Four days of wandering The Pine Barrens in humid heat without food in search of answers, and my greatest revelation came in the voice of Chief Dan George from Little Big Man emphasizing this statement; “That is the way things are.”
Combat Veterans often have difficulty accepting the way things are. They ought to be different. Children shouldn’t die in war. Leaders shouldn’t make mortal mistakes. Farm boys and students shouldn’t be required to fight a police action just because some politicians think it might be a good idea—without declaring war.
Brave young men (and women) shouldn’t die in the mud or sand ten thousand miles from home.
But, that is the way things are.
Reminder: For the next few months, this blog is dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.
“…anger…is a central component to combat post traumatic stress disorder.” (Hart, 2000, p. 72). People die in war—combatants and noncombatants—and death is final. That is the way things are, but we don’t like it. In fact, it pisses us off. We may not know it at the time, and we may not admit it later, but it does. It’s not right, and we know it.
Sitting in my little clearing in the Nort’ Woods of Wisconsin, I find it easy to accept the way things are. Trees are green instead of blue, but that is okay. Wind knocks trees down, and I accept that. Cougars eat deer, porcupines eat trees, and bears eat anything. Fine. If I don’t find enough food to eat, I will die, and that’s okay with me. I accept nature as the way things are.
War is not natural.
So, we are angry. The question is, what do we do with that anger? Dr. Hart talks about two alternatives: swallowing it whole or spitting it out. Here’s the dilemma. If I swallow it whole, I get sick, and if I spit it out, I get lonely because I drive people away. I know. I will refuse to get angry.
Nope. People get angry. That is the way things are, especially for combat Vets listening to news of wars or rumors of wars. So, what are our options?
Well, we can begin by admitting we are angry. Then we can accept the anger; however, in order to do that, we may need to identify the real source.
We are not usually angry at our spouses or families. It just seems that way. And, then, sometimes we turn our anger on those around us because admitting and accepting the true source(s) may be more painful.
It is true that I was angry with Nixon, Kissinger, and Congress. Later, I was angry with Bush, Tommy Franks, and Congress. I notice a trend. I have identified a source of my anger. Now, what to do about it?
First, some level of anger is acceptable and even healthy for a combat Vet because it reduces the danger of vulnerability. The trick is to keep the anger small.
Second, we may successfully spit it out on occasion, but we must make sure we are not directing at innocent people around us. And, we must not make it a habit or we will never find healthier ways of coping with anger.
Third, we may swallow it temporarily (rather than lose job, family, or freedom). The key term is temporarily. If swallowed anger is not resolved, we get sick physically as well as mentally.
Finally, sublimate. Find some activity that helps release anger into safe objects or activities. Pleasure is an antidote for anger. So are creative activities, projects, or service to others. I serve the woods. Hey, it works for me.
If we can keep anger small, it is just a feeling, the “edge” for combat veterans, that low grade anger. If we allow anger to grow, it becomes an emotion. “An emotion involves a change in the physiological functioning of the body while a feeling does not.” (Hart, 2000, p. 70) That means if I don’t keep anger small, I get an adrenaline rush that causes all sorts of social and medical problems not to mention the terrible experience we call a Dinosaur Dump or Wild Ride.
What can you do? Encourage your Veteran to play, to work on projects, to putter at seemingly useless things. Let your Vet know that you know he is not angry at you (unless, of course, he or she is mad at you). Nature really helps, so you might encourage hunting, fishing, biking, hiking, gardening, or pets—not necessarily with you.
I hope this didn’t make you angry, but that is the way things are.