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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What Do They Really Need? Part 1

  As I stood at the holiday party, a young soldier, that I would later discover was named Aaron, caught my attention. He seemed lost. Quiet. Alone. I slipped over to where he was standing and began to talk to him. After exchanging some small-talk, the conversation turned deep and personal. He began to open up about his deployment and the heavy heart he had carried since then. I started to ask him a few things:
  "Do you feel alone most of the time?"
  "Yes, ma'am," he replied, "Yes, I do."
  "Do you think that others don't understand your needs or can't help you?" I continued. This question got him talking. He told me about the countless therapy sessions he had been to and the sad truth that,
   "They forget about me as soon as I walk out the door. To them, I'm just a number."
He vented his frustrations regarding the clinical approach to post-trauma:
    "Giving a guy more pills doesn't fix the problem! You never get down to the root of
     what's wrong."
I could tell he was searching for answers, so I began to share with him about my own journey through despair. He began to listen…deeply. As I shared, he finally asked me a profound question:
     "Do you get low much anymore?"
I told him I really don't. I don't because I made the choice to face the darkness, not to run from it. Not to ignore it. Not to medicate it away. I have been given hope because of Who I know - because of Who brought me through. The fog began to lift from his face. After a long pause, he said,
     "That's the first time anyone has told me that."
This conversation with Aaron changed my life because it revealed to me so much of what is wrong with our modern-day approach to helping service members and veterans. While I was fully open to taking him on for additional assistance as I have with other returning soldiers and Marines, military bureaucracy kept me from having this opportunity. I never spoke to him again. The last I heard, his emotional health was in decline. But I have not forgotten him and have reflected often on what he shared with me that day.
  Through conversations like this, and through other research I have done, I have come to notice some things regarding how we treat our bravest:
  First, I have realized that, while we think we know what they need, we really don't. Even though we, as a civilian population, know in theory the atrocities that our service members must endure, we do not, and will not ever, fully comprehend the awfulness of combat. Only those who experience it really know. Because of this, we are in a position of trying to help something we do not truly understand. This is certainly not to say that we should do nothing to assist them in their transition home. We just have to accept the fact that what we think, or what our natural feelings are, could actually be the opposite of what may help a hurting soldier.
  This leads me to my second observation: Every soldier is different, and what they consider to be "help" will vary due to their personality and the severity of their experience. For some, talking about their combat experience will be very good; others will prefer alone time or time spent with their "battle buddies" who understand and suffered with them. Each will find their own way of handling the anxiety, stress, and  emotional pain of post-combat. I have seen some turn to music therapy, others to animal therapy, still others to outdoor adventures like hunting, fishing, hiking, farming, etc. This is why I feel so strongly that telling them to rely exclusively on medical assistance for answers is unrealistic. Each person must be given the room to adjust to being back home…on their own terms. Telling them what is best for them or how they should handle their feelings will only set back the healing process. Letting the soldier find their way home - in mind and body, as well as in soul - is essential. We should be there to support them but not to tell them what to do.
  Another aspect of the post-trauma transition that is sometimes overlooked is the simple fact that: expectations can be dangerous. When we expect our service members to return and go back to being the people they were before they deployed, we are immediately setting ourselves up for disappointment. It is only natural to want to make them forget what they saw - to erase the pain they feel or remove the guilt they carry. That's part of loving someone that makes us feel that way. We can walk the journey with them. We can enter the darkness with them and assure them of our care and support. But the truth is, we can't fix their situation. As I have talked with servicemen who have come back from war, I have noticed that the military-to-civilian barrier seems to come down a bit when I listen more and talk less. When I simply accept them for who they are and where they are at now…not try to fit them into the person they were six months or a year ago. It is a fine balance of helping them bridge the gap between their old self and their new one - helping them to use their combat experiences to build a life that is meaningful, albeit forever different from the one they once had. Deployments change people. As hard as it is, we must learn to change with them.
  For all of us, and especially for those who serve, it can be difficult to give ourselves permission to be vulnerable and to be affected by the things we have seen or done. A military chaplain once told me that "healing happens in a community without judgement." I agree with him completely because nothing gives you a worse feeling than to have someone criticize or degrade you when you're at your lowest. Hurting people don't need the insensitivity of others added onto the pain they already carry. What helps the most isn't always your advice; it's your presence, your love, and your understanding. It's letting them know that it's okay to be weak, to let down their guard for awhile. It's giving them a shoulder to cry on. It's making sure they know that you are listening with your heart and not just your head. Soldiers often have to shove aside their emotions and continue on with the mission. They have to be strong. For many of them, the wave of emotions they may experience upon their return is the first time they have allowed themselves to face the pain. We can help them through this transition by not "protecting" them from it but, instead, allowing them to work through it. They are tough people, but sometimes they have to be told that it's alright to be human. To feel something and to be emotionally impacted. While some may try to cover up the pain and ignore it for awhile, eventually, there will come a time when they must choose how they are going to deal with their haunting memories. By being there for them, and not over-managing or trying to "fix" them, we can help them work through it better, and possibly sooner. Again, changing with them is vital.

Tomorrow's post will continue this topic. Check back then!