Thirty Days with My Father:  Finding Peace from Wartime PTSD 

by Christal Presley


In my dreams, we have a different life.

       My father, young and fit, runs on the beach with a Frisbee. His dark hair is tousled, his skin aglow with tanning oil. Waves crash behind him. It is a hot summer afternoon with a slight breeze that keeps it from being totally oppressive. His feet leave wet prints in the sand along the water’s edge.

I stretch my legs to reach the exact places he has touched, to put my feet inside the imprints of his. With all my might, I try to catch him.

In this dream, my mother relaxes in a chaise lounge beneath an umbrella. She sips a soda and looks up over her sunglasses to check on us from time to time. She smiles and waves, then goes back to reading her magazine about flowers. It is hard to decide what color rosebushes she should plant around our mailbox. This is her biggest worry.

Overhead, seagulls hang in midair above the waves. Music from someone’s boom box plays in the background. It is a light and airy tune that makes me want to dance. I do.

In this fantasy, my mother will get in the water before long. We all will—the three of us. We will swim just beyond the waves and laugh as the warm water laps against our necks. We are not afraid.

Even when we are in over our heads, when our feet no longer reach the thick sand underwater, we swim fast and strong. We have no doubts we will get back to the shore. If one of us gets pulled out by the current, another of us will reel that person back in.

This is a safe place, a place where we have come many times. It is a treasured late summer vacation just before school starts again. Tired and happy, gritty with sand and salt, hand in hand, we walk back to our hotel room.

In my dream, we fish for crabs in the evening. We tie raw squid in our baskets and heave them over the side of the pier. I catch more than anyone else.

We throw most of the crabs back and cook the rest that same night right on the beach. My father throws them live into a big pot of boiling water set over a fire he’s made. I walk on the beach and look for seashells as the sun sets.

Back in our hotel room, I am stuffed to the brim and sleepy-eyed. My father rubs aloe on my burned shoulders. He kisses me on my forehead and tucks me into bed. My mother reads me a story and lies beside me until I can barely keep my eyes open. They laugh and whisper in the darkness, holding each other close in the bed next to mine as I drift into sleep.

In my dreams, my family is whole. In my dreams, there was no war.

20 Responses to Excerpt

  1. Beverly Horton says:

    In our many, many conversations when you were in your growing years and you shared your life with me, I listened and was always your friend and teacher. I guess you knew I was always your special friend, as you told me more the next day or week. In my class you were always unhappy and had an angry expression on your face, Jacob Musick came to me one day and said, “Christal looks like that because she does not like music.” Yet as you began taking private lessons you were so gifted and the only student I ever had that could play piano (Beethoven’s Pathatique Sonata) so complicated and intricately detailed, you would have a full blown conversation going with me as your played, never missing a beat. I have often wondered if your unhappiness toward music when your were a small child had to do with your fathers love for it. I hope your music experiences with me and your time spent playing piano “took you away” as you became emmersed in it’s beauty.
    God puts us here for a purpose, your book is a gift to everyone who reads it. We may not be a child of a war veteran but we are a product of our environment and are molded by our everyday experiences and as a child have no voice or choice. Every day of our adult lives, we struggle with what occured when we were children.
    I look forward to your book, I am so proud of you and your determination to come to terms with your Finney Road days, they were also such beautiful years. The little girl who thought one of Beverly Simmons children looked like a dog, actually the were both dogs. The special little girl who told the story of her grandmother having a baby one morning and having dinner cooked when the men came home in the afternoon, you have always been a delight. much love to you, Beverly

    • Yhonatan says:

      Dear Christal,I am a 64 year old male whose parents were suvvirors of the Holocaust. My father was in Auschwitz and my mother was in Bergen-Belsen. We lost approximately 100 family members from children younger than 10 to both set of my grandparents. I bring this gruesome information up, because I believe my parents were victims of PTSD and I of intergenerational PTSD. I have been in psychotherapy since I was 25, with 5 years off between therapists, for a total of 35 years. As I tell friends, I guess I’m not very quick!! However, I let you know this because I want you to know you are not alone. I am sure you are aware that the offspring of Holocaust suvvirors, suvvirors of natural disasters like Katrina and the recent tornadoes, those who have been brutalized by wars including both the soldiers and the population present during the war, and people like Native Americans and African Americans all share in this horrible set of symptoms. If you would like to talk just e-mail me and I’ll send you my phone number. By the way, I am trying to develop a plan to get research started on PTSD and low Cortisol levels. I’d love your help in this area too.Best of everything,Harv Mayerowicz

      • Carla says:

        PTSD & low cortisol levels? That would be fascinating, most would associate it with high cortisol levels due to stress. I have been diagnosed with PTSD by every psychologist I have seen since I was 13, my dad is a “vet”. I was also told I have GAD but since it started when I was quite young I “assimilated” and never show stress or anxiety symptoms. I was told since my “underlying” GAD is there my “normal” levels of stress are the same as what others would have during emergency situations, which is why I am exceptionally good at handling crises.

  2. Jeffrey Anderson says:

    Thank you.

  3. Omer Peak says:

    “Welcome Home” is extremely a hard wish to receive. Prior to 9-11 most Vietnam veterans never used that expression. It is hard to accept since I have never truly come home. Every pausible moment drifts me back to the jungle in my mind and the war is only a thought or closed eye away. I am ordering your book in the hope that my family will read it and possibly help me to release my silence. How do you talk about the Hell in your mind?

  4. Margee' says:

    Would love to read your story, since we lived it for 40+ years with my late husband. He was a Nam Vet, came back from Nam a very angry person. We dealt with his PTSD for 39 years all on our own, finally VA started counseling him the last year he was with us. He died of GBM-4 Brain Cancer, it ended his battles.
    Thank you.

  5. Paul S. Bailey says:

    As a totally disabled Viet Nam with PTSD. Also with Agent Orange diseases. When I read your excerpts about how your dream would be to not have your Dad with all this stuff; I have often wondered if anyone would understand if a Nam Vet with a dream that he’s okay, when he’s not, would be understood. I think this book is great and I hope that million’s read it. The plain Joe Public nowadays don’t have a clue as to what PTSD can do to a person/family/friend’s. Even our wonderful medical professional’s don’t have a clue as to what one goes through with this illness. I’ve even heard in our “wonderful” VA medical center’s; “What’s PTSD, What’s Agent Orange?” I’ve fought it since 68, it’s better than it was because I searched for real answer’s to the problem and with God’s help have been able to maintain a hermit type life style. After I destroyed my family unit. If I could only tell someone just one day of what I go through!
    I will get your book, and again I hope it will get to people who want to learn. God Bless you, and Your Dad, Mom!!!

  6. Kathleen Carico says:

    Christal, The excerpt and trailer have already moved me, and I am anticipating a rich experience in reading the book. Thank you for sharing your story with your readers. Kathleen Carico

  7. Marge McGreevy says:

    Christal… I am so excited to finally be able to read the finished product I think often of our days on the bus, working in the clinics of Viet Nam, the smell of the healing oils we used, Mei Li, stories of your father, finding footprints on the helicopter pad in the quarry…. you and your incredible integrity, persistence, love. Sending much love and best wishes for you and your family. Marge

  8. Gil Hoel says:

    I am very happy for you and think our time in Vietnam was a gift. Congratulations!
    Gil Hoel

  9. Jan says:

    My dad fought in 3 wars (WWI, Korea, Vietnam). I like to say he fought in wars away and at home: there for a military that told him they were first and family was not; and home with a wife who needed him “all there” but for whom he would not/could not be; children who never got to know him because he was so very distant in miles and then at home; and his trying desperately to find his way back into civilian life after he retired. There were 7 of us kids all together eventually. Mom raised us mostly alone while dad was ‘away’….”in the Army”. He was sent home from war with ‘shell shock’, but returned again. Us 5 oldest kids, were always scared of dad: his military way at home, his quietness, his expectation of perfection in us (and since we hardly knew him we were so afraid of his demanding demeanor); the way he said we were lucky we didn’t have to address him as ‘sir’. Mom said that at first Dad loved being a father and was a good one. But then, she said, after the fourth child was born and after he came home from Korea he was never the same man. He did some things that I pray I can forgive him for, and think of that every day. I think “did the war do this to my Dad? Would he have done those things had it not been for the experience of war?” After he retired he and mom had one more son; my little brother, who at age 41, shot and killed himself 1/2 year ago. Out of the family ‘woodwork’ came the truths of my brother’s deep depression and anger issues. Lately I have been wondering if his inability to handle the problems in his life was related to my dad being in the war and how it affects the psyche of the family unit. So I began looking up information on PTSD in children of servicemen and I found your site. I keep wondering if we as children all share the PTSD dad MUST have had. I have two other siblings who tried committing suicide too. I worry about me some days….blue moods, nil of happiness. I just can’t pinpoint it, and begin to think I am just an ungrateful person. Is it from my dad’s PTSD? My childhood was riddled with fear, anger (between my mom and dad always that I can remember) as well as happiness that came from being with my brothers and sisters (oh how I am thankful for them). I wish I knew my dad well. I couldn’t even enjoy being with him without shaking in my shoes, I was that afraid of him. When I think of all of this I could cry because I want to know the goodness in my dad. I will someday, in heaven. He passed away at the age of 65 in 1987 from cancer that the doctors said spread from an unhealed wound he received from a thorn in his foot while serving in Iran. I am looking forward to reading your book to see how you and your father worked things out.

  10. steve says:

    It helped me understand my own ptsd. I would really love to hear your fathers songs. Any plans on making them available?

  11. Serena says:

    Crystal, I’ve met other people related to Vietnam Veterans but I’ve never heard their stories. I think that made me believe mine was unique. My father who had an abusive father escaped his father by journeying to Vietnam. He came back with demons from the war and from his childhood. Double Jeopardy. My father used music to calm his nerves and escape the flashbacks. Something I have done since I was a young girl. I grew up in a home of domestic violence, drugs, and alcohol. A disastrous mixture. My father used me as a sounding board. As a young girl he would describe the blood and gore to me and explain how he could end it all by ‘eating his gun’. Some nights when things became overwhelming for him he would bring my sister and I out to the water and make us walk in the water with our arms held high in the air as if we were holding our weapons and re-enact his flashbacks. He wanted someone to understand what he had gone through but he had lost the insight to not share this with his young children. Since those days over twenty years ago, I have been diagnosed with PTSD as he was and have become a psychiatric nurse. I understand what the war and PTSD have done to my dad and what his family succumbed to due to his past. But it will never make finding my way home any easier. Thank you for sharing your story and ending the silence for your family and others.

    • Carrie Anne Balcer says:

      Reading the responses on this site has my eyes over running with tears. I am a 32 year old youngest daughter of a Vietnam Vet. I was also a sounding board for my father. Our family has been ripped apart numerous times by his violent and emotional outbursts. The strength of my mother kept us at least partly together. Many years have gone by when one or multiple siblings were not talking to each other or our parents. There has been residual anger towards my mother for keeping us in a bad situation. All of the children have anger and social issues.Currently both of my brothers are in the military and one of my sisters is not on speaking terms with any one in the family and the other is on her third marriage. I have a problem with alcohol. Like Serena my father also came from an abusive and alcoholic family so the double whammy! I am currently in a Masters program for psychology and would like to continue researching this explosive and deeply emotional topic. In recent years there has been an outpouring of clinical resources for veterans and their spouses, but it seems as if the children that experienced the flashbacks, mood swings, anxiety and nightmares are still being forgotten about. I cannot wait to read this book. I hope to continue pushing this topic into the public’s face. Children of parents with PTSD cannot be forgotten about.

  12. Mike Lewis says:

    Hi Crystal- I am now in Hue, Vietnam. I took your book with me to specifically read while I am here in Vietnam. I came here to see what all I missed during the war. I was drafteed the last year of the draft in 1971 and I knew ow bad the war was and I hated it. I went awol twice rather than come here. I never hated the soldiers for going, I felt very sad for them and knew I couldn’t take it if I went. I have nothing but the utmost respect for your father Delmer Presley and for you

  13. Vivienne says:

    It is courageous of you to put all the pain and complexity of your life with your family into print.Reading some of the public responses on your site is familiar, and even devastating.There must be far more intergenerational PTSD than is commonly recognized in Australia.My parents both grew up during WW2, and my father served in Indonesia.There was a lot of pain, misunderstanding, and broken dreams for my family.This has carried into the adult lives of us children.My youngest brother suicided at just 41 in August 2011.I still see the beauty in life, but struggle to control my own depression.Tonight on Australian Story, ABC tv, War Artist Ben Quilty spoke out about the lack of support and recognition for those who fight in our name, then go home broken, to broken relationships.I wish you all the best for your book, and have the greatest respect for you and others such as Ben Quilty. Keep writing.

  14. Stonermeister says:

    Reading the posts here has awakened memories. While walking to school one morning, I remember asking my “boyfriend,” Jimmy Denton how his father was. We were in grammar school and learned that Jimmy’s father was MIA. The term MIA didn’t register. As I grew older, friend of mine were drafted and never returned. My father-in-law volunteered for three tours in Vietnam to minister to the boys. He suffered the effects of Agent Orange for the rest of his life. To this day, talk of the Vietnam war makes me angry. Over 56.000 men and women died – and for what? The “Domino Effect” that didn’t happen?? When Jimmy’s father stepped from the plane as the longest held prisoner, kissed the ground, and said “God bless, America,” I burst into tears.

  15. Caroline Harry says:

    Depression and PTSD are terrible prices to pay for supporting your country. There is however a little known treatment that has been incredibly successful for sufferers. I am including this info below as I am not sure how else to reach

    There is an amazing treatment available for PTSD (and many other problems) called NeurOptimal neurofeedback. It comes out of Canada (www.zengar.com) and is available here in Australia. I am a trainer with the system in Perth but the best person to talk with in Australia is John Thompson who really brought the system to Australia. It is definitely worth looking into as it is a very easy methodology that doesn’t require revisiting the history of the problem (ie no need for talking therapy). John has used it with great success with Bali bomb victims and people with brain trauma. You can contact him on john@neurotribe.com and can explore it on http://www.neurotribe.com & http://www.zengar.com and there is a radio interview here: http://radio.rumormillnews.com/podcast/2011/08/16/samanthadiavatis/

    It is not yet well known but is slowly being shared. Change and healing usually occurs within 10-20 half hour sessions – so it really needs to be explored. If you are in Perth – call me and come and experience it as my guest.

    Caroline Harry

  16. Vivienne says:

    Just a few days ago I saw ‘The Train Man’, a movie with Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. It recounted the story of an engineer, Lomax, an English soldier in WW2, incarcerated in Singapore, and forced into slave labour on the railways with his fellow soldiers.It also recounted his life and relationship with Patti Lomax, his wife. She had the great courage to try to break through her husband’s war time experiences, which lead to a reconciliation with his torturer.A harrowing film to watch- the cinema was packed to capacity, and men and women alike were sobbing during the film. Aside from heartfelt, and sensitive performances from the actors,(and tough as it was to watch), it is another step towards open discussion of the result of war time experiences.Notably, the movie went so far as to consider the experiences of the tormentors as well as the survivors and their families.
    More main stream open recognition of PTSD is a welcome development in the understanding of it for the public.

    Vivienne (again).

  17. broken hearts ! says:

    PTSD took my husband, my family, and I now live a life of constant pain and suffering. My family doesn’t understand why he took his own life, and even though there is so much to read , it doesn’t cover how to understand or even accept what he did, nor what happen to us. they is a constant covering up of what happen to him, and now no one can heal or ever come close to peace.

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