I just spoke to a friend, another veteran, and my heart bleeds for the guy. He is a Vietnam era vet. He put almost 30 years in the Marine corps starting in 1966. He went on to work for three lettered government agencies. His story is impressive, but not uncommon. His life is the stuff of movies. He is a great guy and I wish I could do something for him…but he won’t let me.
The problem is that he makes the same mistake that most veterans make. His definitions of the things that contribute to happiness are not allowed to include himself.
Now this is not a religiously affiliated blog and I am not trying to push it in that direction, but the man’s faith is relevant to the discussion. He is Christian and tried to use the Bible to justify why bad things happen to us. He is right, God does allow us suffering — that is the subject for another post — but for the sake of this one, he then went on to tell me “there is no such thing as forgiveness.”
I did mention the obvious: that if you are supporting your position with the tenets of your faith and one of those tenets is forgiveness then you either do not believe your own faith or you do not understand it. There is a third option which is that he does not apply his beliefs about these things to himself. This is where I am going today.
Forgiveness is for others, not me
The argument takes several forms, but generically it goes like this: “if my (fill in the blank here with wife, kids, friends, etc.) knew what I did over there they could not love me.”
This argument sounds right on the face of it. We have all had it. We have made the point to ourselves, our VA counselor, our buds, our families. The reactions that routinely get sent back at us are well intended, but often hollow. WE dismiss it as “them” (the civilians) not understanding what we went through and after all your family is supposed to love you. Our buds probably agree with us as though we are in this jacked up fraternity of formerly loveable humans that are now unredeemable. The VA says something because that is their job. The excuses we make to stay in our funk are endlessly creative, but it all points back to just a couple things.
Combat guilt blinds you to the facts.
Combat guilt is different than survivor’s guilt. This is the guilt of having had to do some very hard things and not really being okay with them. Things like calling in a mortar prep fire on a village only to sweep through and realize that there are no insurgents in the village and that you have caused three civilians to die anyway.
Guilt could be from things that were, or you thought were, war crimes. They may just have been tough choices. I once traded medical care to a villager’s son for information. I am not proud of that, but it got the job done and yes, we took care of the kid. There are all kinds of things that go wrong in combat, right? Grid coordinates get transposed, nerves twitch on triggers too soon or too late, you don’t see the guy around the corner, you missed the trip wire but your buddy caught it, you did not wait long enough or you waited too long. The wind gusted, it rained. It didn’t rain. The list is endless.
Here is what we are trying to do with these rationalizations: control the past situation by assigning blame to ourselves in the present.
The breakdown is real simple: you will not accept your child’s “I don’t know why I did that” even though it is the most honest answer they can give. “I could not do anything about it” is the veteran equivalent.
It might be completely honest, but it will not satisfy our compulsion to fix things. This reason did not work in basic training, Ranger school, your MOS school, airborne school, or any other thing you did in the military. If things did not go well then someone must be blamed. “Seek and accept responsibility” is one of the leadership principles we all learned, right? So, in the absence of any fact to the contrary, it is our fault that the wrong people died. There is a SITREP that has to go to higher, a press conference during which someone has to have something to say, relatives to be consoled or at least explained to. So, we hang it on ourselves and try to “deal with it” (God, how I hate that phrase).
Facts are often difficult in breaking down a fire fight. The physics are against comprehensive study. A rifle bullet travels at 2,700 fps (feet per second for you non shooters). So, pretending that you could have dove in front of your buddy or seen it coming or anything other than respond to the aftermath is a just pretending.
The notion that all collateral casualties are knowable in advance and that you should not have done the mortar prep even though every fiber in your being said that the situation required mortar prep fire is also pretending.
The bottom line is that you probably did do everything you could and should have based what you knew and when you knew it. War is ugly and bad things happen. You have been beat up enough. Stop it.
Having assigned ourselves the blame (but like I said above it is probably unwarranted) we now rearrange our definitions of things so that we must continue to be the whipping boy.
No one can give you forgiveness if you refuse to accept it for yourself.
Forgiveness becomes conditional as long as it does not apply to us, or the things we did, or it is only for minor things, or we can now deny that there is God, or some other excuse that does not bear up reality. This allows us to keep beating ourselves up. Britta and I have both written about forgiveness before. It is one of the most powerful components of your recovery and it cannot be rushed. You will recover! Believe in that. You won’t be what you were before the war, but you will recover if you can forgive yourself.
There may not be closure to your combat tour. By that I mean you may not get the cosmic reasons that make it all make sense and worth the loss, grief, and sacrifice. Yet, you can get forgiveness. Forgiving yourself may be the hardest thing of all, but you gotta work toward it. Make that a goal. Write it on your mirror:“Forgive myself.”
How do we go about this?
Stick with the facts.
By facts, I mean the hardcore science, chronology, and intelligence as you understood it all when you rolled out of the gate. Believing that your mythical Spiderman-senses should have clued you into that corner of the building .04 seconds before the shot and that you would have gotten the lethal head shot off from the hip and it would have turned the battle is bogus. That is attempting to assign responsibility after the fact and a form of self-loathing. You are perpetuating the myth which allows you to hate yourself. This is like beating your face with a brick, it feels so good when you finally stop.
If you are going to beat yourself up do not use imagined responsibility based on super powers. You are not fast, are not super strong, cannot see through walls, etc. You are you. You were trained to do a job. You believed in the job. You did the very best that your spirit and your training allowed. You deserve that medal. Do not throw it away or put it in a box that no one will ever see. The facts are ugly — you were on patrol they hit from an unexpected direction or from great cover and people got hit. Maybe they knew you were coming. Maybe they just got lucky. Who knows? You made decisions that probably kept more from dying. This leads to the next thing you need to do:
Recognize that you are not all bad.
You made decisions that caused death to some, but your decisions also meant life for others.
There is not a mathematical equation that makes this work in any fashion that we can understand. I will never tell you “3 dead insurgents = 1 of our guys.” What I will say is that you preserved a lot of lives on all three sides of the battle (ours, theirs, and the civilians). Yes, people died. I do not mean to gloss over that tragedy, but it does not change the fact that you took personal risks to preserve life. Did you follow ROE? Did you follow sound tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP)? Did you engage targets based on your intelligence? Of course you did those things, you weren’t winging it.
Maintain consistency in your thoughts and philosophies.
If forgiveness exists then it applies to you as well. Happiness is not just for “them” and not for you. God does not roll that way. If you believe in something that allows that scenario my question to you is “why?” Karma does not work like that either. Hard times visit us all don’t force them on yourself. It is not nobility. It is hypocrisy. Military people cannot stand a hypocrite so stop it. Love, faith, forgiveness, enjoyment of life are universally applicable to humanity. Universal means all. All means all. That means you too.
Yes, you worthy of love and forgiveness. Ask your wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, or your family. No, they did not serve, but what if they are right about this one? And if they did not serve with you they are serving now without you because of what you are putting them through. It is ok to lighten up and accept their love and forgiveness. No, they do not understand combat or what that is like. But they do understand life, too. Combat is not the whole of existence. Allow them to come in so this all gets easier.
Look at this from your bud’s perspective.
If you could talk to that guy now, the one who’s death you blame yourself for, what would he say? “Dude, it is all on you. I hope you rot!” is probably not the thing that comes to mind. It is probably closer to, “Stop beating yourself up, brother. I did what I had to and so did you. Let it go, not your fault.”
Combat is ugly. Seeing death is hard. Delivering death was fun to talk about in training, but it hits home. The price of service is huge. We did well with it as long as we were deployed. The valley of the shadow of death was not scary because we built it, right?
But afterward we often make the price heavier on ourselves by continuing to heap on unwarranted responsibility for events we could not control (is that the real fear we are avoiding?). Then we reorganize our whole life view to make sure that we cannot partake of anything good. It’s like hitting your face with a brick — it feels so much better when you stop.
Stop doing this to yourself and everyone else. Be consistent, stick with the facts, recognize that you did a lot of good in the middle of all that heinousness, and imagine that conversation with your buddy (be honest, too). Work toward forgiving yourself. The weight will just melt off your chest.
If all else fails, I am here for you brother. Call me.
Joe DeCree is a Maj. (Ret.) US Army, Green Beret, 19th SFG (A). He works with returning veterans and lives with his family in Montana. You can contact Joe directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 406-871-0638 MT.