Search This Blog

Thursday, November 13, 2014

What Do They Really Need? Part 2

   In today's post, we continue my analysis of veterans' affairs. Here now is part 2:

   I so clearly remember the day I learned a valuable lesson regarding how to relate to those returning home from war, and I will always remember the Navy Corpsman who taught it to me. For several months, I had corresponded with this young Navy medic who was serving with the Marines in Iraq. I had sent him a package, along with a letter saying thanks for all he was endeavoring to accomplish there. I had said he was a hero, and I meant it. To a fifteen-year-old like me, people who did things such as he did deserved some respect! Weeks later, I received a letter back from him. He said thank-you for the package and said he appreciated everything in it. But the rest of his letter addressed my "hero" comment. In it he said,

 "…As for calling us heroes, well thank you, but we're not.
A saying comes to mind from Ulysses S. Grant: 'we men 
are lions; we men are treacherous things.' That is the best
way to put it…Doing what we do doesn't make us heroes,
although we all want to be.We do it more because of hate
or anger caused by the loss of a friend or just a Marine."

   At the time, I didn't understand what he meant. Like most civilians, I would've tried to convince him otherwise. But, in time, I began to realize that, to the average soldier or Marine, the real "heroes" are the ones who gave their lives. Most service members will tell you that they just "did their job." To them, it is a very uncomfortable thing to be called "heroes." "For what?" they say,"Doing what we volunteered to do? Doing what was asked of us? Leave the praise to those who gave all. They are the true heroes." I have heard this time and time again and have come to believe it myself. I respect the bravery and courage of service members, but I rarely use the word "hero" anymore. I save that title for the ones who, like my friend Michael, sacrificed their lives. It's been nearly ten years since that Navy medic wrote to me. I would later learn that he penned those words just hours after losing several of his Marines buddies in an IED explosion. Once I heard that, it all made sense to me: soldiers and Marines, who, like him, endure the horrors of war, feel more like monsters than heroes when they return. They have done unforgettable things that terrify them. The have seen their buddies injured or killed in front of their eyes. They don't know who they have become. It takes time for them to work through their feelings and to appreciate their own service. Calling them "heroes" only adds to the chaos of their mixed emotions. While well-meaning, it can hinder the healing process. If we are to communicate to them that we understand, we must strike a balance between showing our appreciation and recognizing their courage. 
   Yet another failing on our part in regards to how to help those returning from combat is our quickness to label them. As the clinical and medical world has delved deeper into the issues surrounding post-trauma, these issues have become a major focal point for those returning home from combat. Soldiers now feel like they must be super-human in order to avoid PTSD's presumed inevitability. Any remote sign of anger, grief, loneliness, etc. is deemed an automatic indication of the "disorder." Soldiers have expressed to me their frustration that, the moment they get back, they're being treated as "broken people," as a "problem needing to be fixed." There is no longer any room for transition. It's almost assumed that you will end up with this "disorder." Poor you. 
A friend of mine, who has endured several deployments, once shared with me that almost as soon as their boots touch U.S. soil, the service members are given papers to fill out so they can be tested for (and usually diagnosed with) PTSD. He told me,
  "How do they expect someone who was just on the front lines a few hours before to 
   now be 'normal' when they get home? Of course they will diagnose you because 
   you haven't even begun to transition home yet…We know what they're 
   going to say, and it's only going to make us feel worse. Let's give it some time
   and see where [we] are at in a few weeks or months. Then we can evaluate 
While I do believe that PTSD is a legitimate issue and that some people will need medical intervention to help them in their struggle, I have also long felt that many who are "diagnosed" with it do not really have a disorder at all. The dictionary describes someone with a disorder as being "deranged, or mentally incapable of functionality." Most of the guys I've known who supposedly have this "disorder" would not qualify under this description. Labeling someone with a disorder means that there is something physically wrong with them, that there is cause for them not to be normal. It often indicates hopelessness, a sense that one will not improve. I do not feel that this is the correct approach in most situations for the hurting and have sought to offer a different solution. 
Over the years, I have talked with soldiers who have successfully transitioned home, and most have said to me that the one thing which aided them the most was authentic, interpersonal communication - a sense of togetherness and genuine understanding from friends and family, not often found in the counseling offices of therapists and doctors. While there is sometimes a role for professionals to play in the healing process, I've had Marines and soldiers tell me that they feel as though they are not being fully heard in these situations or treated as a human being with real needs. They are just a number, another appointment on the calendar. Many suspect this is partly due to the fact that not all counselors or therapists who study PTSD have ever experienced combat or gone through the transition themselves. I can't say I have either and yet, by communicating to them that I genuinely care, that I don't consider them a victim, and that I believe that they can come out of their despair and lead a fulfilling life, I have seen amazing results. By reinforcing good changes in their life as they move forward, by not being discouraged by the set-backs along the way and maintaining an attitude of hope and recovery, these soldiers respond in positive ways. Some have even said to me that I am the first person they have ever met who gave them a reason to believe they could overcome their feelings of hopelessness and despair. One soldier once looked me in the eyes and said, "…You are the first person in six years who has made any sense of what I went through." 
Part of why I think this is true is because I am open to alternatives not found within the medical community. It bothers me to think that, perhaps, we have lost our common sense along the way. Because we know so much in terms of modern medicine, it is becoming harder for us to simply listen, to feel with our heart, to give validation to other things. Music therapy, animal therapy, outdoor experiences, sports, and other methods may be of far greater benefit to someone than counseling and medications alone. I remember reading a story about a young Army captain who struggled greatly upon his return home. For months, he had been trying to make sense of what he had gone through yet continually came up empty. Then one day, while attending a church service, he heard the pastor say the following:

" If you are in a dungeon of darkness, in a place of despair,
understand that a picture comes from a negative. There's 
a darkroom first. There's a negative that develops. From
a negative comes a picture…You can't live your whole  
    life trying to escape your situation…You're going through
dungeons and dark places of despair. Your battles are in 
your mind. You're asking God, 'What is wrong with me?'
Nothing is wrong with you. You're in the darkroom
You're about to be made into a picture!"
(from Two Wars by Nate Self p. 323)

The soldier went on to say that he felt like the pastor was describing him perfectly. He added, 

"I knew that I had been living in a darkroom, but I had only
begun to see that God could use me as a picture to others. 
I walked out of that church with a broken heart…but believing
what [the pastor] had said."   (ibid)

 This brings me to my final observation regarding the needs of our service members. We need to be aware of spiritual emptiness and then attempt to promote a healing of the soul in addition to the mind and body. As is the case with many of us who go through a traumatic situation, soldiers returning from war are left to find answers to their experiences, solutions to the questions which have resulted from the atrocities of combat. For those who possess a strong foundation of faith prior to their wartime experience, these tend to fare better because they have something to hold on to. For them, there is a God to explain what has happened. For those who do not have this, however, the road to healing is even harder. Sometimes there are things in life that, humanly-speaking, are unexplainable. They don't add up. Only God can bring understanding at such a point. For this reason, I believe that the spiritual has to be a central part in the healing process. It certainly has worked for many veterans that I know. As our culture tends to discount this fact, I think it is no surprise that so many feel so lost and hopeless. For them, there is no God of comfort to turn to. He is nonexistent. Only their own strength can save them and, eventually, that fails. If someone is to truly take steps on the road toward healing, they must come to know the only One who can make sense of their emptiness. Better yet…the only One who can fill it and replace it with a "joy unspeakable" and "life abundant." Because, after all, there are times when only God can understand the groanings of the heart.
  In conclusion, we must realize that, for those who leave the battlefield, the war is far from being over - it is really just the beginning of another war - a war at home that no one else can entirely see or comprehend. For them, the echoes are still there. While they may seem alive on the outside, often something has died on the inside. They are still making their way home, even though they may have been back for some time. It is essential that we surround them with unconditional love and support and promote an environment where they have permission to grieve and to heal. It is also crucial that we do not heap false expectations on them but simply meet them emotionally where they are, making sure that they have many opportunities at their disposal with which to positively handle the pain. Most importantly, we must give them the room to transition, while being with them every step of the way. Each of them has given so much on our behalf. It's up to us to learn what they really need and then to be there to provide it for them.

  Here are some helpful links regarding services being provided for our troops and their families:

For spiritual assistance:

For music therapy:

For housing assistance:

For help and information regarding soldiers
and suicide prevention:

For animal therapy:*

*The operation above is run by some dear friends of mine.