Masks That Unmask

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

Art Out of War

Today there are two articles, one recent, from the news and opinion website The Daily Beast, the other from a year ago, from National Geographic. Both are visual articles, so I will struggle to put their power into words. But since the very point of the articles is to show the impossibility of putting some experiences into letters and sounds, it seems right that I too do my part to try, fail—and then point.

From The Daily Beast, Veterans Let Slip the Masks of War: Can This Art Therapy Ease PTSD?” and from National Geographic¸Behind the Mask: Revealing the Trauma of War.”

Both articles describe the work of Melissa Walker, the healing arts coordinator of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC.  Her work is easy enough to put into words: have combat vets who are struggling with War’s traumas make papier-mâché masks that express their inner experiences of both War and War’s consequences in their lives.

Believe me: what comes out of that stops language cold.

To see faces split in half, one side brightly-colored, maybe, or just nondescript, normal, with the other side contorted, explosively garish, hacked open; to see mouths sealed, non-existent, gaping open, padlocked; to see eyes hollowed-out, bulging, misaligned, absent: even the English language, repository of words upon words inherited from cultures throughout the world, must sit down, silenced, to join us all in a neuronal, body experience that chisels itself into our very souls.

How many times I have sat with combat vets who, like their brothers and sisters mentioned in the articles, have initially grunted (when in good moods) at their task of somehow picking up a pencil, a crayon, a marker, a piece of clay, remembrances of pre-schools past all, and then, “What?” they ask.

Then open up a direct conduit between their souls and a piece of paper or a hunk of putty.

I have seen their eyes move beyond the world of words into worlds that take shape before them and me, leaving us both first a spot downward, toward which to gaze, take in, so that both of us can then dare to look upward, eye to eye, with one person taking the risk of being seen, while the other, he who allegedly has been to school and “knows”, taking the risk of seeing.

There are no words. Nor should there be.

I strongly urge you to check out the National Geographic link. Let the images enter you. Let the knowledge that, somehow, each of the vets who made those masks found at least some release from their having made them: let that give you hope that even connections with inanimate media, when picked up and animated, can render experiences still worth looking for, striving for, and living for.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

Reeling It In

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

Even Papa H Agrees

In the United States, one of the prototypical American TV shows of the 1960’s was an ensemble comedy program entitled The Andy Griffith Show. Every week it opened up with the credits playing over a small-town sheriff dad taking his son to the local “fishin’ hole”, as a tune was whistled along that remains, in the minds of many over a certain age, the symbol of a quieter, easier rural life.

Well, Andy was back on my mind this week when I learned about an organization that has found a new use for the fishin’ hole in these times of War, The Reel American Heroes Foundation.

If you check out the bio of the organization’s founder, Ronald DeFreitas, you’ll find the story of a typical American guy trying to make a living in this world. A husband, father, and grandpa, by day he is the information technology guy for the Prince William County public school system, in the suburbs of Washington DC, the guy who actually knows what that error message means and who, by grace of fate or God, can actually find in the bowels of the mainframe that PowerPoint presentation you need for the staff meeting in one hour, thank you.

But Mr. DeFreitas is also a bass fisherman. And in many parts of the US, that means one thing: his patience is more than sufficient to handle your computer-bug panic, while his love of the silence of a pond without waves knows no end.

His tale is one that moves the word homespun from its wink-wink connotations in this supercool world of ours to a place of, dare I say it, honor. It was on an Internet forum that he hooked up with an American soldier in Afghanistan who was missing bass fishing while serving in the midst of the mountains, and he sent the soldier a care package of fishing magazines and DVD’s. You read that right: fishing magazines and DVD’s.

It was when he then got requests for similar packages from other soldiers that Mr. DeFreitas got the idea that maybe he was onto something.

Since then, he, his family, and his friends have put together a non-profit organization dedicated to one goal: helping combat veterans come together and go fishing, in the silence of early mornings, in the banter of friends sharing a meal afterwards. After a full day’s work, he spends what time he can pulling together events and, what’s more, seeking contributions so that he can provide any combat vet who needs one a new fishing pole and a fully-stocked tackle box.

Now come on, admit it: did that bring a smile to your face or what? Mayberry, the fictional hometown of Sheriff Andy, apparently is still alive and well in the early twenty-first century.

Both my grandfathers were avid fishermen back in the lakes and streams outside my extended family’s home in Des Moines, Iowa, in the heart of the American Midwest.  Now, truth-in-lending: I was anything but an avid fisherman-off-the-old-block. I was a comic-book kind of kid back then, so the quiet of the water was better enjoyed lost in the thirty-first century world of The Legion of Super Heroes. Still, I can understand the allure of water’s smell, the quiet monitoring of the pole’s lead, the dance played between man and fish.

And let us never forget one of the great short stories of twentieth-century American literature, Earnest Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River, the story of World War I combat vet Nick Adams, a story not so much because of an action-driven plot, but because of its careful observations of a traumatized, former soldier, much like Hemingway himself, who walked through the ruins of a burned-out town to find some moments of peace and accomplishment watching and catching trout in a nearby river.

Pretty good company, Mr. DeFreitas.

So congratulations and many thanks to the man who gave homespun a certain literary modernist twist, whether wittingly or not, and opened up a world of quiet connection that, clearly, some combat vets are looking for, striving for, and living for.

Andy would probably be sporting a smile and drawling a “Well, I’ll be, that’s some mighty fine fishin’” just right about now.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

To learn more about the Reel American Heroes Foundation

click here.

Plugging Along

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

Come Rain or Come Zycam

When I woke up this morning with one of those head colds that squats on two-thirds of the available real estate inside one’s skull, I knew that the remainder of my head would only be so interested in doing much work beyond the maintenance of bodily functions.

In light thereof, I’ll just say this:

The more I work with combat vets, the more I’m impressed with how their strengths show themselves most readily in those day-to-day situations that require persistence and commitment.

Many, of course, meet me first in situations in which they feel that they can’t muster the former and can’t imagine the latter. But by their very willingness to try again, they re-find what they still have. And, without fail, they begin searching for ways to share with others, and especially with other vets, their rediscoveries.

Maybe it was all those hours in physical training, running, marching, one step after another, that ingrained into them that habit of endurance, so much so that even the rest of us can sneak our very own piece of the metaphor when we “soldier on” until the job is done, no matter how mundane or downright ridiculous it might be. Perhaps.

Bottom line? I can pull a blog post together, for Heaven’s sake.

Thanks to each of them, then, for the extraordinary, for the ordinary.

And thank God for Zycam.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

Running for Your Life

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

And Don’t Sweat the Last 30K

When I scan the web for articles about combat vets, I have no problem finding ones telling tragic stories of vets who have “broken bad,” often replete with explanations from members of my profession as to the expectable results of trauma when one returns to civilian life.

Perhaps for this reason, I never tire of stories that tell simple tales of redemption, bits of life that, in the grand scheme, are no big deal, yet by their very simplicity are, in fact, just that. Today, it is from the wide-ranging blog site, Medium, in an article originally posted by the US veteran organization, AMVETS, entitled, “From PTSD to Ultramarathoner, the Story of Brandon Kuehn.”

As a result of his military experiences, Brandon Kuehn suffered not only the physical scars of neuronal functioning that lead to combat trauma, but also the physical scars of a back injury that precluded his further service in the United States Army, leading to a medical discharge. By his own report, he was devastated by the loss of his soldier identity, and he fell into booze and food such that he reached 300 pounds (about 135 kg) and a state of mind that well can be called “vegetative” depression.

Then, through the intervention of his old Army squad leader, Brandon met Ryan Anke from Team Red, White & Blue, a veterans organization in the US dedicated to helping combat vets “re-find what they still have” through physical activity and community service. Ryan introduced Brandon not only to the world of runners, but eventually to the world of ultramarathoners, runners who compete at distances anywhere from 50 km (about 30 miles) to 100 miles (about 160 km).

Well, now that’s one way to lose weight, I guess. I won’t embarrass myself by revealing my piddle-diddle New Year’s resolutions.

For Brandon, of course, actually achieved his resolution and is setting many more for himself.

I want to highlight, though, a quote from the article’s end:

“Brandon wants to continue challenging himself with longer races such as a 100-miler, and has experienced incredible breakthroughs in dealing with the symptoms of his PTSD. Though this journey will never be over for Brandon, he has found a way to channel his energy into something positive. If his story helps one veteran combatting PTSD to change his or her life for the better, Brandon has done what he set out to do.”

This is where the so-called simplicity of the story strikes me. Brandon is not the only person in this world who manages to achieve his New Year’s resolutions, and many do equally amazing feats. Heck, some people even get their pictures on the cover of a supermarket tabloid or a chance to play themselves in the next reality TV show. Big resolutions done big are a cottage industry these days.

But in remembering that he still has what it takes to do what needs to be done, Brandon is not only remembering that he has the stamina to endure mile after mile of running. He also still has what it takes to undertake a second mission beyond his own self-makeover: a mission of connection to fellow vets who are also struggling, boozing, vegetating. He may have had to leave his military career behind him, but his brothers and sisters in arms? Anything but.

It’s a simple story, with a simple conclusion: “Hey, guys, if I can do this, so can you.”

But even more, a conclusion with a heartfelt plea: “So, guys: please do.”

Thanks, Brian. “Simple” stories of redemption might not translate into scripts for the next Hollywood blockbuster, but that sure doesn’t mean that they can’t bust a few blocks of their own every now and then.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

To learn more about Team Red, White & Blue

click here.

For the Birds

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

Polly Wants a Recovery

Yesterday we went to the wolves. Today, it’s the birds. From the Los Angeles Times comes another case of the wild being domesticated—sort of—in more ways than one. “How Orphaned Parrots Help Troubled Veterans, and Vice Versa.”

Yesterday I introduced you to the Lockwood Animal Rescue Center, a private organization dedicated to rescuing wolves and wolf-dogs, located in Frazier Park, a mountain community in south central California, that has developed a program to help combat veterans through their bonding with America’s dogs of the wild.

Well, program managers Matthew Simmons, a retired United States Navy seaman, and Dr. Lorin Lindner, a psychologist, didn’t stop there when it came to “wild” ideas.

So, be honest: would you have ever imagined a bird park on the grounds of a Veterans Administration hospital? Neither would have I, but near the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center lies Serenity Park Parrot Sanctuary, a maze of open-air, wire homes set up to treat abandoned and injured exotic birds of all types and sizes.

Abandoned and injured. Not quite domestic, not quite wild. It appears that Mr. Simmons and Dr. Lindner have this thing about taking metaphors and making them living realities of recovery, not only for furry and feathered creatures, but also for combat vets who have no problems whatsoever connecting with the emotion of a wolf’s or cockatoo’s nuzzle.

I strongly urge you to check out the link and to hear the vets themselves on a YouTube video as they talk about their experiences caring for those stunningly beautiful (and stunningly loud) birds. Mr. Simmons himself talks about vets’ needs to heal from the inside out, or, as I might put it, for vets’ needs to re-discover that by still having what it takes to do what needs to be done, they still have what it takes to feel connected to fellow creatures that are more than willing to connect back, when given the chance.

And let’s face it: there’s just something about seeing a bird on someone’s shoulder, looking at you as if it were listening to your every word—and not buying whatever it is you’re trying to sell. Even if only with a squawk, they always seem to pipe in at just the right time to burst anyone’s big-shot bubble, as if to say, “Save your breath, pal. I’ve heard it all.”

And then they just look at you and dare you to say anything in return.

Sounds like a few combat vets I’ve met. Talk about a match made in Heaven.

A match made between two souls who’ve fallen to Earth a few times more than wanted, who’ve picked themselves, shook themselves off, and marched on, muttering to themselves, and yet smiling at each other all the same.

March on, my friends. And pass the crackers.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

Going to the Wolves

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

On Braving Wildness

Do a Google search on veterans and recovery from War, and, without doubt, you’ll find more than your fair share of dog stories. I’ve mentioned a few myself, in fact. But wolves? Check out this piece from the British 24-hour news channel, Sky News, entitled, “Wolves Helping to Heal Veterans with Stress.”

Although from a European source, this story is actually out of the US, with an interesting take on the cool of California meeting the cool of Alaska, with (pardon the cheesy metaphor) heartwarming results.

The Lockwood Animal Rescue Center is a private organization dedicated to rescuing wolves and wolf-dogs, located in Frazier Park, a mountain community in south central California. Since 2011, they have sponsored a program entitled “Warriors and Wolves,” pairing combat veterans with rescued wolves to help both adjust to lives of “being in-between.”

The Center cares for the wolves in an environment that is not quite wild, yet not quite domestic. And seeing a good metaphor there, they turned the metaphor into a reality for combat veterans who themselves often feel as if they are stuck somewhere between war and peace.

I have to say: kudos go to retired seaman Matthew Simmons and psychologist Dr. Lorin Lindner for their having come up with this idea.  I myself have met many a combat veteran who more than has the energy and even the “wildness” to be willing to face a fellow creature with similar attributes, approach it respectfully, yet strongly, and find a way toward a common ground that could be mutually beneficial. Dogs are for us all. Wolves, anything but pets, need special handlers.

And clearly there have been men and women who have served who still have what it takes not only to handle, but also to accompany the canines the wild has to offer.

While I often talk about connections that calm quietly, there are some connections that calm quite vigorously. Man and wolf may not be the usual pair, but in the mountains of southern California, they are a pair who are clearly fitting into a land that most would find vigorously challenging, and human and animal are finding there, if not quiet moments, at least warmhearted ones.

Beats Alaskan winters any day. Even for a wolf, I suspect.

Good luck to all.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

To learn more about Warriors and Wolves

click here.

Bravely Speaking Out

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

Silent Guilt No More

Today’s story is a more difficult one. When we talk of the “hope of recovery,” we are, of course, talking about recovery from something, and that something is often painful beyond words. The Royal Marine who bravely opened up his heart and mind to the British tabloid, The Mirror, certainly does have hope for further recovery, but as he struggles to reel words back into his pain, he reminds us all of the complications that War brings, even to those whom we would all call “heroic.”  The article is “War Hero Is Left Suicidal and Depressed Due to ‘Guilt’ Over Military Cross Recognition.”

Interesting how the headline writer at The Mirror felt compelled to add quotation marks around the word hero, as if somehow, what, to comfort the rest of us that we know what real heroism and undeserved guilt really are? Perhaps, perhaps not.

For Corporal Richard Withers of the Corps of Royal Marines, in Her Majesty’s Naval Service, however, guilt is guilt, potentially deadly, whether or not undeserved.

Yes, you and I can see and say what a brave man Corporal Withers is, based not only on his willingness to man his post and charge through heavy Taliban fire in 2007, but perhaps just as much on his willingness, even while still on active duty, to reveal to the British nation—and thereby the world—that he struggles daily with thoughts of unworthiness and suicide, constantly recalling all the men who did not survive, wondering over and over what he might have done differently to have permitted one, two, all of them their own chances to live life after War.

Yes, “survivor guilt” is the technical name for this “condition.” Yet there is nothing technical or clinical about his suffering. Even the Military Cross, awarded by Her Majesty for “an act or acts of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy on land to all members, of any rank in Our Armed Forces” can only do so much to allay the burden that all of us must eventually bear and that those touched by War must bear with a vengeance: grief over the loss of those we dearly love.

Together, Cpl. Withers and The Mirror are reminding all of us that “heroism” and “suffering” are not mutually exclusive terms. And they are also reminding us that neither are “heroism” and “journeying toward recovery.”  The good Corporal himself acknowledges that, in fact, by his finally being able to speak openly about his suffering with providers associated with the Royal Navy, with the world, with himself, he is finding that words have a “heroism” of their own, words spoken to connect, not to distance, words spoken to re-ignite a fire for missions and connections that are still worth looking for, striving for, living for.

You have what it takes, Corporal Withers. For your service, both in times of War and now in times of bravely living life afterwards, thank you.

Keep going, sir. For the men you loved. For your son, Harley. For yourself. For us all.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

Return to the Waves

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

The Healing Board

Listen to the Podcast of Blog Post:

 

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.

Happy New Year!

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

Good Stuff A-Comin’!

A simple message today:  Happy New Year!

On this quiet, sunny morning in Nashville, Tennessee, USA, I wish each of you the best over the coming year.  The reboot of a new year always brings a smile to my face, no matter how old I get.

And this year? It brings a podcast.

I will be beginning the podcast based on many of the entries I’ve published so far, starting on Monday, January 11. In addition, over the year I look forward to conducting interviews with many of the people I’ve learned about over the past few months. I’ll also be putting up an audio version of Beam Me Home, Scotty!

So stay tuned.  Wars will continue. Elections will happen. Life will keep going on.

But let’s all plan on making 2016 (and all the years that we’re granted afterwards) ones of doing what it takes to make missions and connections happen that are worth looking for, striving for, and living for.

And, I hope, ones of doing so together.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

Semper English

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

Fidelis to the Max

Listen to the Podcast of the Blog Post:

 

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

%d bloggers like this: