Invisible Wounds

What stress does to the soul

One Vet's Recovery

'Nam Vet Wins Peace by Facing His Own Demons

Mike Orban isn’t a journalist writing about other people’s experiences. Instead, he’s a ’Nam vet who never really recovered from losing his soul in combat. And his book, Souled Out, examines his years of pain with searing detail and unflinching honesty.

Mike writes about his year-long fight in 1971 to stay alive on the killing fields of Tay Ninh Province in the Central Highlands, with every sense on high alert to protect him from ever-present danger. He writes about how empty it made him feel when he realized there was no legitimate purpose to his mission, that he was merely killing others so they wouldn’t kill him. And he writes about the anger he felt toward the Washington bureaucrats who so needlessly sacrificed the lives of young American soldiers that they deemed expendable.

But unlike so many war books, this part is designed merely to give us a taste of what Mike went through. Most of Souled Out is about the aftermath of war and how he no longer fit in.

Mike compares himself to an abandoned house with a leaking roof, sagging floors, dirt-smeared windows and rotting furniture on the inside, but with a fresh coat of paint on the outside. All his energy for the next five years went to keeping up that façade.

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But it wasn’t until 1976 when he volunteered to go to Africa with the Peace Corps that he noticed a huge positive change. Part of it was the beauty of the jungles of PC Gabon, and part of it was living among rural natives so close to nature. But finally he realized that he simply needed to help others to make up for the harm he had inflicted in combat. It felt so good that after three years in Gabon, he joined USAID for another two years in Cameroon.

Returning to America in 1980, he began a long slide downward, working just enough to pay for food and alcohol as he scrounged off his brothers and sisters and as he did his best to avoid facing the major problems in his life.

At the end of that long road, Mike faced a grim choice: suicide or recovery. And recovery meant facing the demons that he had worked so hard to avoid. But in 2001, he committed himself to a 90-day inpatient PTSD program at the VA hospital in Tomah, Wis., to begin that process.

Writing became part of his painful examination because writing requires honesty and because once those words are on paper, they can’t be ignored. So writing became an important part of Mike’s therapy.

Souled Out is one vet’s story, but it’s designed to educate other vets and their families so they don’t feel alone with their guilt, their depression, their sorrow and their rage. Showing how one vet achieved an inner peace gives a game plan for others to be able to duplicate it. So writing became another part of Mike’s therapy.

Finally, writing a book forces the author to promote it. That means speaking before civic groups, vets’ organizations and virtually anyone else willing to listen. Again, that’s therapeutic for a vet accustomed to isolating himself.

In some respects, Souled Out is just one of many books detailing the odyssey of a warrior coming home from war. But it’s much more than that because at the end of the day, Mike summoned up the courage, energy and resolve to fix the roof and the floor, pitch out the rotting furniture, clean the place up and slap a fresh coat of paint on the walls so he can live again in that once-abandoned house.

Like every restored home, there are always new problems and fresh additions to the maintenance list. But there’s a real joy in seeing fresh life in this house … and this author.

Over the course of a year, many books roll across my desk. But Souled Out has a permanent place on my personal bookshelf. It’s available at www.mikeorbanptsd.com or at Amazon.com. You can also call 262-247-2456 for signed copies, volume sales or info on PTSD.

Eric Newhouse is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Alcohol: Cradle to Grave and Faces of Combat: PTSD and TBI.

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