‘A series of hysterical fugues’

Sam Venditta, WWII

Sam Venditta of the Army coast artillery, World War II


A fascinating story in the September issue of Smithsonian magazine looks at the phenomenon of “shell shock” as it emerged in the First World War. Were the afflicted soldiers brain-damaged by blast force, a physical injury, or emotionally traumatized by the horrors of mechanized war? “Unhappily, the single term ‘shell shock’ encompassed both conditions,” writes Caroline Alexander in her article, “The Shock of War.” http://hy.pr/server/hypr/?action=light&l=1gc67 

The diagnosis remains controversial and reminds me of the complex case involving one of my uncles, a soldier during World War II. 

In the mid-1990s, I got Sam Venditta’s inch-thick Army medical records from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Sam was a technician fifth grade with the 198th Coast Artillery Regiment (Antiaircraft). He began having “episodes of unconsciousness” in August 1942 when he was 23 and stationed on the Polynesian island of Bora Bora, south of Hawaii. Bora Bora was part of a chain of island bases where U.S. ships could anchor and refuel while sailing the 8,000 miles from California to Australia. 

Sam told doctors he worked up to 18 hours a day on a demolition squad, blasting coral to clear the way for ships to dock. “[A] witness gave story of patient shouting during sleep with foaming at the mouth and convulsive seizures,” one entry says. After Sam had “a series of hysterical fugues,” doctors questioned him and his family and concluded he’d had epilepsy before he entered the service, and that the blasting on Bora Bora had aggravated his condition. He was certified disabled, discharged and sent home in 1943. 

Exams done for the VA so Sam could get benefit payments found troubling signs. “[H]e is tense, anxious about himself, unable to control the trembling in his arms and legs…He has insomnia and terrifying nightmares … severe attacks of headache … He is worried over his nervous state and fears he never will get well.” 

One night in May 1950, Sam saw the Philadelphia Athletics play the Cleveland Indians at Philly’s Shibe Park. Back home in Malvern, as he lay in bed with his wife, he cried out, gripped a pillow and died. He was 31 and had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. 

Uncle Sam’s terrible misfortune was one example of what war can do to the brain. 

Sixty years later, we have reason to be concerned as our government continues to send men and women into harm’s way overseas. In her article, Alexander cites a Rand Corp. study that found 19 percent of U.S. troops sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, about 380,000, may have sustained brain injuries from explosions.

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