Return to the Waves

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

The Healing Board

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A few weeks ago we visited the coasts of Cornwall in the UK to see how surfing can heal War’s wounds. Like waves ever returning to shore, then, we find ourselves today returning to the ocean and to the surfboard, now half a world away, on the coasts of California in the US, in a piece from the magazine Outside, entitled, “Can Surfing Reprogram the Veteran’s Brain?

A childhood friend of mine sent me this article, which is itself about two childhood friends, the piece’s author, Matt Skenazy, and his friend, Brian (a pseudonym).  They grew up on the coastal waters of southern California, met as teenagers, and found together a surfing life that took them away from life’s cares and, years later, life’s traumas.

For in the years between adolescence and adulthood, Brian became a SEAL, a special operations sailor in the United States Navy. In his personal life, he experienced setbacks. In his work, Brian experienced more than his share of injuries, both physical and emotional. Eventually a Facebook posting, desperate, honest, helped launch the men back to the sea.

Matt hooked his suffering friend up with the group, Ocean Therapy, an occupational therapy/recreational therapy program which had been working, among others, with United States Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton, in the San Diego area. Since then, Brian has certainly not “forgotten” his War experiences because of surfing. He has, though, found a way to make those experiences more acceptable and more meaning-filled, as he has shared his experiences as both youth and SEAL to help other combat vets being their own healing processes.

The article relates how Brian had not found more conventional treatment approaches that helpful. As I’ve often said before, some do find help in these approaches, others do not. It is never an issue of there being one true road to pave back to healing. Far more important is it to find the best road back for you, to allow you to remember that you have what it takes, to encourage you to live out the missions and connections worth looking for, striving for, and living for.

No matter where in the world we find ourselves, no matter how land-locked, the sea is at the ultimate end of all our roads. It calls us back. It can be exceedingly cruel and unforgiving. It can be flexible and playful. We work with it; it works with us.

I’m glad for Brian. His healing journey continues.

But just as the ocean can be counted on to return wave by wave, so can he and fellow combat vets themselves be encouraged to be counted upon, for themselves, for others, remembering who they are, paddling out to new challenges, wave by wave, meeting them, whether by wiping out or by making the perfect entry, and then paddling out and meeting them again.

Kind of like life. But a lot cooler.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

To learn more about Ocean Healing

click here.

Semper English

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

Fidelis to the Max

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Today’s story is quite the one about “doing what needs to be done.”  Be honest: would you have imagined a story starting out with a woman in Baghdad volunteering to interpret for Coalition troops and ending up with her as a United States Marine Corps recruit at Parris Island, South Carolina? From Task & Purpose, Unsung Heroes: The Iraqi Interpreter Who Became a Marine.”

Corporal Aseel Salman may have begun her active-duty service in the United States military in 2013, but her initial service began as, shall we say, one of the more dangerous part-time jobs for an Iraqi college student in 2003: an Arabic-language interpreter on combat missions.

Maybe not quite a barista at Starbucks, but one has to start somewhere.

Corporal Salman was apparently no stranger to “living on the edge” and doing what needs to be done. As a member of an all-female household in a strongly patriarchal society, she had more than had to make her way for herself in an often inhospitable world.  Marine Corps boot camp is a piece of cake after that. Or perhaps rather a piece of baklawa.

At one point in the article, she says, “I joined the Marines to prove to myself and my family and my people that I can do something great and amazing.”

Well, Corporal:  that you’ve done.

Congratulations on your continued service, and best wishes to you, your husband, a former Marine himself, your family, as well as your people.  You continue not only to prove yourself, but also to prove that for combat veterans—and even the ones who were “veterans” before there were “officially” so—there are still missions and connections worth looking for, striving for, and living for.

Keep it up. Salaam.

And, oh, yes, semper fi.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

A Boy & His Dog (& Internet)

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

Semper Fi, and Then Some

Today, it’s another story of combat veteran meets dog. Do a Google search, and you’ll be inundated with them. Yet there was something about this former United States Marine’s sense of mission that caught my smile as well as my eye. From NBC News, it is “He Was My Rock: Veteran with PTSD United with Military Dog.

Former Lance Corporal David Pond one day met a Belgian malinois named Pablo, and they decided that they would go play together for while: sniffing out bombs in the wilds of Afghanistan.

In a land with very high rocks, usually covered in danger, CPL Pond found his rock much closer at hand. A hardheaded kid from the suburbs of Denver, Colorado had collided with a hardheaded dog at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, resulting in a partnership that saved many lives, including their very own.

Hardheadedness, especially when embodied within a US Marine, does not disappear at the EOS (expiration of obligated service) date—and especially when one’s rock has a much later one. Pablo ended up protecting Presidents long after David had returned home, but the former corporal knew where the dog’s heart still resided. When he couldn’t seem to impress the brass with that truth, he ended up on the ever-ready Change.org with a petition that finally weaved its way to the office of the Secretary of the Navy.

And Pablo’s back where he should be, retired after his very own ceremony and everything.

Now that, my friends, is Semper Fi.

I smile at Mr. Pond’s tenacity. I smile at his and his dog’s happiness. And I smile that the good corporal never forgot that he still had what it took to get the job done: to bring home a friend who will now help his owner, his battle buddy, do what needs to be done now, to find some peace in this world and move forward into a life far away from the dangers hidden in the crevices of rocks, with a rock that never forgot him and never will.

Good luck, gentleman. The open field is that-a-way. Have at it.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

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,

Doc

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

Semper Silouan

I got out of Nashville quite late this past Monday, so I was heading into a long trip up I-65. It turned out not too badly, though, all said and done. Eastside Indianapolis should probably be farther than four-ish hours away from Northside Nashville, but the weather was great, the truckers were anything but reserved in their speed, and I was listening to interesting ideas about trauma and the brain (spare me what you’re thinking), so the destination was achieved with minimal consternation: my first time back to Indy since the move this summer, a quick one, in and out, for a conference at which I presented on Wednesday. I’d planned on keeping a low profile, hoping to catch up on dictations (thanks to the miracle of Citrix and an iPad) in quiet, quiet, quiet.

Silouan had other plans, however. Not so much as to the low profile. More as to the quiet.

Great name, Silouan.  Check it out on the Fount of All Knowledge, i.e., Wikipedia. Apparently it’s the Russian version for Silvanus, Latin for Silas, the companion of Saint Paul (as in “old time religion” and “good enough for Paul and Silas, good enough for me,” remember?) Middle English is Selwyn. Greek is Σιλουανος,  Silouanos.

My nerdiness embarrasses my children to no end.

Silouan Green is a Marine’s Marine. Think Jethro Gibbs on NCIS, raise him up a couple of inches, replace the graying brunette with closely-cropped sandy-brown—more spare on the top, granted, but certainly no worse for the wear, trust me. He strode onto the main stage of the conference as if he were just checking on the house before heading out to the lake, blue dress shirt, open-collared, slate-gray khaki’s, flat front (what else? why waste the cloth?) His voice didn’t command attention, just claimed it.

Our Marine’s Marine grew up in small-city Indiana before heading to college down here in my new neighborhood, Vanderbilt. Math major, officer candidate school, top graduate. Getting the picture?

So what else to do other than to become a Marine pilot?

In case you’re wondering, it’s no walk in the park to become a Marine pilot.

That he did, though, très à la Gibbs, with fervor and (I have no doubt) aplomb. Fly, he did as well. Until the day his plane’s engine caught fire on take-off.  And he and his fellow pilot were ejected from the aircraft. And his fellow pilot didn’t make it. And he sort of did.

To say that Silouan mesmerizes as he tells his story of trauma and recovery is to be unfair both to him and to Mesmer. In no way does he resort to the cheap parlor tricks of some reformed huckster, lulling listeners into an emotional trance with the prosody of his voice, the alliteration of his words, luring their souls onto the stage, syllable by syllable, only then to slap them to attention with an emotional zinger, a climax leading to a denouement of the audience’s tearful adoration of the bravery of this “suffering soul” who has overcome nevertheless, whether by the grace of God or the force of Will (or both).

Hardly.

Instead Silouan let me sit in my chair, body and soul, and brought himself to me. His energy, his candor, his roughness, his softness, his him: with each anecdote, each exhortation, all of it filled the room, never demanding I join it, always inviting me to. Here was a man whose military career had meant so much to him, he’d spent nine months sleeping with a loaded gun to his head, each night granting himself the option of allowing the Corps the luxury of not having to pursue his (forced) medical retirement any further. Here was a man who, through grace and through love, finally decided to give Life another chance instead.

When I got back home to Nashville, I could describe him to colleagues in only one way: an utterly disarming mixture of unabashed cockiness and true humility.

So why write of him, you ask?

First, I’m more than willing to offer him free advertising. If you’re looking for a veteran who’s suffered not only the loss of a friend, of his health, of his career, but even more the loss of his very identity, a veteran who has re-found and reformulated that identity in spite of an exhausted body and soul that had been doing what they could to thwart him, a veteran who is willing to speak to anyone who will listen about despair and hope in a way that will never leave you the same—check out www.silouan.com. Get him to come speak. Advertise well. Prepare to walk away different from how you arrived. Period.

He has also put together an excellent study guide to help traumatized individuals to re-find- and reformulate their very own identities, www.theladderupp.com.  I’m planning on using it with every soldier who comes to our facility.

Even more, though, I write of him to honor his pain, to honor his continuing recovery, and to remind everyone—veteran, family member, friend, mental health professional, human—that Life can bring down even the unabashedly cocky, the competent beyond your wildest dreams, the golden boys and girls who will do what you could never hope to do better than you could have ever dreamed of doing it and that Life is nonetheless still willing to give them a humble second chance. Or three.

If Life will do that for them, it’ll do it for all of us.

Semper fidelis, the Marine’s motto, “always faithful.” Silouan is certainly that. But like most of his fellow Marines, soldiers, and the men and women of the Navy, the Air Force, and the Coast Guard, it doesn’t stop there. Semper paratus, so says the Coast Guard, “always ready”: that, too. Semper fortis, “always strong”? As much as any person can be on any given day, sure. Semper humilis, “always humble”? What if we think of the humble as those who are not so much lowly as they are grounded, down-to-earth, unafraid to look up and acknowledge something, some ones, Someone higher?

So let’s just make it easier on ourselves, shall we? Semper Silouan. Enough said.

A Goede Hombre

I received the text earlier this week, at 1404h, Central Daylight Time, Tuesday, July 2, 2013, a picture.

He looked great, wearing what appeared to be a simple, black suit/tux, sporting with it a white, pointed-collar shirt, well-starched, and a formal black tie, half-Windsor knotted. I suspect the picture had originally been taken at his older brother’s wedding not long ago.  He had that certain “brother of the groom” air about him, after all: slightly annoyed to be all decked out on a day that wasn’t exactly his, yet pleased well enough all the same, knowing full well, of course, that he looked mighty fine in these trappings, if he did say so himself.

In the background was an American flag and the unmistakable emblem of the United States Marine Corps. He would, undoubtedly, have been far more proud of those than he would have of his handsome mugshot.

I have finally made the move to Nashville. I have finally found the time to sit quietly with my cup of Tazo Zen tea. I have finally found the courage to announce, again with the permission of his family, that on Friday, July 5, 2013, another fine young man whom I had the honor to serve was laid to rest.

He died early in the morning hours of my final day of service at the VA in Indianapolis. I learned of his passing late that afternoon. As had been Ethan’s death (Reporting for Duty, Sir), his had not appeared to have been self-inflicted, and it had come without warning. He had spoken to family and to his best friend mere hours before, in good spirits, looking forward to his and my final meeting together before my move, even more looking forward to plans for treatment and for a new chance at a life perhaps less pain-filled, definitely more hope-filled.

He was buried in a community far both from my former home and my new one. I had a couple chances to speak with his mother. I asked her to convey my sincerest condolences to his father, his brother, his grandfather, and all those whom he had loved and who had loved him.

I did not, therefore, hear “Taps” a third time in as many months. Yet as I sit here, watching the Cumberland River quietly drift by me, ferrying branches big and small toward destinations perhaps just around the bend, perhaps miles away, with the occasional speed boat barreling by, ferrying revelers trying to swig down one last Miller Lite before heading back to post-Fourth of July reality, I can so easily imagine a bugler standing on the shore opposite me, looking me directly in the eye, nodding, lifting his instrument to his lips to announce not only to me but to anyone else within earshot that another who tried the best he could to do the best he could has departed us, only then, after the fading of the last note, lowering that instrument, tucking it under his left arm, raising his right hand in that four-count salute rendered only to those who deserve it, holding it, lowering his arm in another four counts, then looking up at me, nodding, and finally with a sharp about-face, turning to walk away from the bank, into the trees, into the memory and the imagination from which he had come.

My patient—let’s call him “Kurt”—came from a successful family of international entrepreneurs, his father’s lineage Dutch, his mother’s, Hispanic. He’d attended the finest of schools as a boy, a teenager. Easily he could have attended the finest of universities after that. He was smart, multilingual, bearishly handsome, affable, after all: Cambridge, New Haven, New York, Princeton, all would have gladly welcomed him, no questions asked.

But this boy had an energy that only the Marines could handle.

He was so proud of his unit. He had given me a copy of its insignia, all ready to be mounted on my rear window should I have so desired (and with his full permission, I might add, implying that such would have been enough to get me through any subsequent interrogations by fellow Marines as to why I might have been claiming  the right to be lollying around town with such an honored accouterment).  He was a Marine’s Marine.

Thus, he never forgave himself for the training incident the week prior to his deployment, the one during which his right arm was so shattered, he finally had to lose one bone altogether in order to preserve whatever function allowed to him, the one after which he was separated  permanently from the other two men on his team whom he’d come to love more than Life itself . . .

From the other two men who—along with Kurt’s replacement, less prepared than Kurt had been—died only weeks later in an IED explosion that Kurt, to his final moments, I’m certain, believed with his every living cell that he could have avoided had he been there or, at the very least, he could have endured with his friends together, one final time.

From that point on, Kurt’s life was embedded within pain. He had to take pain medications at levels that still cause me to tremble at the very thought. He endured constant nightmares of a vicious home invasion he had survived as a youth—with night after night after night of such nightmares ending with his escaping (which, in real life, he had), while his Marine buddies, captured in the dream, were slaughtered by the intruders, over and over and over again.

Yet, there was not always pain between us.

The day had not started out well, almost two years ago, now. His pain had been  so acute, he was considering suicide. He refused to stay in the hospital. I refused to let him leave. It was tense, to say the least. Finally I had to call the VA Police to stand watch outside my office as I arranged the admission in the secretary’s office next door.

Then I heard it.

“Hey, Doc!” came the policeman’s voice, not exactly panicked, but not exactly calm either.

Good God, I could only think.

“What?”

“Uh, sir . . . I’m not quite sure how to tell you this, but your patient just jumped out your office window.”

I kid you not.

Now, fortunately, it was a first-floor office. Yet it was still a good six-foot drop.

I had barely turned around before seeing said policeman zoom around the corner, heading toward the front door of the building, the words he’d been  shouting into his walkie-talkie lingering behind him like an ether cloud, as sound apparently could not travel as fast as that man was moving. I’ll never forget walking up to my office, by this point all alone (since all others within fifty feet had made similar dashes around said corner), only to see my office window wide open.

I’d not even had a clue that the window could have been opened.

But that’s not the best part.

Within five minutes, Kurt marched right back in, now accompanied by three policemen and a host of other witnesses, with that same nonchalant look that, come to think of it, he’d shown in that picture from his brother’s wedding.

“What happened?” I asked (a stupid question, I know, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say).

“I needed a cigarette,” he told me, as calmly as all get-out. “The cop said I couldn’t go out to get one, and I knew I couldn’t smoke upstairs in the hospital, so I just decided I’d find me a way to get one more cigarette while I still could.”

I do so wish there had a been a picture of my face at the moment, given that my memory of his face was that he was still struggling to figure out what all the big deal was about.

“Are you kidding me?” was all I could say, standing there, as I was,  in front of a good half the Hospital’s police force, along with God and all Nature, to boot.

“He’s not,” the original policeman chimed in. “Really. By the time we got out there, he was just standing there, putting his lighter back in his pocket, taking a few puffs, asking us why we were all so upset.”

Kurt just smiled. “I told ’em I just wanted to smoke a cigarette. I guess they didn’t believe me.”

I repeat: kid you not.

I swear to God, also: by the next day I had so many environmental engineers swarming into that office, I’d have died hermetically-sealed in said room should any disaster have struck thereafter, nuclear or otherwise. I wonder if, now that I”m gone, Homeland Security is using it as a holding cell for those too dangerous for Gitmo.

One of my other patients, a former Marine officer, had heard the “Legend of the Jumping Marine” somewhere along the way (who hadn’t?), and I’ll never forget the smile as wide as the nearby White River when he spoke to me about said affaire mémorable.

“Now that’s a Marine, I tell you. You tell them to go take that hill, and they ask you ‘How many times, Sir?’ You gotta love ’em.”

Indeed, you do.

So I sit here, now sipping San Pellegrino, and I ask myself, “What can I say?” How can I honor him in the same way that phantom bugler did only a short time ago, disturbing the peacefulness of the river in my mind’s eye not so as to upset, but rather so as to remind, to call me to remember what it means for some men and women to choose to accept a life that they were not forced to accept, to choose to face risks that many of us would have preferred that they not have faced, whether for reasons of love or for those of ideology

I can only do so at this moment, I believe, by honoring his pain, honoring it so that others may know the depth of his suffering, honoring it so that others, perhaps, can begin to know something of the sufferings of many, many of his brothers and sisters who have served in combat, who entered War and left War with a capacity for emotional power that few had allowed themselves to realize before, let alone even to accept now.

With each passing day, with each troop or veteran I meet, I become more convinced that many, many civilians simply cannot begin to fathom the physicality of the warrior’s emotions, whether that warrior be a man or a woman. Granted, there are some civilians (more than a few, I might add) who are “warriors in spirit,” who can indeed find themselves caught up, sometimes quite frequently, in similar depths. Yet most civilians, I assert with solid confidence, must learn the following formula and apply it, whether they think they should have to or not:

Take whatever emotion you have ever felt in your life—joy, curiosity, grief, rage, anxiety, sensuality, shame, whatever—localize it in your body, and then imagine it now crashing down into your gut with a force that draws your every inner organ into it like some whirlpool out of Hell. Then repeat, shoving all of it down into that whirlpool even more deeply. Then repeat. Eight more times.

By the time you hit Whirlpool Ten, you’ll be close to the emotional experience of the Warrior. Not there. But close.

I have yet to meet a troop or a veteran who has not known, full well with bells on his/her toes, that he or she was going to have to “Move On” from his/her wounds of the extremities, of the brain, of the soul.  That’s never the issue, no matter how many times, no matter who adds the adverb just to that phrase, as if somehow the person uttering such nonsense were finally giving said troop or veteran the psychological equivalent of a reminder that s/he could have also had a V-8.

It’s never about “moving on.” It’s about what one has to drag along, from the very depths of one’s soul, whenever one does move on.

Everyone has experienced gut-wrenching emotions. Not everyone has had to experience such emotions every single time that door marked “Emotions” is opened, even when one is desperately, desperately hoping that the last five loads of psychic lumber with which you’d tried to nail that door shut will hold, please, dear God, please.

I sometimes read “pain experts” pontificate about the “psychological overlay” of pain as if they were finally giving us the news that we’d never considered and that will now finally open all of us to the Promised Land of the cognitive. I know about all the evidence. I know about all the good intentions of all who have so published in the journals, opined in the op-ed pieces, spoken to the cameras in the well-orchestrated segments of the latest news show, the latest radio spot.

Yet Kurt’s grief over his fallen buddies, his shame over his injuries, his anxiety over his future: they so Hurt with a capital H, so overran his biological pain receptors with the same ferocity, the same violence with which those intruders had once overran his boyhood home, he had to sweat with psychic blood every ounce of hope that he was able to earn. Hope, for him, was a hill that made Iwo Jima look like Kiddieland.

But he always asked me the same thing, every time, every time: “How many times do you want me to take it, Sir?”

How many times.

Until the day you have been able to imagine your whole body being wracked with an emotion so powerful that it brings you to your knees, always figuratively, often literally, with each sunrise; until the day you have been able to imagine the courage it takes to rise up, under such circumstances, and walk ten miles or, maybe, just take the dog out; until the day you can feel your most powerful emotion in your most painful of spots and can then say to yourself, “Oh, my God: do you mean it can feel worse than this?” and know that there are men and women out there in their teens, in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and beyond who can answer a resounding “Yes!” while trying not to relive, yet never to forget horrors and truths that, hopefully, you’ll never even have to imagine imagining—until then, please, please, please: never speak to a troop or a combat veteran the equivalent of the English words, “Move on.”

My title, of course, is a polyglot admixture, the Dutch goed with the Spanish hombre, the admixture of “A Good Man,”  the admixture that was Kurt, the admixture that could have taken a much easier road, but whohad refused to do so, the admixture who so many times had wanted to give up on that hill called Hope, so far from Bill Clinton’s Arkansas hometown of the same name, the admixture who had many, many times stumbled and fallen as he’d tried to take that hill, the admixture who had nevertheless kept trying, kept trying, semper fidelis to the end.

As with Porthos, as with Ethan, I have not earned the right to salute you, Kurt, my friend, as that bugler did in my mind mere minutes ago. So I can only give you what I gave them, unfortunately only in the Spanish of your lengua maternal and not also in the Dutch of your paternal tongue.

But do know that if  I could have spoken both languages, I would have. As always, Kurt. As always.

El dolor ha pasado, Kurt. Duerme siempre en paz.

The pain is over, Kurt, hallelujah. Rest in peace.

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