It ain’t easy, this love stuff. The instruction manuals are not written in English. Maybe that’s why some of us need dogs and little children to teach us how to do it. Labrador Retrievers are really good at it.
Dr. Hart counsels Combat Veterans upon the hazards of getting stuck in our combat roles. If we had a lot of responsibility in combat, we tend to take on responsibility back at home. If we had little responsibility in combat, we tend to avoid it at home.
Me? I tend to get stuck in the middle. I was a Lieutenant.
I do not like making decisions—at least, not alone. I tend to feel traumatized, as though I were still deciding who would die, or afraid I might make a mistake and the wrong people would die. Life or death choices are not for me.
I taught school and got sick every semester at grading time. Imagine how I would have done as a surgeon or emergency room physician. I couldn’t even be a paramedic although I know biology and have a knack for diagnosis and triage. So, I avoided it.
After several viewings, Forrest Gump still amazes me. He always knows what love is. He always seems to know the right thing to do—good at life, you know. Of course, when he didn’t know, he ran for a few thousand miles. I tend to sit in the woods and listen to the wind.
One reason Combat Veterans isolate themselves is because we see people as more dangerous than lions, tigers, and bears. Fear is that reason, and it makes sense in combat terms.
Another reason is love. Yes, this is another dilemma. Love is the antidote for PTSD, but it also causes us to isolate. I have found two reasons for this.
First, loving and losing is painful. It goes back to the avoidance of FNGs, the new guys. People who have experienced combat loss of friends simply choose not to make new ones. It hurts less when they die.
Back at home, we lose all our friends. They get reassigned or ETSed (Expiration of Term of Service). So, even if we all make it home, we lose each other, anyway.
Second, being loved is also painful. Oh, sure, it feels wonderful to have an intimate friend, someone we can trust, but….
Isn’t there always a but? Being loved is a big responsibility—because it entails power. Being loved gives us the power to disappoint, fail, or otherwise hurt someone. For Combat Veterans stuck in the middle (between seeking responsibility and avoiding it), this is another dilemma.
Now, add some symptoms of Combat PTSD. The Veteran is certain to disappoint, fail, or otherwise hurt the very people who love him or her. We cannot help it. Our brains have been trained, even re-wired, that way. After awhile, we get very tired of failing at love. So, we avoid it—the very thing that might support our recovery.
Love is a grave vulnerability for most Combat Veterans because it threatens us with more loss, both loss of our loved ones and loss of ourselves when our disabilities fail us in love.
We cannot recover alone. We need love, but we need more. We need understanding. We need mature love beyond philos of brotherly love and way beyond eros of sexual attraction. We need a Natural love.
We must relearn that failure is not terminal. And, we need friends who can accept our defects and failures as progress.
When a Combat Veteran returns without an arm, we no longer expect him or her to applaud. When a Combat Veteran returns with a shrunken hippocampus and working memory, with an aggressive amygdala, and a need for security, we must not expect her or him to enjoy party crowds, fireworks displays, and air shows. It is us, the people who stayed home this time, who must change our expectations.
Changing our expectations is a way of choosing love which just might grant the Combat Veteran freedom to choose love, again. Is that too much to ask, America?