Archive for September, 2013

One of the most challenging aspects combat vets face when coming home is the gap between who they are now and who their loved ones expect them to be. Warriors say that you can’t translate much of what they’ve been through, because there is no substitute for being there. And there is deep truth in that. No one will ever understand you like your brothers and sisters who were there.

But they’re not here. And you are. And now you’re with a partner, parents, siblings, and friends who expect to know you well. And they don’t so much anymore. You’re familiar, but not the same; they look around for the person they knew you to be, they wonder at what you’ve experienced, and they get scared when they don’t recognize parts of you. Relationships are built on how well you know someone. When you think you should know someone and you no longer do, it hurts.

So much of the pain of war is amplified by the loud silence of not being understood by those you feel should understand you. It goes both ways. The gaps exist on both sides. And the results can be heartrending.

Separation and distance in relationship are part of the energy of war. Not everyone can overcome it. Not everyone is able to bridge the gaps and mend and re-discover each other. Some lose patience. Some can’t bear the pain of what’s been lost. Some can no longer love who you’ve become. Some have changed too much while you were away and have already moved on. Some just can’t take the places in you that they’ll never be able to know. And some don’t know what to do and so they pretend everything’s fine and hope you just “get over it” like you might get over a broken heart. If only.

You come back carrying a lot of weight on your heart. It gets expressed or hidden. Angry outbursts, irritability, silence, withdrawal. Your energy is not the same as it was before. Your behavior seems odd. Staying up all night. Avoiding large get-togethers. Being tense, nervous, on edge, on guard. Half here. Half not. Half, well, they’re not sure where you are. All they know for sure is that you’re just not yourself.

Yourself. (If only you knew who you’re supposed to be now, right?)

They wonder if you killed anyone, because killing someone must be the worst thing you can experience in war (it’s not.) They imagine that yes, it was horrible, but like in the movies, you came out the victor (you’re here after all) and like all movie-heroes, you’ll just carry on and be fine and go back to whatever it was you were doing before war. Or like some movie-heroes, you come home, regroup, and head back out unfazed, no worse for wear. Some may resent that fact that you left and keep leaving, that anything could possibly be more important than they are to you. Some resent the bond you have with your brothers and sisters. Some may feel such deep pain at what war has done to you that they don’t know how to relate to you anymore. They want more than anything to support you, but you’re not talking about it and won’t talk and so they hit a wall (especially true for parents and spouses).

The wall keeps them out and you in. You think that wall protects your loved ones from the darkness inside of you; but in reality, it just keeps you dark.

No one teaches you or your loved ones how to navigate life after war.

You bring whatever is left of you home. You face whatever others have become. Or un-become. Hearts break in what is left unsaid. Patience unravels when you don’t get better (as if you had an illness you could recover from). People aren’t able to accept that maybe this is just who you are now and who you’re going to be. They aren’t able to accept that there is no going back. They don’t accept that the war is forever theirs now, too. Only now instead of praying that you’ll survive and come home, and be fine, and the war over and done and forgotten — now they have to carry the war in you. If they aren’t able to carry it, they leave. Either physically or emotionally. Some signed up to love you no matter what and they will; some didn’t sign up to love you after war’s had its way with you, and it’s more than they are willing to deal with. They want to be happy. And it’s hard to be happy when so much of what war leaves in its wake is grief and sadness and loss. Who can you blame for this? War breaks things. War breaks people. War breaks relationships.

What usually happens? You try to make it work. You suck it up and do your best to seem “normal.” You may be dying inside but at least you don’t look it. You live half here, half back there. You carry the weight, only it seems to get heavier as time goes on. You feel restless. You look for satisfaction. You look for meaning. You keep in touch with your buddies, they give you a breath of fresh air, with them everything feels “normal” again, you are heard, understood, they get you without you having to say a word. Then you part ways again and you’re back in your life. You try to get help. They give you meds. You may drink, you may take more pills. They say you have PTSD, or not. They don’t really care if you do or you don’t. Just one more veteran to process through the system. You try a therapist. You sit in the lobby waiting your turn, wondering what the other patients are there for, knowing they’re wondering the same about you. You enter, the clock starts, you’re supposed to spill your guts to a stranger who gets paid to listen to you, who may or may not know what the hell you’re talking about. But what the fuck, right? You try. You talk. The therapist listens, takes notes, keeps an eye on a clock you can’t see. Asks a few questions. Makes a few more notes. Tells you you’ve made good progress (progress to where?). Schedules another appointment. Gives you some homework. You exit. The next patient enters. And you know he’s going to go through the exact same routine. One after another after another. (Can anyone even see you?!?)

No one talks about the things you think about.

Like how killing was easy and not that big of a deal. Watching your buddy bleed out, screaming, as you and a medic were helpless to save him, was. You miss war. You hate it.  You’re tempted more often than you care to admit to just take someone out. You feel unbelievably fragile sometimes. You get “this” close to breaking into a million pieces. But you don’t. You can’t. There was no time to fall apart then, there’s no time to do that now. And besides, if you did, what would it change? You’d still be you, this “stopped time of war” would still be yours to carry. What’s the point? So, you stay silent. You try to hide what you can. Try to make excuses for what you can’t. Try to downplay just how lost and how broken you feel. Try to stay busy. Try to stay distracted. Try to do anything that keeps you seemingly “normal.”

What if, instead of suffering silently, you could find a way to help others understand you better? Not all the way, but better? People can be incredibly giving, generous and accepting when they have the opportunity to understand the reasons for someone’s pain and suffering. That doesn’t mean you have to sit down and open up right away. Sometimes other people can put into words for you, what you can’t say. (Which is one of the reasons I write these posts – to help you be heard and understood.)

So, if this article resonates with you, print it off or forward it to a loved one and tell them that by reading it, they’ll get a better idea of what it’s like for you.

Then do the same with Part 2.

And if you want to vent or share what’s on your mind, reach out. I’m here to walk with you.

If you haven’t read Part 1, please do. This is part of a discussion designed to help combat vets help others understand them better. If this article resonates with you, pass it along to a loved one.

Here is what I hear from vets and what they are often unable to share with others:

1.) We can be strong, resilient and broken at the same time. The human spirit has the same rules as matter: it can be changed or transformed but it cannot be destroyed. So even when we’re most broken we have an underlying resiliency and ability to find ways to continue. Human beings are of Life and Life-giving by nature. We naturally seek life. It’s when pain and perceptions are not examined and released that life gets blocked. No matter how broken we seem, we need you to honor our spirit for the resiliency it has and is. We need you to see beyond our pain and remember that we still want to the strong one for you. We need you to know that there’s a reason we’re struggling and it’s not because we’re weak. You may need to remind us of that sometimes, too.

2.) We love you and want to protect you from the hell we experience and know. We just don’t always know how. War puts us in the most vulnerable and the most powerful positions at the same time. We had the power to take life and we were utterly powerless to stop death. We don’t know how to make sense of that. We don’t want you to have to know that kind of mental and spiritual torture. We want you safe, we want you whole, we want you untouched by war. And it hurts us like hell to know that just by being ourselves, we contaminate you with it. We wish we were stronger. We know you want to love us, we know you do love us, and we don’t know how to keep the things we carry separate from our relationship with you. But we try. Because we love you. Not because we don’t.

3.) Talking about it is one of the most terrifying things you can ask us to do. We know you’re curious and you want to know what we went through because you want to know us. But being pressured to talk about the things we’ve seen, done, and experienced – it won’t help us until we’re ready. We may never be ready to share it with you. (See #2). Not because you’re not important to us, but because you’re the MOST important to us. What you think matters more than anyone else. And we don’t want to risk you not understanding all the factors and influences that went into those moments that put us at our most vulnerable and still haunt us. We need to know that you’re there, but when we’re ready. If we’re ready, which we may never be ready.  But at least, to know you care enough to be willing to listen.

4.) We talk with our buddies. You don’t understand why we’d choose to talk to our buddies instead of you. But these brothers and sisters were the ones who had our backs and went through shit with us. That level of trust can’t be forged anywhere else. It doesn’t mean we love you less. But it’s a bond that no one, including you, will ever replace. If you can accept that, and make room in our lives for these people, it would mean a lot to us.

5.) We’re grieving. We don’t always think of it that way, but we are. We miss the ones we lost, we carry guilt, we aren’t sure how to reconcile it or how to let go of them. The date and time they died is seared into us and it doesn’t matter how many years ago it was, when that day rolls around, it hurts all over again. Much of what “the war” is that you see on us is actually grief. If someone would just realize that, we might be able to give ourselves permission to mourn and work through it. But we’re not supposed to be sad, so we try to hide it from you and everyone else. Except our buddies. They know.

6.) Some of us have PTSD, many of us don’t, all of us will never be the same. If we have PTSD, we’re not crazy. We’re not “mentally ill” either. We’re wounded inside and our bodies and minds have been through too much shit and can’t figure out why, just because we changed geography, we’re suddenly supposed to be “safe” now. We’re not monsters. We’ve been trained to react this way. We don’t understand ourselves now either. We want to. We want someone to make sense of it all. We don’t like living this way. We feel as if we’re having normal reactions and the only thing that’s abnormal is the fact that we’re not in a war zone anymore. Many of us don’t have PTSD. You think we went through war unscathed. Hell, sometimes even we think so. But we have questions, too. And our experiences have also changed us. We’re trying to make sense of it.

7.) We miss war. We know that sounds crazy, especially if you see us suffering. But we miss aspects of it. We were at the top of our game. There’s nothing like the adrenaline rush of combat. You are never more fully alive than when you’re facing death. We don’t just miss that rush, we miss the cohesiveness, we miss knowing one hundred percent who has our back, knowing who we could trust.  We miss having nothing to worry about except the moment in front of us.

8.) We have a hard time finding college or civilian jobs fulfilling. We’ve lived through too much, we’ve matured beyond our peers. What seems like a normal career path to you may not be all that appealing to us anymore. Many of us need more challenge than that. Some of us will start our own businesses because of the challenge and because we have no question that we can do anything we set our minds to. We’ve been tested. We won. What interested us before may no longer. There’s nothing wrong with those old paths, we’re just different now. We have incredible potential and leadership skills and even if we don’t have it all figured out, we sure as hell are going to try. Because if war can’t stop us, then why would we let little things like money, loans, and taking a few risks do so?

9.) We don’t want your pity. We want what has been promised to us. We don’t want charity. We’re tired of being seen as victims and helpless. We’re tired of being “supported” by countless nonprofits who take good people’s money in our name and do little to impact our well-being. We need healthcare. We need benefits. We need the checks to arrive on time so we can pay our bills. We don’t need you or anyone else to feel sorry for us. We need to be heard and seen and appreciated. We need someone to see us as strong and whole even when we are still struggling to remember that. We need someone to hold that vision of ourselves up before us and remind us of our own power to become that. You could do that for us.

10.) We will always be warriors, but war will not always define us. We’re still changing; we may seem stuck at times but we keep seeking peace. We will always honor the warrior within, but we will not always let war define who we are. We’re greater than that. We’re stronger than that. Sure, we may need some guidance and a lot of patience to find our way, but we’re determined to figure out how to make sense of our experiences and live strong. We need you to start seeing us for what we can be. We need you to remember who we were. We need you to remind us that change comes from making choices and that mountains are climbed one step, one breath, at a time.

Oh, and did we say, we love you.

If you want to vent or share what’s on your mind, reach out. I’m here to walk with you.