With increasing numbers of Troops returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, having experienced multiple combat tours, the traumatic effects of war on our Veterans are reaching levels we have never experienced before. In this section, I will explain some of the issues our returning Warriors and their Families are now facing. This perspective is based upon my own experiences and those of working with families and Veterans from military campaigns dating from Korea to this day.
Standards of Friendship and Trust
Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq are all very similar in one respect. “You can’t trust anyone!” And to do so, may in fact cost you your life or the lives of your true friends. This is a essential and “mandatory” perspective to adopt in war. So you can see right off, our combat Troops are just following the rules of engagement to no fault of their own. Trouble is, no matter who or what is to blame, the results of battle are still at the heart of the problems now facing society. I’ll give you an example.
A few months ago, I talked to a Soldier on the topics of families and trust. He told me that three days before returning state side, he was in a major engagement with the enemy.
In a fire fight, he shot two adults, one man and one woman. Their twelve year old daughter, then picked up the AK-47 and turned it on him and his squad. He instantly opened fire, (he had to) and killed the little girl. Trouble was, the women looked like his wife and the girl like his daughter. He was severely affected by this, and yet, was sent home without discussing this with a professional counselor. He internalized it.
When he got back with his family, he was hit with a barrage of emotions. Not only was he dealing with the effects of combat on every level, he also had trouble looking at his wife because of the shame he felt. And on top of that, he couldn’t trust her, nor felt the same bond of friendship as they had once shared. Even more troubling, he was extremely uncomfortable holding his own daughter, he couldn’t trust either. Life had become black and white, trust or distrust, enemy or friendly. This was not his fault, yet he felt responsible for his feelings.
This my friends is a “Normal” reaction to killing. No matter how much training we get, we are never prepared for the aftermath of emotions we feel when killing human beings, especially when we feel that in some way they were not deserving of the death penalty. Now, let’s look at whatNormal is to a Combat Veteran.
In combat, we quickly set a new standard of Friendship. A Friend is someone you trust with your life. You will die for them and they will die for you. Every relationship from that time on is measured by that Combat Warrior Standard. This is very confusing for a spouse and or family member.
First of all, every single man or woman walks off the battle field a “Changed” person. That is, no one comes home from war the same as they were before they left. This fact alone is enough to confuse any family. Added to that, is the change in the level of trust between two people that had loved one another and planned their future together. Again, it is no one’s fault, but damn hard to deal with.
The Warrior, in many cases doesn’t feel comfortable in talking about his or her war experiences with anyone who hasn’t shared the same traumas. There are a lot of reasons for this, however, being ashamed and not wanting to be judged are two big ones.
When you’re back in civilian society, war is something that no one but another Veteran understands. It is so violently removed from the norms of average people that it seems almost like a dream you once had and want desperately to forget. Trouble is, you can’t. And the longer you deny those experiences, the worse you get. I know this clearly. Did it for many years, and it just plain doesn’t work.
The idea that a Warrior would prefer talking to other Warriors is a real problem for spouses, especially when the other Warrior turns out to be the opposite sex. This adds to the tension of a relationship that has already become severely strained.
And if the spouse abusively attacks the Combat Veteran, dumping on more guilt and shame, the situation can, and often does, become violent. In my mind, when this would happen, the one attacking me became the enemy. And what do you do with the enemy? You kill the enemy. Just that simple. Or you sure as hell “want” to kill that person, who crossed the line, and you no longer trust.
Let’s look at that just a bit. This may not make sense to some, but it was always perfectly clear to me…still is. In my mind, it is easy to make “jumps” and connect people and events that may not be closely related. When people would (and often did) say something that I perceived as an “Attack”, I immediately connected to the dead Brothers I lost in battle. These people weren’t just condemning me, they were also condemning the best friends I ever had in this world, friends I loved and who died for me. Hell, I’ve killed people I respected (the enemy) so how much easier would it be to kill people I don’t respect? Real easy.
So what is it that makes us Combat Veterans feel threatened? This isn’t rocket science either. Fact is, if we don’t feel safe we feel threatened. We can stand in a platoon of armed Warriors and feel relaxed. Put us in a shopping mall with civilians we don’t trust and we find the fastest way to extract, using any means possible. We need someone “watchin our six”, coverin our asses or we feel vulnerable and waiting for attack.
When we meet new people, we judge them instantly, placing them on the zero to one hundred scale of trust and friendship. Then we make every effort to “disqualify” them. Why? Because we find it less of a problem if we have fewer people we don’t trust to keep an eye on. The fewer the better. My standard was real simple for many years. If they didn’t have four legs, they couldn’t be trusted at all. And it only takes one single word, or one single action to get off the semi-trust list and out of our lives.
One last thing. If we have seen too much war, then when we “think” we’re being attacked, the Primal Side takes over. This is not good, because this side of us, the Beast, is only well suited for war, not for resolving family disagreements. That brings us to the next topic.
Violence and the Beast
It has been said, “If we are to survive war, we must become war”. The Primal Side of human nature, called the Beast by some, is a very necessary guardian on the battle field. It often prevents us from returning home in a body bag, because it is that side of us that kills without compassion or hesitation. And by the way, we all have it. That is, both the civilized and savage sides of our nature. Most folks just don’t like to admit it. But given the proper situation, we “all” have the ability to kill.
This Primal Side or Beast in us likes us to drink booze, feel rage, act out in violence. It wants us to feel the rush of combat adrenaline, and the rush of killing. Crazy as it may sound, the Beast loves it, and will do anything it can to make you go there.
You may be asking yourself, this sounds like a split personality disorder, a Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde. That be true. There are lots of references to this throughout history, and there ain’t no getting away from it. Because no matter where you go…there you are. Can’t escape yourself. I know. I tried for 37 years. And to us Marines (at least this old one) try means fail.
The Beast is the key to mental freedom or eternal damnation. If you control it, life can be excellent. If it controls you, simply put, life is a shit bath. But let’s look at why this “other side” of us is so cleaver at getting it’s own way. Why it wants us to ‘flash back” to the battle field and remember the trauma, the pain of loss and guilt of war.
As a Combat Veteran, if I ask myself, “When and where did I feel the best about myself?” “When did I feel the “Power” as judge and jury, deciding life and death over another human being?” “When did I have True Friends, who thought I was worth dying for?” and “What in my life now, in a boring civilian world filled with bull shit, compares to my time in war?”
All these types of questions lead us “gently and unsuspectingly” to the slaughter house. If you understand that the Beast is behind all these and is the “trickster” the “illusionist” you can see the truth of it.
As the old Christian Mystics said, it is the “Battle in Heaven, between the Angelic and the Demonic”. This battle is between our duel natures. But you see, when we go back to the battlefield in our minds, we go back to a place that we felt real good, we had self esteem (self worth) and felt very secure. That’s why holding a weapon now makes us remember a time when we were proud our ourselves.
Now, here’s an exercise that Veterans of war and Families of Veterans can use successfully…as long as you’re honest with yourself.
If what comes out of your mind and out of your mouth is not Truthful, Helpful and/or Kind, chances are it ain’t the angelic side of your nature. If you are “teased” to feel anger, hate, violent rage, guilt, survivor guilt, the need for combat adrenaline, the endless/helpless grieving from the loss of loved ones, and the hopeless-ness coupled with self-pity, chances are it the beast getting restless.
When I talk with our Troops, I suggest to them that if you feel anger and/or rage like if someone flips you off on the freeway, and you’d like to flush the toilet of humanity…ask yourself “Where” is that emotion coming from…the person you are striving to be, or the Beast that is never satisfied, that never tires of hate and killing. Just stop for THREE SECONDS and think before you react. It may save your life and the lives of others. It may prevent you from doing something you may regret for the rest of your days. Hell, we all feel bad enough from being in war. Why make it worse?
There is a growing list of websites and resources to help you understand yourself and to get on with your life, to be successful and live by the Warrior’s Code in a civilian world; see Key Resources , Books for Warriors , or the other pages under Need Help?
A fellow Marine, A. W. Schade, has written a powerful essay, The Demons of War are Persistent, that veterans and family members may find useful. You may also want to check out his website, www.awschade.com.
Practical Advice for Wives
Susan Barrera has written a series of articles on combat PTSD from the wife’s point of view. These are archived on the Resources page of The Veterans’ Voice website at www.theveteransvoice.com/AskSue/AskSue.html.