Archive for June, 2013

MemoirsOutlawAmazonRecently, Bob Tanner, an OIF veteran, reached out and asked if I’d be interested in reading his book, Memoirs of an Outlaw | Life in the Sandbox – I was honored to do so. In a very accessible way, Bob captured the essence of his second deployment to Iraq as a Marine in 2004. I asked Bob if he’d be willing to write a guest post here and he graciously accepted. His book is a testament to what so many of you have been through – and while his story would definitely resonate with you and allow you to access  your common experience – it is also a great vehicle for helping the civilians in your life better understand what it was like to deploy and spend time in Iraq in those days. Bob writes not only of action, but boredom, enemy fire and accidents, brave decisions and sandbag duty, heat and mortars, and how the men in his company cried together when they lost man after man in a very short time. This book will take you back there, but it will also take you out of there as you follow Bob’s journey. What I want you to remember as you read Bob’s post is that sharing your story is part of your healing journey, too. It isn’t about being “a writer” or “good with words” – but about expressing your story, and letting others honor you and your service by being able to carry that story with you. If you want to share your story here, email me and I’ll post it.

And with that said, here is Bob’s post:

BobTannerOn September 11, 2001, I stepped onto the yellow footprints on Parris Island and my whole world turned upside down.  I had recently decided to join the Marine Corps to take on a new adventure in life.  Boy, was I naïve.  That day, as all are sure to know, terrorists attacked the United States and my desire to be a crypto linguist quickly changed to me becoming an infantry Marine.

Two years later, I found myself as an infantryman with Charlie Company, 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion.  Our Mediterranean deployment which was only supposed to be seven months got extended to nine and we were headed on our way towards Kuwait to assist in the invasion of Iraq.  As we were about a week behind the invasion force, our platoon didn’t get to see much action, but we did conduct several missions to help maintain and restore peace to newly occupied areas.  After that deployment, still young and naïve due to lack of combat, I didn’t think much of war.  In fact, I thought it was a piece of cake.  We walked into Iraq and declared victory a short while later.

A year later, in February 2004, my view of war changed dramatically.I was assigned to a new company within 2nd LAR: the Delta Company Outlaws.  We were a mish-mosh group of Marines, hastily thrown together and given directions to prepare to deploy to Fallujah.Over our seven-month deployment to the most hostile area in the country, we experienced so much as a group that brought us all close together, representing more of a family than just an infantry company.  We lost way too many fine men and these losses hurt us all.  For many, the experience of combat and loss of friends was like getting our cherry popped for the first time.  None of us had really had to deal with the flood of emotions that came of these new experiences.

When we got back to the States, many of the guys either transferred to new units or left the Marine Corps to enter the civilian world.  I took the latter path a few months after that deployment.  What I was not prepared for was the sudden transition to civilian life.  I went back to school, but so many of the memories from my deployment, both good and bad, continued to invade my thoughts on a daily basis.

About halfway through my last year in college, I was given some advice by a doctor who said that it might help my anxiety and guilt if I started writing the thoughts that were on my mind.  It was around the beginning of November which happened to coincide with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  I took it as a cue to start writing and for a month straight, I dedicated a few hours a day to writing.  By the end of the month, I had written about 50,000 words (for comparison, a novel is typically around 90,000) but I came to a halt.  I was getting to a point where I didn’t want to revisit some experiences.  So, I took the easy way out and put it on the back burner. 

That back burner turned out to be a very desolate place because it took nearly seven years before I would write a sentence again.  It took so long due to a variety of factors: going back to school for my MBA, attending classes for a degree in web design, marrying my beautiful wife, and having two great little boys come into our lives.  But, the thing that really kept holding me back was those memories.  I just didn’t want to touch them.

In 2012, my wife and a couple friends I had served with had read a few pages of what I had written and began to encourage me to finish it.  I picked up what I had written, dusted it off, and began reading over it again.  So many memories came flooding back and the fire inside me was ignited.  I had the urge to write again and this time I was determined to finish it, bad experiences be damned.  The more I wrote, the more I felt as if a weight was being lifted off of my shoulders. 

By the end of 2012, I had written around 82,000 words which retold the story of my experiences with the Outlaws.  I was overwhelmed that I had accomplished such a formidable task.  What made the experience even more worthwhile was that some of the guys who I served with read the book and thanked me for getting our story out there.  Some went so far as to say that it helped them in the healing process.  Those words coming from men who were my brothers were all I cared about. I set out with the goal of writing to help me in the healing process.  To know that my book helped my fellow brothers as much as it helped me was the ultimate sign of accomplishment.

I hope that my book continues to help my fellow brothers, as well as other service members out there.  And, as more people continue to read it, I hope that it gives others that never served a better sense of the sacrifices, both physical and emotional, that our service members endure on a daily basis.

Visit Amazon to order Bob’s book.
Contact Bob Tanner at bmtanner3@yahoo.com or on Twitter @bmtanner3

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to know where we are in life, to have answers, to see a clear path and walk on it. Society holds that expectation over us. If you’re an adult, it’s pretty much a given that you’re supposed to be in control of your life, right? You’re supposed to know who you are and where you’re going.

But what if you don’t?

Veterans who come home from war often don’t know who they are now or where they’re going.
Society gives you a few months to get on with it. After that, if you’re still uncertain, they start labeling you.

This added pressure and judgement only slathers on another layer of misunderstanding.  Let me tell you this: there’s nothing wrong with you if you need more time to figure things out.

There’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t know.

Give yourself permission to “not know” the path, the answers, who you are now or want to be. It’s hard to do – hard to let go of our need to appear to be in control – but if you take that pressure off yourself and intentionally give yourself permission to not know, you open yourself up to new possibilities. You allow yourself to be who you are right now, today.  Accepting that you “don’t know” gives your spirit space to open to a “new knowing.”

So let go. Push away from the shore. Set sail in this unfamiliar sea and trust that in your blindness now, you will eventually behold your destination.

“One doesn’t discover new lands, without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” – Andre Gide.

Consent. And trust. A new shore awaits.

 

How do you see yourself?
Don’t let your wounds and fears and feeling stuck in this perpetual hell of the unknown take away your identity.
Don’t let it erase the truth that you are incredibly strong, resilient, tenacious, brave.
Don’t let a diagnosis replace who you are.

You are not your diagnosis. You are not your wounds. You are not your loss.
You are not unhealable. You are not beyond hope.

You are a warrior.

And this new life, this new you that you are becoming, this unknown territory is not for the weak.
It is for those who have the courage to allow themselves to feel weak.
It is for those who have the courage to allow themselves to feel lost.
It is for those who choose to believe that feeling weak and feeling lost are temporary conditions of the journey.
They do not define your soul.

It is for those who have the courage to grieve while giving themselves permission to feel alive.

It is for those who have the courage to stay awake to fight the demons of hopelessness, uncertainty, fear, pain, misunderstanding, memories, guilt, anger, and the physical and spiritual changes that war inflicts.

It is for those who realize that accepting where you are now, is the first step to healing.
That when we stop resisting the fact that we are changed, we can change who we are.
That the only thing we ever control is our perspective.

And that perspective is everything.

Too often we see veterans only as wounded, damaged, broken, labeled by mental health and disability percentages.
Too often we see veterans as condemned as powerless to the toxic effects of war.
And before we know it, veterans see themselves this way, too.
But is that who you are?

It’s not who you are.

Have you ever stopped to think of the gifts war has blessed you with? Yes, I said gifts. Yes, I said blessed. Because as much as war takes away, it also gives. And as much as you have been changed by what seems to be negative, you have also been changed for the better. Stronger. More spiritually sensitive. Aware. Confident. Perceptive. Intuitive. Knowledgeable about the preciousness of life. Certain of what matters. Able to lead not only a team, but a country. Decisive. Ingenuitive. Daring. Bold. A believer in what is possible. A disbeliever in the impossible. A questioner of status quo. A change-maker.  A guardian of peace.

How can I say this when you suffer from TBI or PTSD or are burned beyond recognition?
How can I say this when you see nothing but what’s gone, what’s been taken, what’s left behind?

Because I see you as more than what you’ve lost.
I see you whole. Not as your wounds.
Strong. Powerful. Resilient. Brave.
A warrior still.

They never tell you when you head off to war that the greatest battle, the one that takes the most courage isn’t the adrenaline rush of combat, but the quiet confines of life back home. This is where the fiercest battle takes place. Not against a human enemy, but against the enemy of war itself.

You have to fight as hard now for your life as you did then. Harder, even. Because you don’t have the support of your brothers and sisters-in-arms to head out with you to meet whatever comes. You don’t have a leader telling you how to spend your time. You don’t have anyone but your own stubborn, tenacious thoughts to keep picking yourself up and saying yes to another day or night of “battle” you aren’t sure you can even win.

It isn’t for lack of courage that you struggle, dear warrior. It’s for lack of connection. Support. Being “in it” together.
And because this fight is fucking hard.

You have a choice. Now. This moment. And the next moment. Tonight. Tomorrow morning. Tomorrow night.
Fight for your soul’s freedom or let war claim you as one of the living dead.

Fight, my brother. Fight, my sister. Reclaim your warrior spirit.
Do it for every one of your brothers and sisters who didn’t live to have the chance to fight for their life after war.

You can do this.
Fight.

 

“No one understands.” “No one ‘gets it’.” “No one cares.”

If you feel like this you’re not alone.

There are numerous resources out there for dealing with PTSD, TBI, trauma and reintegration.
And yet, so often veterans still feel isolated, misunderstood… alone in the world.
What those resources often fail to do is connect to you as a human being. Not a patient. Not a case. Not a diagnosis.

A person.

A heart and soul and body that needs to be heard and understood.
A heart and soul and body that needs to be loved and accepted.
(And you do deserve to be loved and accepted, no matter what you’ve experienced, you know that, right?)

PTSD, TBI, other wounds are complicated. There are no easy answers. Getting diagnosed is important. But sometimes in all our “therapy” and “prescriptions,” we fail to remember the deep power of human connection. Feeling understood, being heard, knowing that someone really cares can be instrumental in finding your path. When it fails to happen or you don’t have that support in your life, it only makes things that much harder.

(It’s important to note, too, that you don’t have to have PTSD to be affected by war. We’ve used “PTSD” in our culture to capture and contain the impact of war on warriors, to the extent that we’ve excluded the majority of veterans who come back physically whole and without PTSD symptoms. It sends the message that if you don’t have PTSD, you must be fine; the war didn’t affect you; get on with life. It fails to honor the change that occurs in you and leaves you wondering why it isn’t easier to “get back to normal.”)

Wounds of the spirit get delegated to “mental health.” We’ve tried to put the pain of the soul into a set of symptoms that can be diagnosed and treated. (I’m not discounting the value of a wise therapist or physician who sees beneath your surface – but they’re rare.) We treat the symptoms and fail to address the real issue.

And the real issue is what’s going on in your soul.

I’m not talking about religion or your relationship with a higher power. I’m talking about the part of you that gets haunted by trauma, grief, killing, loss. The part of you that is also infinite, powerful, resilient, beautiful.

Your soul is where the pain is.

It’s where the toxic effects of war take their toll. The mind suffers because the soul suffers. The body acts out because of the damage the soul’s sustained. Yes, physical injury and trauma do cause biological changes; but these changes in body and mind overlay wounds of the soul. This is why traditional therapy doesn’t cut it – they don’t address your soul. Let’s say, for example, you suffer from insomnia (as many combat veterans do) but the insomnia pills don’t work because you don’t actually have “insomnia” – you have a soul that can’t let its guard down, a body that can’t let go, a heart that desperately needs to grieve but can’t bring itself to allow it. So the pills don’t work. They switch meds; you still can’t sleep.

What’s going on in your soul is messy, it’s dark, it’s tormented, it’s unsettling and very few people want to address it. It’s not a place you can prescribe treatment. Very few people will go there because it’s not an easy place to be.

It’s a process, it takes time, it takes continual presence from someone who will stand with you and believe for you when you can’t believe. Someone who doesn’t see you as needing to be fixed, but as someone on a journey. Someone who can see you at your worst and still hold you in light of the whole person you can become.

Your soul needs to be heard. It needs relief. You don’t have to carry this alone.

If this resonates with you, reach out to me.
I’ll walk with you.

 

Former U.S. Air Force drone operator Brandon Bryant gave an interview to NBC this week that has stirred visceral reactions. In the interview, he discusses the spiritual and psychological effects he’s felt from having participated in more than 1,600 killings. I’m not going to get into the whole drone debate – nor am I going to get into any debate about the weapons of war. No, what has been curious to watch in the more than 1,000 comments on the interview’s webpage (and elsewhere on the web) is the fact that some people do not think Bryant has the right to feel what he does. He sat behind a computer screen to conduct his warfare, tucked away “safe” in the air-conditioned room in the middle of the United States. No Insurgents to fire back at him. No chance of hitting an IED. No having to deal with 150 degree heat, sand, loneliness. No buddies to lose.

People are calling him a whiner, that he has no fucking right to complain.

If you’ve been downrange, you may very well envy Bryant’s war experience. He had it easy, right? Are you sure?

No matter what manner is used to kill in war, a human death is a human death. Killing is killing. War is multifaceted and everyone has a different role to play. The big picture of war is his: you kill people to win. You are affected by association with this overarching mission. War is like radiation to the human spirit – it’s toxic. Any exposure to it has an impact — it might be invisible, it might not. Either way,  you can’t escape it. Which is why Bryant could sit in a comfortable room and still have his spirit impacted by knowing that people were dying because of his decisions.

Killing is killing. Your soul knows it.

We’ve sanitized war in the States so much that we think killing is easy. It’s not. You can press a button, you can click, you can pull a trigger. The impact on your conscience will be the same. Killing is killing and your soul knows it.

And that’s a good thing.
Bryant left the military because he felt his conscience slipping away. Because killing became “too easy.”
Does that make him a weak man or a good man?

Does it make you a weak human being or a good human being? Soldiers kill. It’s their duty. They do it, so the rest of us don’t have to – but it’s not without consequence.

Bryant broke the code of silence – and people don’t like it. Americans do not want to hear about the realities of war. Bryant put a human face to one aspect of warfare. We’d rather not have a face to it. It’s easier to believe it’s “just a video game.” The fact that “no one cares” and “no one talks about it” haunts Bryant just as it does many vets who are struggling to reconcile their war experiences with a civilian world that is (surprisingly to them) oblivious to the fact that we’ve even been at war for a decade. The war belongs to the “1%” of the population, right? Service members volunteer, they know what they’re getting into it, no one makes them go, right?

How did we lose “ownership” of our service members’ experience? Distance. No perceived threat to our everyday safety. Terrorists are “out there” – but not here, not in our neighborhoods. We send service members off to wars we don’t feel a direct impact from; they come back to us changed and we aren’t sure why. A sanitized war means that we don’t know what war is like. Our familiarity with war comes from film and video games. The act of killing looks easy because we rarely see the emotional impact in film and certainly not in video games. Sure, we know war involves killing real people, but we close our eyes to the reality that war kills the spirit of the one who kills, too. Peripherally, we all know that civilians are killed. But we don’t want to know how it feels to have killed a child or watched it cry while its mother bleeds out.

Bryant’s experience of war is his experience. It’s valid and it’s real. It should say something LOUD AND CLEAR to us that the fact that he is haunted by the “sanitized” version of war means that no matter what your role in war you can expect to be impacted. And you should. That’s a normal human reaction.

Should Bryant have been tougher? Should he have somehow been immune to it? Should his conscience not have bothered him? Does he have less rights to his feelings than you do?

His war is his war. Yours is yours. But his and yours are ours.