Flickering Joy

Note: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD (and other past stress) which has become part of our ethos or basic belief system. October looks at humility.

“Find a place inside where there is joy, and that joy will burn out the pain” (Joseph Campbell)

There is pain inside us, and that is the hard truth of it. We can live with the pain, maybe, but can we live well? Can our families?

Pain is a poison creating more pain and spreading through our secret selves, those parts we consider dark. Joy is the antidote.

A young Veteran on campus asked how he was supposed to relate to the younger students. When I told him that was a good question but that I did not have the answer, he said that nobody does, only excuses. But, he also acknowledged that he had a better chance of relating to them than they to him. After all, he had been young, but they had never faced the fire.

It has taken me several days, but I see the answer to his question in his own acknowledgement.

“You’ve never lived until you’ve almost died. For those who have fought for it, life has a flavor the protected never know.” (Guy de Maupassant)

I remember the second line from a wall in our C-Team compound in Bien Hoa.

The protected cannot know the pain inside us—unless we share it, and that is hard to do, maybe even dangerous. It feels dangerous, like reliving it. Sometimes, it smacks of weakness. Always, it bares the vulnerability of being misunderstood.

We can, however, remember being young. We can find the innocence of our youth, faint as it may be, and reconnect with that. We can find the joy that still lives inside, the joy we knew before we faced the fire.

That is the part of us we can share with the protected. We can connect with them by touching the good things we still remember inside ourselves, flickering lights of joy we tend to hide beneath a bushel of pain.

There came a time when I could not find my joy. I had buried all the pain so deep that when I looked inside, all I found was darkness. A few gifts of humility helped me find my way back home.

Yes, it is a kind of humility to find good things inside ourselves. I know it can feel like betrayal to feel joy in the presence of so much pain in our brothers and sisters. It is not. It is necessary, for it is life.

Sure, we must track down our own pain and face it (but not alone); however, if we are to reconnect with the protected including our own families, we will do well to find the light of our own joy to show us the way back home.

Happy Tracking.

One Among

Note: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD (and other past stress) which has become part of our ethos or basic belief system. October looks at humility.

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” (C.S. Lewis)

At the time I joined my A Team in Vietnam, one of the NCOs was getting ready to leave. We all wore solid OD jungle fatigues, but he had some Army issued camouflaged fatigues, Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol, I think. He was leaving them behind, they were my size, and I coveted them. As I was preparing for my first patrol in the jungle, I was thinking I might wear them. He thought not.

He asked, “Have you ever been at the small end of a funnel?”

I got the picture.

Most of my life I had seen myself as “special.” I had won academic and athletic accolades. I worked hard to be special, to stand out, and thought I had earned the recognition. Didn’t they even call us, “Special Forces?”

Looking special in a hostile jungle is not that special. It is being a target, one time when looking special is ill advised. I wore the same tiger fatigues that all the other Strike Force members wore, to blend in. I became just one among a group.

There is something about landing on an unsecured LZ that churns my stomach. I wore a steel pot helmet, as did many of our Strike Force, and I carried my own radio, which at that time was the size and weight of a boot box full of rocks. One reason was I had this fear of reaching for a radio handset to call for help and seeing my radio carrier lying on a hot LZ. The other reason was that I had heard of snipers targeting officers as the man ahead of the radio carrier with the tall antenna sticking out of the pack.

Blending in, being one among, has become my style. I wear camouflage, today—no, not literally, but really. If anyone were pressed to describe what I was wearing, on most days they would be unable. I blend in, look like everybody else. At a NASCAR race, I wear racing fan clothes. At a Packer game, I wear green and gold. At a Christmas party, I might even wear a Santa hat. But, on campus, I wear jeans or khakis and a simple shirt unless I am representing NAU off campus. Then I wear a tie.

A young Veteran student asked a profound question last week which I paraphrase. How are we supposed to relate to these teenagers on campus? It is a fact that military and Veteran students do stand out on campus, and everybody knows it. What we do not know is what can be done about it. I’m working on that.

My wife, Nancy, also a Veteran, went to school after service. She not only found it difficult to relate to students, but to relate to some faculty. Having been a medic in an obstetric unit of an Army hospital, she had held and fed many newborns. When she wrote about instinctual infant behavior in a psychology class, the professor got upset with her, claiming that all behavior is learned. Nancy asked him when the infants had classes on grasping and suckling.

The question as to how Veterans returning to campus can relate to students and faculty is an important one. I suggest a much more important question is to ask how students, and especially faculty, can relate to returning Veterans.

I choose to blend in because I simply do not like to stand out. This is not humility, however. Humility is more than the superficiality of my clothes, something deeper and, at the same time, more subtle. Humility leaves little to no track. How, then, can we know humility when it finds us?

You know what? That is not for me to say. I can sometimes recognize humility in others, but to even look for it in myself is to drive it from me.

I can, however, see the tracks of false pride in me, usually in some form of intolerance. When the elevation of my status depends upon the diminution of the status of some other, humility has escaped me.

Sometimes I can see my own tracks of false humility. Putting myself down is no closer to humility than is pumping myself up or putting someone else down.

Humility, I think, is a gift of gratitude for who I am with tolerance for who others may be. May you find tracks of humility from others and tolerance from yourself.

Happy tracking.

Lonesome Otherness

“Brotherhood is the very price and condition of man’s survival.” (Carlos P. Romulo)

Note: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD (and other past stress) which has become part of our ethos or basic belief system. October looks at humility.

You sent me alone, America. Did you know you did that? You trained me in platoons and teams, and then you sent me to Vietnam on a plane with about forty newly trained Green Beret Lieutenants. We processed through Long Binh, together, then got split up to go different ways. I rode the helicopter to my A-Team camp near the Cambodian border, alone.

A team was there, but I had never met them—any of them. I was the new guy, a fresh butter bar with a face of a teenager. We all knew our lives depended upon each other, but they had no measure of my mettle. I would have to prove that in live fire.

This is one of the worst things you can do to a person, to send them into combat, alone, and make no mistake, sending with strangers is sending, alone.

We coped. We got to know each other. We lived through a firefight or two. We learned to trust each other, but you kept splitting us up, sending some home and bringing in new guys.

I’m still kind of mad about that.

After about eight months at our border camp, you pulled us out, the lieutenants. You decided we were needed at the rear, for what we did not know.

I didn’t care. I had no career ambitions in uniform, and it was one step closer to home, to my family, by baby girl, and my return to UW Madison to study Genetics.

It did not take long for a group of combat veteran first lieutenants to bond. We became our own team, the “Crises Eliminators” (there were always crises at headquarters). My friend, Rod, was a performer with a great Flip Wilson impersonation. We became the Gorilla Club after Flip’s Reverend LeRoy of the What’s Happenin’ Now Congregation. Like Mr. G. O. Rilla in the zoo, “Whatever they said we did, we did it—and some more, besides.”

Then, we came home. Some of us shared a flight from Seattle to Minneapolis. Rod, who lived there, even waited a few hours with me until I got a flight to Madison. I saw him a couple of times after that. I have never seen any others from my A Team or the Gorilla Club. That leaves a hole in me nobody else seems to fill.

We are compelled to judge others, to determine who can be trusted. All people are so compelled. Animals, too. Combat veterans are particularly slow to trust. It becomes a problem for us.

We all know our survival depends upon brothers and sisters, but strangers are not to be trusted. Groups are threatening. Crowds are intolerable. Even others we want to trust are avoided.

Because, they go away.

Trapped between the threat of being alone and the vulnerability of trusting others who may attack, betray, fail, or abandon us, we live in desperate otherness, tending to fear and gravitating toward hate.

It’s alright. We can live with this condition if we are honest about it, honest enough to develop personal humility. Because, first we have to judge ourselves fairly enough to accept the way we are. We look deep inside to see the reality and the scars that make us this way, deep enough to accept the truth of it.

Looking upon these personal tracks is difficult—probably too difficult to do alone—but so liberating. May I suggest you find a new team of people who share some of the same scars and lean on each other?

Together, may you find happy tracking.

Shades of Pride

Note: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD (and other past stress) which has become part of our ethos or basic belief system. October looks at humility.

“In reality, humility means nothing other than complete honesty about yourself.” (William Countryman)

I began to look at humility years ago as the opposite of pride. That view was, at best, sophomoric. I know a little more, now.

I am proud of my Green Beret, the same one I wore to Vietnam and back that now lives in a zippered plastic hat box with Nancy’s Madison General RN cap. I worked for it and I earned it by doing some difficult things many other men chose not to do. This might be a healthy form of pride, good pride.

I am proud of my Combat Infantry Badge. I faced the enemy fire with some courage—enough so the Sergeant with me recommended me for a Silver Star. I told him not to pursue it because I hadn’t done anything heroic. I picked up a machine gun from a wounded man, but the firefight was already over. It only made sense since I had qualified Expert with the M-60. Besides, in a fight, there was nowhere I would rather be than behind that weapon. I only did my job, but I am proud of that and I believe that is a healthy pride.

For forty years, I was not proud of my Bronze Star awarded not for valor but for service. Then, one day while processing PTSD, I talked with Nancy about our operations, how we walked the jungle with one or two other Americans, two or three Republic of Vietnam Green Berets, and interpreter, and fifty to a hundred Civilian Irregular Defense Group soldiers, some of whom were likely Viet Cong.

She looked at me and said, “That’s nuts.”

I decided right there that I really had served well. Discounting my Bronze Star was a false humility, a form of unhealthy pride, bad pride.

Have you ever had a dream about embarrassment? You know, naked in public or doing something totally inappropriate or unacceptable like singing off key in front of a crowd? See, that is a bad form of pride. Fear of failure, embarrassment, or shame robs me of my power, even the power to serve others. Humiliation does not equal humility. It equals false pride.

I think.

It gets confusing. It seems that searching out and finding my false pride, boastful pride, or bad pride is healthy. But, looking for my humility is like trying to catch a rainbow.

Maybe true humility is the act of looking for tracks of false pride in me while false pride is looking for the tracks of my humility.

Happy tracking.

Spiritual Honesty

Note: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD (and other past stress) which has become part of our ethos or basic belief system. September looks at honesty.

I love cedar swamps. In them, it is easy to find the god of my understanding. Perhaps because they contain so few human tracks. Perhaps because I find it easy to get lost in them.

There have been times in my life when I felt as though I were lost in a cedar swamp in a fog on a moonless night. I had been walking on a raised logging road but wandered off. Now, I had no idea which way to turn to find that road.

Tall trees covered me in shadows from starlight smothered by fog. No wind. There was absence of reference.

My eyes blinked to no avail. There was nothing to see, nothing to feel.

No, not true. I could feel something deep down inside.

Cedar swamps have pitfalls. There are holes between the tree roots, deep holes filled with water and sometimes covered with floating plants. It is easy to step in one so deep your foot cannot find a bottom. It is an interesting experience in daylight.

How can I find my way out, assuming I want to. I have heard Tom Brown Jr. say that you are only lost if you have someplace to go and some time to get there. He attributed it to his Apache mentor, Stalking Wolf.

Have you ever had no place to go and no time to get there? Funny thing about such a condition. It is conducive to comprehending spirituality.

“Religion is for people who’re afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who’ve already been there.”(Vine Deloria Jr.)

Lost in that cedar swamp in fog on a moonless night is an opportunity to get honest with one’s self. I can feel my way with my feet. I can reach out for the next tree. Or, I can take a deep but gentle breath, exhale, and ask for help. If I want to get out of the swamp, I can ask a simple question. “Which way should I go?”

No answer. Spirituality is not easy like that. It is simpler. For the primitive spirituality of gut feeling, all that is required is a simpler question: “Is this the way?”

I face a direction and ask that simple question and wait for the feeling in my gut. My gut is tight. That translates, “No.”

I turn (clockwise because my question is a prayer and I honor the customs of my Native American grandteacher, Stalking Wolf) and ask the question, again. I do not utter the words, only feel the question in my heart.

I have a friend, a veteran of WWII, who shares a quote from one of his teachers. “Prayer is a sincere desire of the heart.” If my wish to find my way out of this swamp is a sincere desire of the heart, it is prayer.

Honesty is a raindrop. Spiritual honesty is honesty from the heart, such as a teardrop.

I turn and feel the question. I wait for the answer. Any release of that feeling of tension in my gut is, “Yes.” That is the way I step, again and again, until I step upon the road.

The honesty required is, first, to admit I am lost; second, that I no longer want to be lost; third, that on my own, I will stay lost. Then, I have to get viscerally honest. What is the sincere desire of my heart? Finally, I have to be honest enough to accept my gut feeling to sense that release of tension.

I love cedar swamps. I do not mind being lost in them. But, I do not choose to wander into them on foggy, moonless nights.

Sometimes the tracks we need to find are in our own hearts. Happy tracking.

Feeling Honesty

Note: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD (and other past stress) which has become part of our ethos or basic belief system. September looks at honesty.

Do we honestly feel, and do we feel honest? I know, there are two questions there—tied together by the way we feel.

Last week, I attended a POW/MIA recognition breakfast at a local American Legion post and heard a friend speak on the creed that we leave no one behind. It is always an emotional experience. I sometimes wonder why combat Veterans put themselves through such emotional experiences—events that evoke strong feelings we cannot deny. Maybe it is because we have a compulsion for camaraderie. Or, maybe the camaraderie provides us the security to honestly feel, and having done so, we feel more honest with ourselves.

One major symptom of Post Traumatic Stress, at least for combat Veterans, is waking with a feeling of dread. This feeling is hard to deny, but I found many excuses for the feeling, hypotheses of explanation, or just plain blaming. Because I didn’t want to feel that way and certainly didn’t want it to be my fault when I did.

Feelings are good for us. Honest, I mean that.

“Lieutenant Dan was always getting these funny feelings about a rock or a trail or the road, so he’d tell us to get down, shut up.” (Forrest Gump http://m.imdb.com/title/tt0109830/quotes?qt=qt0373723 )

Feelings saved our lives. We learned to channel feelings away from the thinking mind and directly to the quick-fire decision making mind. We reacted to feelings, and we learned to rely upon them for protection in situations of extreme vulnerability. It worked for us.

Now, I wake up with a feeling of dread, a feeling that something bad is going to happen. I am not in combat, but I feel like I am. Honest, I do.

Perhaps this is a good point to remind you that I am not a psychologist.

One way to define an emotion is as a very strong feeling, strong enough to emote a physiological response such as increased respiration rate, increased heart rate, dilation of pupils, and sweating. It might involve less obvious changes in the body including alternate nerve pathways, release of hormones like adrenaline, hypertension, and hyper vigilance. Some of these are difficult or impossible to deny. So, we blame them on others—people, institutions, or even principles.

I had lots of reasons for this form of dishonesty. I was tough. Surrender was not in my vocabulary, not for me. My tour wasn’t that rough. Others experienced much more trauma than I did, so I didn’t deserve to feel this way. And, even if I did feel dread, maybe that was just the way I was made. It had nothing to do with combat. Besides, the feelings weren’t that strong. I was fine. Leave me alone.

One definition of a disease process is a positive feedback loop. The more I denied my feelings, the stronger they became. Emotions built. Hypertension, depression, addiction, anxiety, avoidance, and rage followed. Family members felt it.

“It don’t mean nothin’” (Hamburger Hill http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9U1XPyg-gM )

Well, yes, it does. It means something. It means stuff that happened to us, by us, around us, or for us means something to the people who love us.

When our feelings become too big to deny, when they start to leave plain tracks in our lives, on the hearts of people who love us, it means it’s time to get honest and get help.

That’s when we start to feel better, and that means something to a lot of important people.

Feel the love and happy tracking.

Fruitful Honesty

Note: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD (and other past stress) which has become part of our ethos or basic belief system. September looks at honesty.

Out of Europe comes a form of honesty that has taken root in fertile soils of North America. It comes in three species of Brassicaceae (mustard family) known as “Honesty Plants”. Like some cousin species such as Pennycress, Honesty plants produce seed pods that resemble coins, but that’s not the honesty part.

These three species of Lunaria are called Honesty plants because their seed pods are transparent. We can look right through the outer layers of the fruit and see the seeds inside. Life on the inside is visible to the outside.

I spent a lot of years preventing that kind of honesty in me. I wore a mask—several of them, actually, and I became emotionally opaque.

But I left tracks.

Some of them on other hearts.

The seeds of feelings I tried to hide deep inside sprouted emotions which took root in behaviors more difficult to deny, but deny, I did.

Behaviors leave tracks that belie the emotions beneath and the feelings that generate them, for awhile. Sooner or later the pattern of behaviors tells a tale, a story of confusion and unhappiness, depression and anger, fear and guilt.

“Only good people feel guilty.” (my friend, Ashley B. Hart II, Ph.D.)

That is our dilemma, or one of them, in Post Traumatic Stress. We are good people who feel bad. We are not born transparent so the world cannot see our feelings—or, so we can see our own feelings. To face the depths of our hearts, we must do three things: get honest, get help, and look inside.

I wish I could tell you that the feelings will go away. Probably not.

I can tell you that honesty, help, and hard work can mean different emotions and behaviors leaving much nicer tracks on other hearts. And, that will help us feel better, or at least, less bad.

And that is good.

It all starts with honesty.

Happy Tracking.