Merry Christmas, Reality Notwithstanding (Encore)

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

 

Today, I continue to ask you to join me as I remember Three Musketeers: one whom I never met, one whom I’ll not meet again, one who still lives his life in the best memories of both.

Anniversaries are not the only times to remember. So are Holidays. So it was three years ago, in December.

From December 25, 2012 comes our next tale, Merry Christmas, Reality Nothwithstanding.

I’d say they came as a matched set, but since I knew one of them a year before the other, that’s not quite true.

That, of course, doesn’t mean that the second one was not quite aware of me that whole time.

I’ve already spoken of the first one before, in No Trouble At All. He and I have struggled back and forth over what to do, when to do it, how to do it. He’s always respectful, quite engaging, the whole gamut from jocular to irritable (with an apology therefor immediately afterwards, I might add).

He comes from a professional family, several members of which are not, shall we say, reticent to express views that he’s not too thrilled to hear, his younger brother in particular. They’re an intriguing pair, these brothers: both quite physically striking in appearance, kinetic-energy extroverts par excellence. When they sit in the room together, they jockey for position as to who is going to make the next comment about whom–and have no fear, the younger one is not about to be the loser any more than fifty per cent of the time. One might be tempted to call each of them a “pretty boy”–but believe you me, you’d better not do so to their faces, and you’d better not count on the usual associations to that term if you were to get on their wrong sides.

Recently, though, even with all the Sturm und Drang in essentially every area of his life, my patient has primarily been grieving the loss of a deeply-loved girlfriend. As a man who has in all areas of his life been big in all the meanings possible in that italicized word, he has not given up this big pattern in his grief over love lost. He can only speak of her with me briefly before he visibly begins to shake, clutch his gut, and shed more than a few tears.

He has come to acknowledge the past, that what’s done is done, that there is nothing more he can do. Still…

My patient had always told me about his best friend, his battle buddy “who’s not doing much better than I am, Doc. I wish he’d come see you, but he can’t stand the VA.”

About two months ago, his friend finally did come.

_______________________________________

Borrowing from this coming year’s release of a new film version of The Great Gatsby, if my first patient is Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby, my second is Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway. Quite handsome himself, he is—though in that Maguire kind of way that made Peter Parker so alluring to Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson.

When I walked out to meet him that first time, he was sitting quietly in his chair in the waiting room, eyes downcast, sporting a full beard that was neatly trimmed, dressed as if ready to head out for deer hunting just as soon as we were done—yet alone, most likely, with mixed feelings as to whether he would really want to shoot one of God’s creatures or not.

He looked up at me with a mixture of apprehension and deep sadness. I soon found out why.

His experiences at VA’s have not been particularly positive. He is from the South, where he grew up in a small, working-class family that has endured more than its fair share of tragedy, leaving him now the only living child of his parents. He moved up here to Indianapolis to live near my patient, and here he met a female friend of my patient (not the patient’s ex-girlfriend) who has become “my love, my rock, my everything.” They are planning on getting married as soon as they can afford to, and he is deeply happy.

About that.

Yet he too has struggled with intense symptoms of combat trauma/PTSD. He had once even come close to ending his life. He remembers his time in a VA hospital after that episode as one spent trying to avoid the angry, demented old veterans in wheelchairs, as well as the overtly psychotic, middle-aged ones who would suddenly start screaming for no apparent reason.

Then, in his recounting his most recent encounters with VA treaters, he told me that he was made to feel like a “drug abuser” and a “self-centered jerk, like someone unwilling to take responsibility for his life.”

He has been less-than-impressed, in other words, with the Veterans Health Administration.

As he spoke, I quickly glanced at some of the notes written from various providers from different VA’s. I have to say: it’s quite amazing what people will write down on a computer, leaving permanent, electronic traces, you know, for others to find no matter where, no matter when.

Consequently—and sadly—I have no trouble believing my patient on this one.

We talked for a while, about his symptoms, his treatment history, his relationship with my other patient. Then he just fell silent, head down.

“Is there something else?” I asked him, a bit taken aback by the sudden change.

Slowly he raised his head to look at me. He saw that I saw the tear streaming down his cheek.

“What’s the matter?” I whispered.

He swallowed and then quietly said, “I’m sorry, Doc. I’m a little distracted, I guess. You see, I got a phone call while I was driving down here. It was my mother. They found my father dead today.”

To be fair, it is not unusual for patients to talk for extended periods of time before finally, usually at the end of the hour, they muster the courage to tell me what has been weighing most heavily on their hearts.

Still, this was one for the books, I’ll grant you.

The details are of secondary importance here, except to say that his father’s death had been one more tragic chapter of a painful family tale. What was so strikingly clear, however, was how my patient had clearly entertained no thought whatsoever that I would take much interest in the fact of his father’s death or even consider trying to help him find a way to make it safely back to his home state, multiple hours away by car.

With tears now streaming down his face, he said to me quite calmly—and, I might add, without a hint of malice—“I just never thought that VA doctors would care that much to hear about something like my father dying.”

I’d like to say that I was stunned, horrified that a combat veteran could feel that way. I’d read those previous notes, however.

Fast forward two weeks, after he’d made it down there, made it through the funeral at which he’d played guitar with his father’s best friend because, when both he and his father had had one beer too many, his father had told him time and again that he had wanted the two of them to sing this one particular song at his funeral.

Should that day ever come.

I had to bring it up, of course, his guilt over his not being there for his father in his father’s time of need. There are ways, after all, to do that which are not too invasive. He didn’t seem to mind.

“He was always there for me, rooting for me, even when I did stupid things,” he said, now having no embarrassment over the tears, trickling as they were. “I miss him so much. I wish I could have been there for him. He knew he was dying. I just can’t believe I can’t pick up the phone and call him.”

We talked some more. He smiled through his tears, cried through his smiles. It does appear that he will one day come to acknowledge the past, that what’s done is done, that there is nothing more he can do. Still…

It is at moments such as these that I have to make the “therapist’s decision.” Links from the past to the present always present themselves, especially with combat veterans, yet brilliant interpretations can often be nothing more than cheap psycho-pyrotechnics if one is not careful, a therapist’s (i.e., my) momentary narcissistic gratification (“Look, supervisor-in-my-head, no hands!”) at the expense of a soul suffering in front of one.

Yet somehow, for both of these men, on different days, in different contexts, it felt right to say it, to one man grieving a lost love over which he had no control, to another grieving a lost father over whose suffering he had no control.

“It’s like TJ, you know. You couldn’t help him either. And he was everything to you.”

For you see, the Dynamic Duo had once been The Three Musketeers. Porthos and Athos had once had an Aramis.

Whenever my first patient of the two—the rakish Porthos, if you will—had spoken of TJ, he’d only been able to choke out a few words before telling me that he could say no more. I never could learn from him their buddy’s full name, simply because he could never bring himself to speak it without beginning quietly to sob.

My second patient, though—the fatherly Athos—had been able to speak more, tell me TJ’s full name, tell me about his large family, his Aramis-like youthfulness, his faithfulness to the religious faith of his family, his willingness to say whatever, to crack them both up over and over and over again.

He had been able describe his death in front of both of them, taking bullets that should have been either of theirs to absorb.

Both men realize that they will one day have to acknowledge the past, that what’s done is done, that there is nothing more either of them could have done. Still…

_______________________________________________________

So what does any of this have to do with Christmas?

At one point during our second conversation, the second veteran’s (Athos) phone began to ring. At the sound of the melodic ring tone, he smiled.

“That’s Porthos right there,” he said as he allowed the call to go to voice mail.

“What’s that song?” I asked him.

“Oh,” he replied with a smile both sad and relieved, “that’s Kenny Chesney’s song, “Back Where I Come From.”  Porthos and I used to sing it all the time when we were over there. It’s kind of how we kept each other going, you know? We’d sing about where we came from, where we hoped we could go back to. TJ died just days after we arrived in the theater. That’s how we coped.”

Chesney is an American country-western singer, and the song has become a semi-trademark of his. The words are as follows:

In the town where I was raised 
The clock ticks and the cattle graze 
Time passed with Amazing Grace 
Back where I come from

Now you can lie on a riverbank 
Paint your name on a water tank 
Or miscount all the beers you drank 
Back where I come from

Back where I come from 
Where I’ll be when it’s said and done 
I’m proud as anyone 
Back where I come from

We learned in Sunday school 
Who made the sun shine through 
I know who made the moonshine, too 
Back where I come from

Blue eyes on a Saturday night 
Tan legs in the broad day light 
TV’s, they were black and white 
Back where I come from

. . .

Some say it’s a backward place 
Narrow minds on a narrow way 
I make it a point to say 
That that’s where I come from

That’s where I come from 
Where I’ll be when it’s said and done 
I’m proud as anyone 
That’s where I come from

_________________________________________________________

Where we “come from” always remains a place to which to return whenever we find ourselves lost in life. For many combat veterans, thankfully, where one “came from” can be synonymous with a family who will always be there, even when they cannot be. Others are not that fortunate, yet still can find a “family” in the brothers and sisters who had once had their backs, with whom they had been, wherever they had been, when all indeed could have been said and done, with a single gunshot, a single IED.

Porthos returned to a family with whom he has cried, laughed, struggled. He returned to a younger brother who can outflank his every protestation, yet who can then quietly shed his own tears as he listens to his big brother’s overwhelming grief.

Athos returned to a family with whom he has cried, laughed, struggled. He made his father proud. Now he has laid the man to rest with overwhelming grief and a song.

Both men still fall silent at the memory of the funny kid who lost his opportunity to return to his own loud, ethnic family so that they could in fact return to theirs.

Combat veterans, like parents of children in Connecticut or spouses of firefighters in New York, know well how oxymoronic the words Merry and Christmas often seem together. Merry? You serious?

Yet if Holidays provide us memories of stockings overturned in a frenzy next to an artificial tree, or memories of Seder meals and who’s going to find the matzoh this year, or memories of the whole clan getting together on Memorial Day weekend to endure one more round of Uncle Harry’s high school football stories—or even memories of sitting in a godforsaken desert with once-total strangers who now mean the world to you, singing “Silent Night,” even if slightly off-key—they often, thankfully, also  remind many of us of one more thing:  we come from somewhere.

Relationships, Time, Life, all once mattered.

________________________________________

For my children, Christmas Eve will always bring memories of candlelight services at the only church they have ever known, at the end of which each person, with his or her own personal candle, files out into our large atrium, singing quite on-key, in four-part harmony, all verses of “Silent Night,” until finally all are present within the hall, illuminated by only a hundred or so candles, everyone humming a capella one more time the song that many Mennonites can still sing one verse of which in German.

It will then bring memories of our coming home to eat shrimp cocktail with cheese and crackers, after which they open up one present, only one, which is always pajamas, into which they change and then take turns hanging up the twelve tree bulbs which narrate Clement Clark Moore’s The Night Before Christmas.

One day they will have their own families, and it is from these memories that they will create their own, whether or not their mother and I will ever be able to join them.

I acknowledge that one day, Reality may make it such that we may have to cherish such memories without them. On such a day, I will be devastated. I will not be merry.  But I will have a place in my heart where I “come from.”

For that reason, as I blew out my candle in that atrium, I remembered TJ.

Perhaps that’s all that “Merry Christmas” is, especially for combat veterans: a reminder that there once was a place where they “came from,” even if such a place was miles from wherever they actually came from. Maybe it’s simply a reminder that Life can have meaning, a meaning which bring both smile and tear, a meaning which once was, and–perhaps–a meaning which, though never the same, can in some other form be again.

Perhaps.  It’s a lot to ask of two words. But it’s a start.

To the Porthos and his family, Merry Christmas. To Athos, his girlfriend, and his mother, Merry Christmas. To the family of Aramis, Merry Christmas.

To my wife, my children, my family, my friends and colleagues, to combat veterans everywhere and those whom they love . . .

Merry Christmas.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

No Trouble at All (Encore)

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

 

Good to be back with you all.

A date is approaching, next month actually. Seasons move forward through the years, yet certain ones halt us, if only temporarily, reminding us again of what once was, of who was once.

It has almost been three years since I stood with my hand upon a young combat vet’s coffin. To this day, I cannot watch a Harry Potter movie without, at some point, feeling his presence. These next few days, I ask your leave to remember him again with you as well, from prologue to epilogue, with encores of blog posts from March 2012 through October 2013.

As a psychiatrist, I often come upon spots in my heart where certain patients have trod, some stealthily, some ploddingly. This one young former US Army soldier did both and more, through passageway after passageway, still now in memory leading me back to spots where we laughed together, even shed a tear together, always with that smile on his face that made me roll my eyes and smile as well.

There were once, you see, Three Musketeers: Porthos, Athos, and Aramis, united not in Dumas’s France this time, but in the United States Army, in a hot land far from home.

Two have since fallen. One is making the life he can. Here are the times we traveled together, in body and in spirit.

From March 11, 2012 comes the prologue, No Trouble at All.

Today I was in contact again with one of the veterans I work with, one who has struggled almost incessantly since coming home.  He’s a dashing rake, by anybody’s measure.  He comes from a well-educated family.  He’s smart.  He’s intense.  He was once a bit of a bad-boy, but he’s working now to pull his life together, to find love, to find a place back in his family, back in this world.

In a matter of days after landing in the Middle East, this man’s dearest friend—his brother to the core—was dead.  Others in his unit soon followed.  He wakes up in the night screaming, sweating, panicked.  Not a day goes by that he doesn’t think of his friend, often-—usually-—with tears.  To this day, when he promises me something important, he does so on that man’s memory and on his grave.

He’s been trying to get back to school.  It’s been anything but a cakewalk, to say the least, though that says absolutely zero about his talents and his potential, both of which are quite abundant.  He endures the lectures that many of us remember in those 100-level courses, trying to stay focused, trying not to wonder what these kids around him are thinking about him, kids who are just about the age he was when he walked off that plane.

When he sent his buddy’s body back home.

He’s trying.  He’s trying his darndest.

It’s the courses with the papers, though.  They’re the ones that get him.  Too much time to sit in front of a computer.  And remember.

He tries not to overuse his medications.  He’s put his family in charge of them.  Yet there are the times that he wakes at night and can’t stop shaking, can barely move, barely swallow.  He knows a pill won’t save him.  But, God:  it’s so awful.  A war raging, smack dab in the middle of his bedroom.  In the middle of his soul.

He always apologizes when he contacts me.  He’s so ashamed to do so.  But he gets so desperate.  And he hopes against hope that I won’t hold the contact against him, one more time, another, another.

Honestly, they’re indeed no trouble at all.  He knows the drill:  if I can get back with him, I will.  If I don’t right away, he knows that I’m with family or with other patients.  He knows I’ll get back to him eventually, even if it’s just a “hang in there.”  He knows he’ll have his time later that week to come see me, to try somehow to find that devilish smile of his one more time, to remember when it was all easier, to borrow as hope what is my certainty:  that he will find a better day.  One day.  Not today.  Most likely not soon.  But one day.

I can say that because he’s a warrior’s warrior, through and through.  Behind that Abercrombie facade (albeit a brunette one), there’s a force of nature.  He was a handful as a kid.  He’s a handful now.  He won’t give up.  Never did.  Never will.

All I can say is:  good for him.

We took care of today’s matters in short order.  He thanked me quite genuinely.  “I’m sorry,” he said again, “to mess up your weekend.”  I heard the break in his voice, quick, but definitely there.

“No trouble at all,” was my reply.  I had a few minutes on the way to the Starbucks, after all.  I have a few minutes now on the porch, absorbing this quite pastoral Sunday afternoon for mid-March in Indiana.

What else do we have, really, except time, a future.

He doubts he has a future, of course.  My job—our job, as professionals—is to disabuse him and those like him of that notion one day at a time.  No guarantees of any particular outcome.  Just life, with its joys, its challenges, its months off, its back-to-works.

We’ll see each other tomorrow.

And so the story went on.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

The Slide Show (Encore)

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

 

From January 2012 through August 2013, I blogged regularly about my experiences working with Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) combat vets at the Richard L. Roudebush Veterans Administration Medical Center in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. Given the anonymity of the large setting, I was able to write, with the full permission of all the veterans profiled, openly about their experiences and about their impact on my experiences.

Since then I have worked in settings that are not as anonymous, and therefore I have not been able, at least on a regular basis, to write similar pieces. So given that it’s now been at least two years since many of those essays were written, periodically I will plan on sharing them with you.

I plan to label them “encore” pieces, and they will be longer than the usual daily musings, so you’ll know them when you see them. I will present them, for the most part, unchanged from the originals. Some of these veterans I still keep in touch with periodically. Others, I merely remember.

But all I remember with great respect and, I’ll say it, with great fondness.  Today’s piece speaks well of what it was like to watch these young vets suffer, grow, falter, pick up and try again, especially as an older man the age of their parents, watching what easily could have been, in an alternative life, my very own child.

Today, it is “The Slide Show,” originally posted on 06 April 2012.

Truth be told, he and I never should have met in the first place.

Working at a VA associated with a major university has its perks, the most glorious being–residents!  Believe you me:  I am more than thankful to have the opportunity to work with young psychiatrists-in-training, not only because of their energy, their intelligence, their curiosity–but also, yes, I admit it, because of their being on-call in the hospital every night.  We staff psychiatrists have it nice as a result, I do grant you.  Even though we’re on call for a week at a time, four to five times a year, it’s all by beeper.  The men and women slogging it out in the trenches at 2AM are half my age.  They might beep me at 3AM to discuss a case, but, hey:  I fall back asleep easily.  Hallelujah.  For residents and for sleep.

In the latter part of 2010, however, it was not always so.  For reasons too complicated to explain, the staff psychiatrists had to serve as the first-call person on the weekends.  Poor us, I know.  Still, another glorious perk of Med Center VA life?  Having  very competent social workers working through the night in our emergency department, triaging and making life livable for all.  Sweet.  Plus, since we are able to access our VA computer accounts via a secure website, we doctors were able to manage all other matters that fall from the quiet of our homes.  Sweet x 2.

I did, though, cover one particularly memorable weekend:  ten admisions to our inpatient service in the span of two days, with two discharges.  None of the admissions was easy.  None of the discharges was.  By late Sunday evening, both I and the very competent, always-faithful nursing staff had just about had enough, thank you.

It was about 9:30 that evening when the ER social worker called me.

She had interviewed a young man who was struggling with acute drug intoxication issues (among other quite complicated matters, it should be added).  This social worker is quite savvy, yet she was struggling to know what to recommend for the man.  Given his impulsivity, she was quite concerned for his safety.  Still, he had “a way” about him, she told me, that made her wonder whether it might not indeed be OK to release him that night to his family, with outpatient care to be scheduled within a day or so.  I remember her words well, listening to them as I was while sitting in an easy chair in our family’s spare bedroom:  “It’s times like these that I miss having the residents here.  Sometimes that was all it took:  having an MD sit with the patient and convince the guy face-to-face that he’d be better off if he’d just come into the hospital for a while and get himself settled down.”

She was right.  I knew that.  I too was not pleased with the thought of this guy’s just going home in the condition he was in.  I knew I was on solid ground to ask the social worker to contact hospital security and then tell the patient that he was going to have to stay, whether he wanted to or not.  I knew that our VA police, our ER staff, and our inpatient staff were all quite competent enough to make that happen with only the minimal Sturm und Drang.  Nevertheless, I also knew:  Sturm and Drang there would be.  The kid was “strong and wiry,” according to the worker, and “he wouldn’t go down without quite the fight.”   “Code Orange” is what we call such a melee in our neck of the woods.  No good comes from such high drama, for anybody, certainly not at 10PM on a Sunday night and certainly not with an already overworked nursing staff (two admitted patients were already on one-to-one nursing monitoring).  I knew that.

Still, I’ve got the initials behind my name.  All I had to do was to say the word, hang up, and go back to reading my Kindle.  The inpatient doctor would have had to have picked up the pieces in the morning.  Wouldn’t have been the first time.

“OK,” I finally said.  “I’ll be there in a half hour.”

I have colleagues who still roll their eyes on hearing that–and rightly so, I might add.  Their knowing half-smiles say it all:  only you, Rod.  Only you.

After arriving and then enduring the knowing half-smiles of the ER staff, I walked into the young man’s room.  He was lying on his side, facing the wall.  He barely turned his head to look at me.  He wasn’t hostile, but believe me, he wasn’t impressed either.  “I don’t know, man,” was about all he could say.  “I don’t know.”

He eventually did turn to face me.  It had been Afghanistan, I finally learned–that, and a quite, quite complicated life pre-deployment.  Bad, the whole scene, really bad.  He just couldn’t take it any more, the waking up screaming, the never-ending newsreel of blood and body parts in his head, the absolute certainty that it would never end, that it never should end, given what he’d seen, what he’d done, halfway around the world, just the other side of town.  He wasn’t going to kill himself, or at least not really.  He just didn’t care.  About anything.

His family had brought him in.  I sat with them for a good half-hour or so in a secluded corner of the waiting room.  I still can see his father, fighting back the tears that he was too worn out to hide:  “We just don’t know what to do.  I love him more than anything, but . . . we just don’t know what to do.”

When I went back to the patient and told him what his family had said, he looked genuinely shocked.  “You mean they’re still here?” he asked.

“Yes.  They’re worried.  Big time.”

Wiry and strong as he was, he dropped his head and began to cry.  “I’m so terrible to them,” he finally whispered.  “They love me so much.  I don’t deserve it.”  Slowly he raised his head.  “OK.  I’ll stay.”

By the time all the admission dog-and-pony show was over, it was about 1AM.  I was about to head out of our inpatient unit when I saw him sitting by himself in our day room, clad in the standard-issue hospital pj’s, staring at the floor, strong, wiry–and anything but.

All right.  I’ll confess it to the entire world.  Here it goes, ready?

Sometimes the Dad in me takes a gut punch whenever I look at these guys, see that far-off look in their eyes, watch their slow breathing, their mouths slightly opened, with just enough shortness of breath to remind both of us that it can all be so tiring, life.  Death.  These are the sons and daughters of my peers.  Each one of them could have been mine.

There.  I said it.

It’s called “countertransference” in the lingo of my trade, the all-too-human feelings that arise in us all-too-human treaters in our all-too-human work.  It can be a problem.  It’s not always, not by a long shot.  It just happens.  I’m no neophyte to this.

Still, it had been a long night.  For him.  Strong, wiry, lost–him.

I went over and sat across from him at the table.  He looked up, a bit confused, even.

“You don’t have to stay, you know,” he said.

“I know.”  We just looked at each other.

I launched into my spiel, the one about feeling so intensely, so deeply that a group of men can almost think the same thoughts simultaneously, not quite knowing where one of them ends and the other one picks up.  About love.  About having a part of your soul ripped out of you when you realize your brother of brother’s not there any more, not even in one piece any more, never again to laugh, cuss, get drunk, stare at a computer screen, reading an e-mail.

“Were you in the military?” he finally asked.

“No.”

Once again, he looked genuinely shocked.  “So how do you know all this?”

“You guys tell me.”

It was his first smile of the evening, skeptical though it was.  “You actually listen?”

I wasn’t quite sure what to say.  I suspect I smiled as well.  “Yeah, that’s sort of the point, you know,” is what I think I finally said, something like that.

The smile disappeared, yet replaced not with a frown, but rather with this look of puzzlement that had a sort of “well, who’d-a thought . . .” quality to it.

“Thanks, man,” he finally whispered.  We shook hands.  I went home.

It’s been a long road since then.  Really long.  Good stuff.  Not-so-good stuff.  He’s told me more than once:  “I think about that night a lot, you sitting there with me at that table.  I really do, man.  I really do.”

It had been a while since I’d seen him.  Stuff.  Not-so-good kind, at least recently.  He looked good, though, better than I’d seen him in a while.  He was so proud of himself, of all the work he’d been doing trying to get his life together, of his dreams to help other veterans.  He was wearing a well-worn Indiana University soccer outfit, still strong, still wiry.  He has one of those “Yeah, I know, I’ve been bad, but you still like me, don’t you?” smiles.

He’s right.  And he knows it.

He handed me a CD.  “Here, man.  I want you to have this.  It’s pictures, from Afghanistan, different stuff.  Just us mainly messing around, you know.  Not really any combat.  I just want you to have it.”

“Thanks.”  I took it.

After he was gone, after I’d written my encounter note, I opened up the D: drive of my laptop and pressed the CD down into it.  My photo program opened up the first picture.  He  was lying on a cot, shirtless, clearly just waking up, clearly not that impressed with the photographer.  I hit the slide show button.

My photo program eases one picture into another, like moseying along through the family album, giving you a few seconds to prepare yourself for the ridiculous look on whoever’s face is about the grace the screen, a sort of retrospective, “This Is Your Life” quality, know what I mean?

It was his smile.  Over and over.  He’s quite photogenic, actually.  Combat fatigues, physical training outfits, swimming trunks, goofy T-shirts, posing with local troops, robed men at fancy hotels, cute kids, even with President Bush, no lie.  There was this family wedding picture.  He was in a tux, holding what looked to be the ring-bearer, his hair slightly longer than Army-issue, sun-bleached just enough.  Went well with the smile.  The whole look.

I didn’t cry.  Yet there was something inside me, that Dad something again.  It’s a sincere smile, his is, one of those “you gotta love me” types, one of those that says–not shouts, mind you, just says–“Here I am, world.”  Here I am.

God, I wish he didn’t know what he knows.

Please, dear God.  Let him find peace.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

Heroism and a Different Veteran

 

Doing What It Takes, In a Moment, In a Life

Today, I move away from combat veterans, but only in a literal sense. For in a more figurative sense, if we speak of those who are willing to serve through thick and thin, but even more who are willing to react to the unexpected horror of the world in ways that, without thought, move toward others rather than away from them: if we speak thus, then we’re not heading into new territory whatsoever.

Today I write in memory of a fallen hero, not in a far-off desert or mountain range, but in a suburban schoolyard

Today’s article is from The Washington Post, and it is entitled, “Talking About a Legend”: Indiana School Principal Dies Saving Children in Path of Bus.”

For twenty-two years, Susan Jordan was principal of Amy Beverland Elementary School, located on the far northeast side of Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. In those years she held together a faculty and a student body of diverse ethnicity and class, creating a community of “Amy Beverland Stars” that not only sheltered and empowered children through their pre-teen years, but well into their adulthoods and their own growth into parenthood and caretaking.

On Tuesday, January 26, 2016, mid-afternoon, at the end of another school day of announcements, lunch lines, and recesses, as students ages six through twelve were loading into buses or waiting for parents outside the building, Mrs. Jordan was where she always was, stewarding the hyper and the worn-out, the gabby and the sullen, all toward home, with a smile, a hug, a pat on the back, even an occasional high-five.

Suddenly a bus shifted into gear and lunged over the curb, toward a group of children. Mrs. Jordan lunged in response. In seconds she managed to push away all but two of the children out of the bus’s path. Those two children, ages 10, were seriously injured when struck, but are alive and will return one day to school.

For Mrs. Jordan, Tuesday became her last day of class.

The school district’s superintendent later that day called her “a legend.”

For my two younger children, now young adults, from the first day they stepped off a bus into the first grade until the last day they stepped onto one at the end of fifth grade, she was just “Mrs. J.”

From August 2001 until May 2008, I saw Susan Jordan at countless assemblies, concerts, fundraisers—and daily school pick-ups. A good ten years my senior, she had energy and enthusiasm that put me to shame. From the very beginning she knew my daughter and son by name. She even remembered regularly to ask about my eldest daughter, after she had, in 1999, steered us to send our first-born to another elementary school across the township because she knew “that would be the perfect place for her.”

We use the word “hero” so freely these days. Combat veterans are loathe to accept it. I have no doubt Mrs. Jordan would have felt similarly.

Yet in so many ways the heroic is heroic precisely because, when truly lived, it is so mundane. Hour by hour, day by day the future hero makes decisions as to how and where she will focus her attention, her energies. She scouts out what she values, whom she values, adjusting her gaze onto familiar patterns, attuning her ear to familiar sounds.

Then in that horrible moment, it happens. Connection happens. Love happens. No thought, just motion, motion toward a future for others, whether or not it ends the future for oneself.

I salute you, Mrs. Jordan. If I may be so bold, on behalf of all the combat veterans whom I have served and whom I will serve until my own time comes, I salute you again.

On September 11, 2001, you stood at the door of your school and reunited my worried wife with my confused, seven-year-old daughter. In the years since, you oversaw the education of hundreds of children who had to learn about writing and multiplication in a world that no longer was so easily ignorable by comfortable, suburban Americans. You guided children through the deaths of classmates, through the dissolution of their families, through their own medical illnesses. You created an atmosphere of warmth and rigor that supported my children’s teachers to become the finest that they were.

You were heroic, in the most commonplace of moments, in the most extraordinary.

From all of us who knew you, from all those who serve their fellow citizens in places of greatest danger precisely because of heroes like you, thank you.

From my family, from me, thank you.

Rest in peace.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

The Zombies’ Discharge Papers

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Vets. Zombies. Seriously

Today it’s vets and zombies.

I’m serious. Vets. Zombies. Vets and Zombies.

It’s a new world, folks. A new world.

For a conventional take, try Army Times´ Trailer for Veteran-Made ‘Range 15’ to Debut During Sundance.” For a more in-your-face (or should I say, in-your brain?) take, try Broadly.’s “The Disabled Iraq Veteran Starring in a Military Zombie Film.”

Either way, get ready. They’re coming.

I know, I know: you thought this was all taken care of by Brad Pitt in World War Z, or if not, at least by Ms. Bennet and Mr. Darcy in everyone’s classic favorite, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Nay, nay, ‘twas not the end.

Recently I talked about the veteran-run clothing marketer, Article 15, and especially its quite irreverent take on T-shirts and other items to reflect military humor. Capitalism and good military competition being what they are, though, the good folks at Article 15 are anything but alone. For example, another group, Ranger Up, provides similar apparel meant to be worn and, oh, yes, noticed and remembered.

Well, like any good service members, the vets of both companies carry competition only so far, and their joint identities as ex-military have brought them together to make a film that too is meant to be, you got it, noticed and remembered.

It’s called “Range 15,” and it’s being billed as a “zombie-comedy-action-thriller.”

I think that about covers it.

Maybe there’s a love story in there as well, who knows. I’m afraid to ask.

I’ve previously mentioned Matt Best of Article 15. He’s one of the producers. But so is Ranger Up’s founder, Nick Palmisciano, a former United States Army infantry officer. And Captain Kirk’s in it: really, William Shatner. And Marcus Luttrell.  And the trailer just appeared at the Sundance Film Festival.

And 2016 is just getting started.

And you’ve got to check out the Broadly. article that features the female lead, combat vet and former US Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD, i.e., bomb squad) technician, Mary Dague. Ms. Dague lost both her forearms in an explosion in Iraq. She’s quite proud of her “nubs,” as she calls them. I suspect the zombies find out in the film why she likes also to think of herself as a T-rex.

When I tell people that I work with combat vets, they often respond with a cross with between awe and pity, as if somehow both I and the vets I serve are lucky to leave our sessions with our souls intact, given what we go through together. That is, on some days, indeed the case.

Yet on other days, I can say that I have never laughed in a professional office as hard as I have laughed with many of these men and women. Of course the best comedy usually has knifing anger weaved into it. Aristotle himself told us, after all, that comedy is about foibles, and foibles always mean that someone somewhere is angry, ashamed, or both.

Yet what is the old cliché? “Either laugh or cry?” To laugh is to remember all the laughs that have gone on before, to remember those we have laughed with, whether or not we will laugh with them again. To remember them at some of their best moments: a stifled giggle when the officer passes by who ain’t gonna be too pleased when he sees what awaits him in his quarters, a body-shaking guffaw as she can’t honestly believe that you really fell for that and actually put that in your mouth!

All right, true: the psychoanalyst in me could have a heyday with the idea of zombies and veterans, together. But, you know, come to think of it: why?

They say that Freud said that “sometimes a cigar is a cigar.” Whether he did or not, sometimes a good laugh should just be that: a good laugh.

Just don’t laugh your head off.

If you do, have the mustard and Wonder bread handy. Some patrons take their burgers raw. And they don’t like waiting.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

Desert Sands at 25 Years

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Wars, Blogs, Lives

Podcast of Blog Entry:

 

Twenty-five years ago, on January 16, 1991 (US time), Operation Desert Storm began, with coalition forces initiating military activities that would eventually lead to the expulsion of Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. By the end of February, it was “over.”

If only.

Today I want to introduce you to a blog I recently discovered, a blog of a combat vet who would dispute any claim that War is over when it’s “over,” yet one who also appears determined never to forget that he has what it takes. Welcome to the blog, Stuck in the Sand: PTSD and College.

Even though the blog’s author gives links that easily lead to your finding his name, he writes the blog without name. He’s a college student, finishing up at the University of Wisconsin, heading out to California to find fame and fortune in the tech industry. By UW standards, he’d be an “older” student, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He loves to code.

Who doesn’t, these days.

Don’t for a moment think, though, that he writes as if hiding in some wretched corner of Madison. Quite the contrary: he openly writes his confusions, his hopes, his losses, his gains, the more painful parts of his life story, the more joy-filled parts. He is no great fan of the US Veterans Administration, especially its medical facilities, but neither does he rant about the VA incessantly. He’s been homeless. He’s been divorced. He’s been down-and-out, up-and-in, resentful, grateful, you name it.

He is simply living, trying to make sense of a life that arose out of a desperate childhood, only to find itself in the middle of a War that was somehow being touted as a video game writ large. All twenty-five years ago, all today.

I find the blogs of many combat vets quite compelling. Often entries appear haphazardly, written in crisis perhaps, or perhaps in a moment of unforeseen, but well-savored joy. The authors frequently excuse themselves as not being adequately articulate, adequately accurate, even adequately reliable. Stuck in the Sand’s author often deprecates himself so, even as he speaks his truth with both a poetry and a coarseness that leaves a reader with scenes easily imagined, emotions easily felt.

Like most other vet bloggers, Stuck in the Sand’s author makes no claim to universality. He readily acknowledges that others have perhaps suffered just as much as he has, likely more. Yet by the very act of writing he also acknowledges that his own pain is not nothing, is not no-big-deal. It is the pain that draws him to a computer screen somehow, keystroke by keystroke, to find a way to alleviate that suffering momentarily, reshape it, re-envision it.

Whether with thesaurus words or with F-bombs strategically placed for proper effect. And affect.

As I find blogs, I’ll let you know. If one grabs you, stick with it for a while, notice the rhythms of a life that has known War and is trying now to know peace, listen for the “what it takes” in the phrasing, see it in the sentence structure, feel it as it blasts and as it whispers.

Twenty-five years is a long time, especially for a War that was supposed to be one step beyond a weekend, Xbox marathon, just aim and shoot. Stuck in the Sand is doing what he can not to remain stuck so. I look forward to reading more. I wish him the best.

Perhaps some of you will as well.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

One Brave Voice

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Not Politics, But Truth

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In the January 23, 2016 New York Times, an op-ed appeared entitled “Sarah Palin, This Is What PTSD Is Really Like.”  While I do my best to avoid the political in this blog, the old truth remains: the personal is political. And the political is personal. Because of the piece’s context, I cannot help but speak politically. But because of its truth, I can admire it so much the more for the personal, for the person behind it, for the persons who live it daily.

Nathan Bethea served in the United States Army as an infantry officer for seven years, including a deployment to Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010.  As best as I can extrapolate from the op-ed piece, he must have been stationed in Alaska during Mrs. Palin’s run as a vice-presidential candidate for the 2008 United States presidential elections—and her then-term as governor of the state.

Mr. Bethea appears to be no grand fan of Mrs. Palin. I must say that I join him in less-than-enthusiastic appraisal of her. But for him—and for me—she’s more a foil, a bearer of ideas far-too-widely spread among civilians, ideas that Mr.Bethea confronts with quiet bravery and quiet conviction.

He wrote his piece in response to Mrs. Palin’s linkage of her son Track’s recent arrest for domestic violence with his experiences both in and after combat since having served in the United States Army.

I will let Mr. Bethea speak for himself:

“Mrs. Palin seemed to suggest that the policies of President Obama had somehow worsened her son’s condition. And by explaining away domestic violence as the “ramifications of PTSD,” she intimated that her son’s actions are logical consequences of what he experienced while deployed. This is, of course, a disingenuous argument from a career opportunist. However, in a roundabout way, Mrs. Palin reignited a valuable discussion of combat and its psychological effects. Her portrayal of her son’s condition seems aligned with enduring renditions of veterans as ticking time bombs, as damaged beings primed to harm.”

He then wrote:

“Within a week of my return in March 2010…I found myself in a hot, loud and crowded room full of aloof young strangers. In that moment, I felt a sudden burst of panic, something completely unexpected. I felt as if I was going to die. I had to leave the room, to return to the safety of my truck parked outside in the snow. Something was very wrong; something about me was clearly defective.”

Then:

“Later, I realized that many of my friends had experienced similar moments: extreme reactions to emotional stimuli, hours of fear, weeks of hyper-vigilance. The common thread was not a tendency toward violence but rather toward self-hate. There were no flashbacks of combat. There was instead a sinking feeling that I’d always be a downer, always on guard, never able to relax. It was the fear of being permanently broken.”

Mr. Bethea was both fortunate and brave: fortunate in that he was able to access adequate treatment and support for his challenges, brave in that he was and is willing to accept both in order to make his post-combat life as meaningful as possible, currently, among others, as a writing instructor for the New York City-based creative arts program, Voices from War. He confronted stigma while in the Army. He confronts possible stigma right now as he contemplates his literary career.

And he’s a combat vet. He has what it takes to do what needs to be done. He seeks out missions, connections, strives for them, lives for them. He’s even willing to sign his name to them, in one of the most high-profile media outlets in the world.

That’s both a political choice and a choice beyond the political, utterly personal, yet so bravely public. Whether or not one agrees with his words, one has to admire that he, like so many other war writers, is not willing to let War have the last word. Not by a long shot.

He ends his piece this way:

“I can function in society because I was able to seek care, and I want to make that care more accessible to people who need it.

“That process begins by speaking frankly. Facing up to destructive or abusive behavior comes next, along with the assertion that we are responsible for our actions, no matter what burdens we carry. Post-traumatic stress is no excuse for violence or abuse, nor should it be considered a default association. I’d like to hope that, beneath the bluster and the political talking points, Sarah Palin understands this. I hope even more that her son seeks care and finds peace.”

What more can an old, civilian psychiatrist say except this:

Mr Bethea, Mr. Palin: may you both never forget who you have been. May you both never give up on who you might become. May I and my colleagues never fail you. May you both find peace, now and always.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

To learn more about Voices from War

click here.

Bird’s-Eye Extreme

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Look, Ma, I’ m Flying!

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I could say that today’s piece is about a project. It is. It’s also about a documentary. That too. In some ways, it’s about a movement, of sorts. All well and good.

But what most attracted me to this organization?

I’ll admit it:  energy and attitude. Lord, and how.

The organization is The Bird’s Eye View Project.

Get ready.

Ryan Parrott is a former US Navy SEAL, a veteran of three combat tours to Iraq, and survivor of a devastating IED blast in 2005.

And “Birdman,” as he’s called, has a mission: to use “extreme sports to connect people to the extreme needs of veterans and first-responders,” thereby helping “veterans and first-responders heal and lead fulfilling and productive lives.”

And when this man says extreme, he means it. Jumping off cliffs. Big cliffs. Snowboarding down mountains. Big mountains. As best as I can tell, his goal is eventually to do both at the same time. Big-ly.

And why? To promote fundraising for a variety of smaller charities that are committed to helping veterans and first-responders. His logic is straightforward: many groups are doing big things for veterans and first-responders, but with somewhat of a small voice. By pushing himself to extremes that play big, he can attract attention for them, through himself and not for himself.

He’s set up a project that is sort of like pay-per-view: by making donations that get distributed to the charities, you get a front-row cyber-seat to the ongoing documentary that follows Parrott’s efforts at training and then performing stunts that are guaranteed to leave you shaking your head, smiling, and, well, glad it’s him and not you.

Talk about a man putting all his excess energy to good use. The film on the website didn’t even make four minutes, and I was ready to take a breather.

Through the years I’ve had the honor of working with several former members of Special Operations forces. To a man, each has had an energy and an internal fire that has impressed me, challenged me, even, at times, exhausted me. They have seen War up close and personal. Their energy has been both their salvation and their curse. Where does one put all that energy after a career such as that?

Well, Birdman apparently has decided that he’s going to answer that question on a big stage, in a big way, for a big purpose. But he does so, of course, because he knows that the “small” things in life, the quiet things such as perseverance and courage and faithfulness are ultimately what make life worthwhile.

Still, a few steps off a cliff do get the old blood flowing in the morning. So much for coffee.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

Guilt, Smiles, and In-Between

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Living the Past’s Futures

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Today is about a video clip. I first saw it courtesy of the Task & Purpose website, in an article entitled “Vargas and Best of Article 15 Talk Survivor’s Guilt, Loss.” It is also available on a Facebook page.

I strongly urge you to check it out.

“Article 15” is shorthand for major disciplinary action taken against an active-duty, United States service member, a reference to a particular section of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). It also, though, is the name of an online clothing store, veteran-run, specializing in military-related apparel that appears meant to be, shall we say, worn in-your-face and with-a-smile.

See for yourself. You won’t forget it any time soon, I promise.

Just as you won’t forget the Facebook film.

Mr. Vargas and Mr. Best are closely associated with both.

Having now worked for several years with combat vets, I have, admittedly, often guffawed at the outrageous tall-tales and snappy one-liners that some young (and not-so-young) service members have shot my way, even if the more civilianly-correct part of me (forget politically-correct, for we’re not even in the general vicinity) might have advised said service members to be, let’s say, circumspect in how widely they might advertise their particular brand of humor.

Yet with every irreverence comes also a corresponding reverence: for decisions made under pressure, for risks taken, for lives gained, for lives lost.

Mr. Vargas and Mr. Best, the makers of T-shirts with such logos as “Keep Calm and Freedom On,” have also put together the short film. “Live for Those Who Can’t,” a memorial to US Army Staff Sergeant Richard Barrazo and Sergeant Dale Behm, both of whom were killed in Ramadi, Iraq on March 18, 2006.

I suspect both SSG Barrazo and SGT Behm would have loved the T-shirt. They also loved the men under their command. Some of those men are alive today precisely because the two of them are not. Vargas and Best have sworn not only never to forget them. They have sworn never to stop living in honor of them.

It takes bravery to laugh after War, really laugh, not just with rage-filled laughter, but with irony-filled, foible-filled laughter. Many service members whom I’ve served have come to me fearing that to laugh again would be to betray. “How can the world smile after the Sergeant is gone?” they wonder

How can it? Vargas and Best make that clear: in the same way the world smiled when Sergeant was around, sometimes with bravado, sometimes with subtlety, always with an edge that only a service member can truly appreciate.

You had what it took to laugh before death. Even after it, you still have what it takes to laugh again, perhaps now with a different edge, true, but nevertheless an edge that can be nothing more than just a buckle in the carpet, one you might trip over for a good sight gag, not an edge that you fall over, never to rise again.

Both Vargas and Best have sworn never to forget. Both have sworn to live in remembrance.

I suspect that both have sworn to laugh in remembrance as well.

I suspect both the Sergeants would have been pleased. And owned a couple shirts as well.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

A Labyrinth for Healing

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Winding in the Right Direction

Today I want to tell you about a place. For those of you who might someday find yourselves in the Toronto, Ontario, Canada area, head about thirty minutes east of town, if you get a chance, and check out the town of Whitby, Ontario. Look around, and you should be able to find a park, the Park of Reflection.

Go to it, and meander.

Great word, meander, “poking around,” derived from the name of a wandering river in modern-day Turkey. Greek in origin it is, like labyrinth, the maze that ancient myth said housed the monster in Crete, the place where the young people of Athens went to be devoured every seven years or so.

The Park of Reflection is a labyrinth built to honor those Canadian service members who have become ill or injured in the line of duty. It’s not one of those fun-house kind of mazes, like the ones carved out of American cornfields around Halloween to spook middle-schoolers. It is rather a complex pattern in the ground of curves and straightaways, meant not to be rushed through, but meditated through.

Fancy ideas for a veterans’ memorial park, some might say.

Yet labyrinths, no matter how exotic they may look, have a very simple story that can be told about them. The average person of the Middle Ages could not make pilgrimages to holy sites. By slowly, thoughtfully moving along the paths of labyrinths that were in some churches, these people could spiritually accomplish what was physically impossible.

That is what makes the park so interesting. By slowly making one’s way along the path of the labyrinth-maze, a visitor is challenged to, in a way, take time with War, time that Canadian service members had no choice but to give. There is no physical danger in doing so. Only a peace-filled invitation to reflection.

Sponsored by Wounded Warriors Canada, an organization that itself grew out of a need to bring some normalcy to the lives of wounded Canadian service members, the park tries to make the abnormality of War into something that, through the abnormality (at least these days) of quiet reflection, reminds all of us of the normal lives of normal men and women who made a commitment to their society and who must now make a new normal for themselves.

If meandering through the park means nothing more than wandering, then the word accomplishes little. Another “thank you for your service” with some nice benches and some pretty, big flowers here and there, that’s all.

Yet if, like its river namesake, meandering means winding one’s way around curves that are metaphors for the complex decisions made and lives lived by service members, then the park is a place worth visiting indeed.

Kudos to Wounded Warriors Canada

Even more, thanks to Canada’s wounded warriors.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

To learn more about Wounded Warriors Canada

click here.

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