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

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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.

Following the Blasts

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New Directions, New Possibilities

Today we remember that the trauma after War is in no way easy to define and, even more, to locate. Neurons in the brain just don’t go around playing games of telephone, like two kids listening to tomato cans on opposite ends of a string. Our sensations (sight, sound, touch), our movements, and our emotions (automatic responses to push us toward or pull us away from something): all these experiences come together in complex ways inside our skulls. And when those skulls get rattled, they get rattled complexly. From Scientific American, today’s it’s “Veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan Show Brain Changes Related to Explosion Exposure.

A group of researchers associated with the Veterans Administration Hospital (Puget Sound) in Seattle, Washington, USA, asked the question: if we look at the brain scans of service members who have been exposed to blasts such as those caused by improvised explosive devices (IED), will we see differences in how those scans appear when compared to those of similar individuals who have not experienced such blasts?

No surprise, the answer was yes. More of a surprise was the area that located the differences: the cerebellum.

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The cerebellum (highlighted above) is a part of the brain that has long been associated with coordination of physical movement. In a way, it’s the home of your “muscle memory.”  Muscle memory, however, is not just about knowing how to pedal a bike after not having been on one for ten years. Many different functions come together in the cerebellum to allow responses to events to be as smooth and as correct as possible.

Even though service members are now, because of advanced protective coverings, far less likely to die from blasts, they are certainly still quite susceptible to the highly-pressurized air from those blasts. By affecting areas like the cerebellum, these blasts, especially when many in number, can pummel the brain enough to cause far-ranging changes.

This is the tip of the iceberg as far as traumatic brain injury (TBI) research. The cerebellum will almost certainly remain an important area of scientific interest, but likely other areas will also get their chances at the microphone. We’ll let the smart folks do what they do best.

What combat vets do best is, in a way, just as important.

Too many times we become fatalistic when we hear the letters “TBI,” as if it were something akin to Ebola infection.  Yes, for any service member who has been exposed to blast injuries, the longstanding effects of TBI must be investigated and documented. Yes, some challenges caused by TBI will not, at least with current medical technology, just disappear.

But that’s what combat vets do best: face challenges. Do what it takes, because they have what it takes. Short-term memory and attention might be affected. Mood shifts might have to be taken into account. But still there are missions and connections worth looking for, striving for, living for.

So you learn to avoid situations that only bring pain. You learn to apply skills in a new way.You don’t give up. That’s not what combat vets do. You didn’t then. You don’t and won’t now.

The investigators published their research in a journal of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. That’s a big deal, a very big deal. People are taking this work seriously, and combat vets can count on that.

Living with TBI isn’t easy. Neither was coming back from War. That’s why the real healing will always be in the truth: combat vets still have what it takes to do what needs to be done.  We keep going, as we all keep learning, keep trying—and keep living.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

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