough school, I would have never survived seven years in prison camp in Vietnam.’ ”
Today’s military service members are faced with intense training under real-life scenarios to prepare for deployment, Bryan said, but at some point, too long a training period without enough of a break isn’t good for troops’ mental health. It isn’t necessarily the number of deployments that show in a rise in PTSD, but rather the amount of time between them, or the dwell-to-deploy ratio, he added.
“It’s (whether) you (had) enough time between deployments to chill, calm down (and) focus on yourself and your family and your health, and that absolutely was not happening from your years in the military,” Bryan said. “It ends up draining the individual psychologically. . . . The training was actually interfering with the ability to decompress and reintegrate.”
Another factor in causing PTSD is the culture shock that veterans face when reintegrating into society, especially without many opportunities to decompress beforehand, Bryan said, as well as a lack of understanding among civilians.
“Very, very few citizens join the military, and a shrinking proportion of American citizens know someone personally who has served,” Bryan said. “We slap our yellow ribbon magnets on our cars and say, ‘Thank you for your service,’ but society doesn’t actually understand what it means, and as a result doesn’t fully appreciate.”
In May 2015, Conter found a military connection within his family tree. Officials from Ancestry – a website that houses genealogical and historical records – helped him discover that his fourth great-grandfather, Thomas Bliss, had been a soldier in the Revolutionary War and fought in its very first battle in Lexington.
Ancestry approached Conter and 12 other Pearl Harbor veterans, and it partnered with the military website Fold3 to publish these veterans’ stories, photos and other records to honor their service in its 75th anniversary section. Conter hadn’t known much about his ancestry before but enjoyed learning more about his descent, he said.
“It’s exciting, interesting and compelling, and it’s important to share and remember” these stories, said Lisa Elzy, an Ancestry historian who worked on the project. “These stories are interwoven throughout time.”
The Ancestry projects pay tribute to some of Pearl Harbor’s survivors for their heroism, but as Conter joins three other USS Arizona survivors in Hawaii for the 75th anniversary commemoration Dec. 7, he said the true heroes were those who had lost their lives in the attack.
“We went home, got married, had kids and grandkids,” he said, “and I’m thankful for that.”
Jessica Campisi: 202-383-6055, @jessiecampisi