Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak again with a combat vet I have come to know, care about, and respect. He was heavily involved in the first wave of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and he was profoundly affected by it, not only by the horrors he witnessed, but also by some of the ways of the military, where, unlike Don Corleone in The Godfather, it’s always personal and just business. In our discussion, he reminded me of two “truths” I often need to remind combat vets of, ones that I frequently discuss in person and periodically discuss in the blog.
First, this man needed to be reminded how strong he was and is. As a combat veteran struggling with Posttraumatic Stress Injury, he, like most of his fellow veterans, often finds himself feeling confused, unsure of himself, and utterly weak. He’s a guy, and he’s a miltary guy, i.e., a traditional guy with those traditional male hang-ups like, you know, having it all under control 24/7, never sweating, always sporting a rakish smile, with a devil-may-care wink, the usual. Therefore if any of the above qualities is not present in spades at all times, he’s a loser, plain and simple.
What this combat veteran often fails to recall is that the same bravery, the same chutzpah, the same determination to get the job done, no matter, still resides in him now, just as much as it did when he wore a uniform, barreling down those Iraqi roads, wanting to do what’s right, although never quite sure what “right” was at any given moment.
Combat veterans need to understand something: not everybody makes it through traumatic experiences. I’m not talking suicide here, although that risk of course remains high (see the DoD’s recently published data). Some people did not enter their trauma with anything close to the inner drive, the focus that combat veterans absolutely must have if they are to hope to stay alive. Consequently, such individuals leave their trauma almost decimated beyond recognition, barely functioning, if at all, sometimes psychotic, sometimes so dissociative they cannot even begin to experience anything that for a moment could be labeled coherence.
I fully understand that many combat veterans feel that way, but feeling that way does not mean that they are that way. Yes, most feel that their self was shattered somewhere in the middle of the desert, in ungodly heat, surrounded by the epitome of ungodliness. Yes, some even imagine that the man or woman who had had that drive, that spirit perished somewhere outside of Tikrit or Kandahar.
But that strength, that drive is still there, and in the deepest recesses of their heart, they do still feel it. They just fear that it will get them nowhere, that it’s a piece of their shattered soul that they’d have best left languishing in a Middle Eastern alley somewhere.
That’s where we, as civilians, need to come in.
For the second matter the combat veteran and I discussed was what happens when that strength, that drive does not have adequate outlet, when it demands to be experienced even if the veteran is scrambling like the dickens to tell himself or herself that it is no longer there. The physics of the matter is quite simple, really: if strength, drive is thwarted in its attempt to find a place in the world out there, it will simply double bac k on itself and search for a place in the world in here, inside the veteran himself or herself. The thing about strength, about drive, you see? It zooms forward. It attacks. In the real world, that saves lives and, yes, destroys them. In the inner world, however? It only destroys. One life. The veteran’s.
I’ll say it straight out: I am appalled at how we civilians are doing essentially nada to find honor-worthy, respect-worthy outlets for the energies and hopes of our combat veterans. As I’ve more than ranted in the past, some of us even seem to have the crazy notion in our noggins that these young men and women who were so driven, who were so willing to risk their lives to do what they thought was right (whether you, reader, agree that it was right or not)–they actually want to collect disability just to coast through the remaining, what, sixty or so years of their lives? Yes, record numbers are seeking disability from the VA. But don’t you ever for a moment believe that more than one per cent of them are seeking a handout. (And if you believe the number’s higher, you need to reconsider working with combat veterans, for that belief says more about your world view than it does about combat veterans’ reality, end of story.)
Depression is a real physical illness, one with real physical consequences and, thankfully, real possibilities for physical relief through both psychological and pharmacologic methods. However, we cannot expect combat veterans to sit around happy as clams when every day they are feeling that the strength, the drive that had once so defined them, had once made them feel so proud to be alive, is now nothing more than a a recipe for self-immolation, a cruel hoax perpetrated by Nature and the civilian society that is so unwilling to accept that Nature has not given all its human subjects the innate ability to sit in front of a computer all day and type memos.
I often want to ask my civilian colleagues, friends: do you realize that these young men and women, who volunteered their lives in a time of conflict, actually weren’t looking for a good time to shoot me some biiiiig guns and drive around in biiiiiig, hot-shot armored cars? Do you realize that they were looking for something, someone to give them meaning in their lives? Do you realize that they did recognize that not all Muslims are enemy combatants, that they saw men just trying to eke out a living, women who were afraid to speak their hearts needs, let alone their greatest fears, children who just wanted to get a few extra Hershey bars for my two brothers and my sister? Do you think that now that they’re back home in this wonderful place we call Western society, they’re hoping to get a round of golf in every morning before they catch the latest edition of The View? (All right, Sean Hannity, I know, I know . . .)
And we wonder why they’re depressed and can’t think of a good reason to get out of bed in the morning, especially since they’ve already had the pleasure of driving down the streets of Fallujah over and over again in their sweet dreams of the night?
These men and women don’t only need jobs. They need a way–a socially-recognized way–of experiencing their intensity and drive and energy as a source of pride, not as a source for shame-filled apologies. Naturally, I have no thoughts absolutely whatsoever that most of the West is going to take this call anywhere as seriously as they should. But I certainly don’t have to make my civilian colleagues and friends feel good about that.
I have no plans to.
I’ll be more than glad to supply a reference. You know how to get in touch with me.