Guilt, Smiles, and In-Between

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

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,


Greatness for All

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

Generations That Keep Going

Today is a day for reflection: what does “greatness” mean?

United States journalist Tom Brokaw, former anchor for the NBC Evening News, called those of the World War II era the “greatest generation.” Yet today, on the Task & Purpose website, author, former soldier, and Iraq War veteran Matt Gallagher provocatively entitles his article, “The Greatest Generation Wasn’t Always That Great.”

Now let me say this: in no way does Mr. Gallagher cast doubt on the motivations and actions of those who served both this country and others during that war. His point is not that they were not the greatest generation.

Rather, his point was the even those service members, coming home after clear victory in a well-supported war, found that the world—the “generation”—they encountered upon their return was certainly not always the “greatest,” and certainly not unified in the views of what should happen to and for combat veterans.

Ultimately, his claim is one of both encouragement and challenge for modern service members returning from War. He encourages his fellow veterans not to assume that service members of the 1940’s were somehow immune to the pains and the pressures now faced by those of the 2010’s. When Gallagher recently read a war/post-war memoir by the famous newspaper cartoonist Bill Mauldin, for example, he found evidence that by no means was return to civilian life easy after all those ticker-tape parades of the newsreels were long past.

Yet he also wants to challenge veterans—including himself—never to forget what I also urge them (and you all) never to forget: the same drive, the same sense of mission that underlay their military service (that underlay your military service, for those of you who served) can still be used to forge an identity that includes both veteran and civilian within it. Being a veteran of combat is not just saying something about the past, about “back then”: it is also saying something about the future, about what can be brought into that future, about all those missions and connections that are still there to be looked for, striven for, lived for.

I think Mr. Gallagher and I would agree:  You, today’s combat vets, like those of the “greatest generation,” had what it took. But even more, you still have what it takes. And both he and I encourage each of you—each of us—therefore to do what needs to be done.

That’s a definition of greatness that all of us can affirm. And even better, live.

No matter what our generation.

Until tomorrow, be well,


To learn more about Matt Gallagher’s work

click here.

Worthy of Notice

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

No Apologies Needed

Today’s story is again from the website Task & Purpose. It is a heartfelt, thought-provoking piece about what makes a wound worthy of notice. Its title is “We Need to Stop Putting PTSD on a Pedestal.

The author of the piece, Ian Bertram, is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and remains on active duty as a helicopter pilot.  Given the nature and purpose of his story, let me share a few excerpts in the very words he chose for himself:

“My personal story is one tangential to combat, and I often question if I deserve to even think I might have some level of post-traumatic stress. I served a year in Afghanistan flying alongside Americans, Afghans, and other coalition allies. I was targeted only by inaccurate fire, and although I drew my own weapon on occasion, I thankfully never had the need to pull the trigger. I often found myself in close proximity to wounded and fallen Afghans.

“Some people, even those in the military, might say that my experiences were decidedly outside the normal realm of human interactions and that some kind of combat-related stress is a possibility. However, I cannot help but compare myself to friends and comrades who have been on the ground, in a convoy or small forward operating base that has come under attack, or to my combat rescue brethren that have faced hellish fire to try and save lives.

“Three years after returning home, although I am proud of what I did over there, I don’t feel like I was in combat. But loud noises can make me seek cover, and dark dreams come along more frequently than they ever did before. Thankfully, I don’t feel debilitated by any of these, and I have not had any thoughts of hurting myself or others. Yet I worry at least in part about what this is doing to my long-term psyche.

“I feel as if I’m whining — and we all hate whiners — and am insecure for even entertaining the thought that my experiences are negatively impacting me after returning home. Again, many people probably think I’m being ridiculous, but it’s not their opinion that matters. When it comes to post-traumatic stress, only the individual can decide to seek help.”

Mr. Bertram, you are a brave man. Many, I’m sure, will be more than ready to inform you of your shortcomings as they perceive them, in the time-honored tradition of “I did it. I’m fine. What’s the matter with you?”

Having been a psychiatrist for over thirty years, and having worked with many—and I mean, many—combat veterans who have told me to my face that such words had often come out of their very mouths in the past, I can only say, “Maybe fine, maybe not. Time always tells.”

Today, as on every day, I have only one thing to say: If you are a combat veteran, if you have deployed to areas of conflict or, even in the “safety” of cyberspace, infiltrated areas of conflict, if you have actively—and as honorably as possible—done your job in the midst of War, you still have what it takes to do what needs to be done. You owe no one an apology for your life and where you find yourself in it now.

There are still missions and connections out there worth looking for, striving for, and living for. Go for it.

Mr. Bertram concludes the piece as follows:

“I’m writing this because maybe it will help others come to terms with their own past in its own context. Sometimes people just need a friendly ear to vent their thoughts to, and other times they may need more advanced help. Either way, we need to help each other continue the march toward cultural acceptance of mental health problems, like post-traumatic stress. When seeking care ceases to be a big deal, then we can all get whatever help we need and get back to the mission, regardless of what our role in the larger fight may be.”

Well said, sir, and thank you.  I wish you the best, now and always.

And believe me, Mr. Bertram: you more than have what it takes.

Until tomorrow, be well,


Note to Self

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Some Twenty-Five Years Later

Podcast of Blog Post:


Today, it’s a lighter look, as we think about the wisdom that former United States Marine—and Task & Purpose website editor—Carl Forsling shares in “I Wrote a Letter to My 18-Year-Old Self About Joining the Military.”

Mr. Forsling does his best to traverse the time-space continuum with an eye to the most pertinent needs of a late adolescent. Accordingly, how could one go wrong with such aphorisms as:

  1. Don’t waste your money on fancy cars.
  2. Invest in good shoes and a good watch.
  3. For leave, take 30 days and the first flight going somewhere you’ve never heard of.

True, #3 could lead to some challenges, but one is young only once.

He goes on to give the usual sage counsel to the effect of “Listen to your elders (sometimes)” and “Beware of loving too hard, too soon (always),” along with quite military-specific warnings about tattoos that one may sport longer than one might later desire.

Yet for an old civilian such as myself who specializes in reminding combat veterans never to forget that they still have what it takes, it’s good to be reminded that when one is young and straight out of boot camp, one can indeed be so very sure of that got-it/can-do mentality—and yet so unsure as well.

So many decisions have to be made in a military life, even by those not yet legally allowed to drink. Some are hilarious. Some, not so much. Some are quite trivial. Some, quite life-changing, sometimes for ill, sometimes for good.

I turned eighteen about three months after the fall of Saigon. I had just begun my freshman year at Purdue University, a red-brick wonder in the middle of an Indiana cornfield. In a phone booth of the Stewart Center, the student union, I called a number to find out how I should sign up for the Selective Service.

“You don’t have to,” came the answer.

So I didn’t. The military wasn’t on my mind in September, 1975, either in a good way or a bad way. I was more consumed by freshman physics and the fallout from my parent’s divorce. I made a decision that year to switch my major from electrical engineering to psychology.

And forty years later, here I am.

Decisions made, decisions avoided, all take us to today. Some combat veterans rue the day they stepped into military life. Some cannot imagine a life worth living without that day. Some revel in days of memories of the best of Life. Others find themselves mired in those of the most wrenching of Death.

No matter: as Mr. Fosling admits when, at article’s end, he still has to look at those tattoos he once so readily accepted, our time-travelling abilities leave us only with a “now” that either will continue miring us in what might have been or will allow us to move forward in life, still having what it takes to do what needs to be done, whatever “now” is today, whatever it will be tomorrow.

That’s worth a note to self any day.

Until tomorrow, be well,


Headstrong and Headlong

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

And Keep the Pasta Comin’

From the website daily, Task & Purpose, a brief article about a Marine officer who was able to acknowledge grief without being consumed by it, who lives out semper fidelis by having become semper ad vitam obligatus: “This Marine Vet Overcame His PTSD and Rediscovered His Sense of Purpose.

Everywhere these days, combat veterans are finding ways to connect to each other, empower, engage, and energize, proving again and again that they still have what it takes.

How good—and how hopeful—it is that as a mental health professional, I see my place in the order of things, day by day, becoming perhaps not irrelevant, but more and more ancillary.

Exactly where it should be.

For even though our Marine today did find mental health assistance when he contacted The Headstrong Project, far more he found a group of fellow veterans committed to a fidelitas that was not only strong-headed, but like-minded.

And not only like of mind. Like of heart as well.

Similarly, his publisher, Task & Purpose, “is a news and culture site geared toward the next great generation of American veterans,” a group of veteran editors and contributors who “aren’t just trying to speak to the next great generation of military veterans: we are actively trying to build it.”

And I ask you: how could you not want to join an endeavor whose email sign-up pop-up says “Get military humor and news daily. It’s like getting a Chili Mac MRE in your Inbox.”

That’s “Meals Ready-to-Eat,” in case you were wondering.

Sign me up, please. Sharp cheddar for mine. Heavy on the cumin.

Oh, yes, and semper ad vitam obligatus?  Always committed toward life. Commitments can become stationary if one is not careful, remember.

Sounds as if you shouldn’t be expecting any of these ladies or gentlemen to be standing around with you, so chow down—and go.

For you still have what it takes.

Until tomorrow, be well,


To learn more about The Headstrong Project
To learn more about the news and culture website
Task & Purpose
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