Beam Me Home, Scotty!: 01, Introduction

I promised myself I’d keep going, so here we are, the first segment of the presentation,  Beam Me Home, Scotty!:  How Star Trek Can Help Us Make Sense of the Brain, PTSD & Combat Trauma.

Yes, it’s hard to stay brief.  But I’ll struggle on.

In the Hero’s Journey, the first two stages are The Ordinary World and The Call to Adventure.  Here they are, all “four minutes” or so of them.

Keep me honest, folks.

So, why should we put Star Trek and combat trauma/PTSD together?

The brain itself tells a story, you know. Every morning, our bodies get up, face the obstacles of the day, and the brain—the organ in charge of our survival in this world,—asks us, our heart, our lungs, our muscles: So, my friend, will our hero make it today, or not? Now that’s a story’s end each of us wants to know.

So why shouldn’t we tell such a story with more familiar characters whose mission—to go boldly forward into life—is one that each of us would like to participate in?

Imagine, if you will, that you are now watching me lean onto a guardrail, looking out over Boston Harbor, over at Logan International Airport, the planes landing, taking off.

Now watch that scene change, as you see me making my way down the aisle of an airplane, the attendant’s voice overhead announcing the full, “red-eye”, overnight flight from Los Angeles to Boston.  See me come upon the open middle seat, between a woman in her late thirties and a man not much older than I—acquaintances, clearly. Notice how they welcome me into their midst. Catch how I put my shoulder bag under the seat in front of me. See upon that bag the familiar logo, the initials “VA.”  As you do, hear that someone else has noticed those initials as well.

“Oh, Lord, don’t let Joe see that!” the woman sitting at the window whispers, a smile tempering the warning.

“Too late,” the man on the aisle says, with a tempered smile as well. “That’s all right, sir. I’ll let you off easy—this time.”

As we prepare to taxi down the runway, I do tell them that yes, I have worked for the VA before. I’m a psychiatrist, heading to Boston for a training about combat-related PTSD.

It turns out that they are both combat veterans, former United States Army:  the woman, Jane, a former 68 Whiskey (68W), a combat medic, two fourteen-month tours in Iraq early in the conflict, now an advanced practice nursing student in Atlanta—”sorry, Doc, not psych; critical care, probably, definitely not peds.”

The man, Joe, a former 35 Papa (35P), a Vietnamese language specialist who in an extended tour of duty during the Tet offensive found out that being picked out by the First Sergeant because you’re the best at what you do means that maybe you won’t in fact be sitting next to a radio all day translating messages, as they told you at Defense Language Institute; who, as a result, has been no stranger to VA mental health. He’s now a part-time English instructor at various community colleges in central Ohio because, well, you can periodically lose your cool and piss people off, and the Department Chair will still take you back. After all, “who else can you get to teach Composition 101 and actually read the crap those kids write?”

“We’re actually both advocates for veterans health care,” Jane says, “heading off to a planning meeting in Boston about mental health services. Joe’s not exactly a fan of VA’s psychiatric services, I have to tell you, but me?  I’ve never been one much to talk to anybody about Iraq. Yet even with all my own training, I’ve always wondered: can PTSD ever get better?”

I smile.  “Of course.”

Joe, still pleasant enough, yet clearly skeptical, rolls his eyes. “Well, that’s news to me, good sir. And just how do you make that happen?”

“Well, glad to tell you—but you’ll have to use your imagination.”

Jane laughs.  “Like the kids shows on PBS?  Hey, I’m game.”

Joe rolls his eyes even further.  “Sure, I’ll do it just to prove to you both how wrong our good doctor is.”

“OK, then,” I say. “Let’s just sit back, close our eyes, take a few deep breaths, and see what happens.”

So we do.

And the scene changes.

Heroes, Day by Day

One of those weeks

Time, though, has given me the opportunity to reflect, even if unconsciously.  And to experience.

I saw a young man this week whom I know well.  In the Middle East, I suspect he did have an “Achilles-around-the-walls-of-Troy” event.  The past is past:  I don’t ask questions I don’t want to know the answers to, and I’m less-than-convinced that my doing so (at this point, at least) would provide anybody any relief anywhere.  Yet he knows that I know what we both know:  War invaded him, and it was not pretty.

Again this week, on the verge of tears, he told me of how unworthy he is of anything good, of how he holds onto his children for dear life, the only reasons why he can imagine that his presence on this earth should be tolerated.  He said to me, “They try to call us “heroes,” you know.  They don’t have a clue.  There was nothing heroic.  We were just trying to stay alive.  And sometimes nothing mattered, absolutely nothing.  And sometimes you just had the power, and nothing mattered, nothing.  That’s not a hero.  That’s not even a person.”

Several months ago, I participated in a workshop attended by VA employees from throughout our Indiana-Michigan region.  As part of the introductory exercises, we were asked to tell the group something about us that we thought might be “unique.”  I told the group that I am Mennonite, and that Mennonites working for the VA may not be exactly run-of-the-mill.   And what do you know:  one of the VA chaplains in attendence was, believe it or not, Mennonite.

Also attending, though, was a couple, both advanced practice clinicians.  As they introduced themselves, it eventually came out that they had lost a son in the Middle East within the previous year.  Their story came up occasionally during the course of the workshop:  they had been proud of him, especially in that he had been involved in efforts to improve relationships between troops and locals.  This had been his goal of service.  He had achieved it.  He died achieving it.

During the course of breaks, I had a chance to talk to the wife.  She wanted to speak to me precisely because I am Mennonite.  She and her husband, both roughly my age, attend a mainline Protestant church, and both have felt quite committed throughout their lives to peace-related causes.  Their son’s decision to go into the military had caused them great pause:  they had seen firsthand what war does to men in combat, and they were not at all convinced that the current conflict was one to be embraced.  They did embrace him, though, his dreams, his need to be his own person, his need to respond to an inner sense of service that did, yes, embrace violence as an ultimate option that sometimes must be taken in order to bring justice and order to chaos and evil.  They acquiesced.  They loved him.  They buried him.

You cannot begin to know how many times I have thought about this couple over the past months.  My eldest is now a freshman in college, soon to be twenty years old.  I think of her, of her boyfriend, of the young men who hang out in her dorm room, of the young men I watched grow up with her and who are now hanging out on college campuses throughout the state and throughout the country.  Perhaps out of self-protection, perhaps out of stereotypical assmptions, I cannot imagine her taken in combat.  Definitely out of self-protection I cannot imagine my son taken in combat.

But I think of my daughter’s boyfriend, a fine young man whom I barely know, yet who has such a pleasant smile, is so intelligent, has been bringing her so much happiness these past several months.   What if I had to stand at a coffin, knowing that what’s left of him is in there, not even daring to open it, to see just that:  what’s left of him.  What if I had to feel the rage inside of me of “Good God, I told, I told you!”  What if I would have to stop that last sentence in mid-sentence, hear him say to me, “And I told you!”  What if I would want to scream at George Bush, Barack Obama, every chicken-hawk Neo-Con who’s dared walk the face of this planet and show his (not her) face on Fox News–and then hear my daughter’s boyfriend say again, “But I  told you.  It wasn’t about them.  I told you.”

And what if I then had to show up at work the next day and see another young man, the same smile as his, the same dry wit, looking at me with similar eyes, pleading with me, “Please.  Help me.”  What if I did help him, see the real “him” come back, disentangled from The War, hear him one day say “Thank you,” one day show me the pictures of the baby, of their last trip to King’s Island amusement park.

What if all I could feel was that wondering, that my-God wondering of what if, what if it had been my daughter’s boyfriend, their child there in the picture.  What if.

A roller coaster, what if.

And then I would have to see the next hour another young man, a little different smile–what little he could muster–but similar, really.  A little too hurt to be witty, but it’s there, yes, the wit’s there, I can see it.  Knowing that, yes, we might be able to get some of that wit back, yes, I think we can, I hope, no, I think we can, we can, let’s try, we can.  And maybe there’ll be a roller coaster for him too, someday.  That’s what roller coasters are for  you know, for–for pictures, for smiles.

For what ifs.

Each day my young patient, this couple have to live faithfully:  my patient to his children, my colleagues to their values, now to the memory of the boy each once cradled.  In Western culture, the hero both belongs and doesn’t belong.  He is part mortal, he is part god.  He does what he does for the community, yet because of how he does it, he is never fully a part.  My patient, this couple:  they are mere mortals.  Yet each does what he or she does to connect to life, yet because of what cards life has dealt him/her,  he/she is never again fully part of that life.  Yet each lives faithfully, not knowing why, maybe, some days, but knowing there is no other way.  They want no other way.

They are my heroes.  Day to day.  Welcome home.

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