In my capacity as a trained PTSD mentor for combat veterans I would like to periodically share some tidbits collected along the path to recovery that may be helpful to the readers.
- How many times a week do you experience left over debris from the war, or intrusive thoughts as it is called?
Well, it depends on what triggers them, and if I can identify the trigger. The real art is to go deep and know what triggers the trigger.That is best done with another combatant. An adrenaline rush is usually the signal. For me, that is loud chaotic noise and too many voices at one time. Sub-woofers are bad too, as they are reminders of B-52 bombers. I become angry, short tempered and hyper-alert. My easy going demeanor vanishes. This is when I know my battle mind has come to visit. It feels like walking into an ambush, but the ambush is me. Here is where the skills of dancing with the demons come to the rescue. Years of Retreats and Resiliency training from the professionals are pulled out of the satchel. I highly recommend attending one these retreats tailored just for combat veterans.
2. It is often said that combat veterans are numb to emotions. Are you aware of this when it occurs?
Funny thing, if you are numb, how do you know you are numb? A good wife and tuned in children will help with this boogie man. Yes, I have been accused of being cold, uncaring and detached from those around me. Kind of checking out at times right in front of people. The revealing aspect of this, is that showing emotion, makes us feel dangerously vulnerable, The kind of vulnerability that is linked to survival of you and your buddy. Tools to cut that link and jump the shark before it intrudes are now taught in many Outreach programs. As a defense, we numb, it is psychological kevlar. You cannot kill and feel at the same time. Our species is not wired that way. This is the origin of the phrase often repeated in the jungles of Vietnam, “it don’t mean nothin'”
3. Some say spouses of combat veterans are walking on egg shells when in the company of their veteran. Do you have any advice for spouses, family and friends?
First , when Johnny and Jane come marching home to not expect them to be even close to their old self, and work hard to not show your disappointment about this shadow aspect….they know it! Reminders hurt. War changes everyone, even those who mask it for years by burying themselves in work. I have met men in their 80’s who have addressed this for the first time in their lives. Most recently an Iwo Jima survivor. The dominant culture now accepts these quirks of war and they are no longer stigmatized nor marginalized as it days gone by. Veteran is from the latin root. “Vetus” meaning, “outside of.” There is no exception nor inoculation for this transition period. and it best to try not to administer or expedite one.
Read as much as you can about the symptoms. Edward Ticks “War and the Soul” and “Warriors Return” are two of the best. Also really enjoyed “What Happens When We Go To War” by Karl Marlantes. My friend, Pulitzer Prize winning author Phil Caputo says, “Marlantes is one of the best writers out there.” Both of them were Marine Corps Officers.
Talk to other spouses who have been on this patrol. Do not pretend to be different or immune. There is no way out but through the tunnel.
Listen, listen. listen. Learn deep silence in the presence of your veteran. Remember, telling war stories, is not always reliving what it was like. Do not be afraid to hear the ancillary stuff. Suspend judgement and for God’s sake do not use any language akin to “get over it.” Good relationships are built on concern, concentration and confidence. The first two will help your vet open up. Then, showing confidence –even when there are no immediate answers, will create a space for healing. This is of ultimate importance. My wife never waivers on confidence.
4. What do you do to relax when you are amped up?
There is an old joke, “relaxing makes me nervous!” Trying to calm down with only your brain and raw will power is near futile. There needs to be a somatic component. More meditation then crafted beer helps! Hanging with other combat veterans is good. Have a few you can call when the heat is up. There is no need to hide anything with our battle buddies. My pal, Dave Peterson, 25th Infantry vet, says, “we have bullshit meters in out belt buckles.” When congregated together we can clean things up and move on back to the civil life. With each other all the negative radioactivity seems to get neutralized. We are good for medication reviews too. Another quip is , “what do you get when you put 8 vets in one room? A Pharmacist! ”
The trend of Mindfullness training is not just a fad. It is immensely practical and useful on a daily basis. Grounding myself in the present can place me back in a resilient zone where I am not bouncing around like a monkey in a cage. Again, practicing this with other veterans seems to increase the potency. Nearly every Vet Center in the nation now offers. TRE. Truamatic Release Exercise, is also quite effective. My Marine pal Jeff Thornton now teaches this technique. I can hook you up.
Walking is still a magic potion. Henry David Thoreau once said, ” I never trust a thought I have, sitting.” Walk a mile and see what happens. Let the body to do the talking. The Merritt Retreat Center Program for veterans in Payson, Arizona incorporates daily walks and Native American rituals in their training there transcend all cognitive therapeutic modalities. It is FREE to veterans. See ‘MerrittCenter.org.” Also check out the “Healing Memories Retreats” at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, Arizona. And last the Franciscan Center in San Juan Batista, Ca. has launched an program that is pure gold. One day we may have something similar here in the High Desert.
5. Will you ever get over this crap?
Getting over it is not the goal. Dancing with it is a bit more accurate. If you think about it, we do not really want humanity to get over war, lest the consequences be forgotten and we become less humane. There is no mechanical ritual or magic pill. The real trick is to transform the experience so that is no longer a primary driving force. You do have to release alot of beliefs about who you are and trust that all of those emotions will one day fall into a pattern of behavior that you have mastered. The laws of nature on your side and tons of fellow veterans got your back! Upon reflection, this is the path of nearly every avatar, saint and sage throughout history. You are now the Elder Warrior with the Golden Apple.