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.
In Spring of 1970, I led an operation inside Cambodia. The Civilian Irregular Defense Group strike force from our Special Forces border camp in Viet Nam rode on the backs of armored personnel carriers. My map was useless as we pushed our way, twisting, turning, backing, and plunging forward through the jungle. By the time the Cavalry Captain thought we had reached the right place to dismount, this Infantry Lieutenant was honestly lost.
I do not like being lost. There were two topics in Officer Candidate School I had studied as though my life depended upon them: weapons and land navigation. Our land navigation training officer was my favorite. His advice on reading terrain was always, “Call a spade a spade.”
That means, do not interpret the terrain features to fit your notion of where you are or where you might want to be. It means, read the terrain features for what they are and allow them to show you where you are.
My problem in Cambodia was that this part of Earth is flat with no durable terrain features, only jungle and clearings that changed and were inaccurately mapped.
As we dismounted, the Captain asked me if I knew where we were. I admitted I did not. He pointed to a spot on his map, mounted up, and drove away, leaving us standing in the jungle. A doubter by nature and a scientist by training, I was not convinced. I called for a fire mission.
I asked for one timed fuse smoke artillery air burst. The sighting would give me a direction and the difference between the time of burst and when I heard the explosion would allow calculation of distance. Cool. Distance plus direction would plot my location from the known artillery round location.
There was one big oops. We could not see the smoke because it was too far away. We were a couple of clicks (kilometers) from where we had been told. It took a few more adjusted fire missions to accurately determine our actual location—which was really important later when we made enemy contact and wanted artillery or air support without blowing ourselves to pieces.
Being lost is being vulnerable, risking getting killed—either by the enemy or by friendly fire—either way it is just as permanent.
Survival depends on knowing where you are, and learning where you are requires facts, tracks on the ground (or air, in this case).
Survival demands dirt honesty, and dirt honesty requires the vulnerability of admitting you are lost so that you may read the tracks on the ground for what they are. Vulnerability, however, is dangerous to survivors of traumatic stress. It triggers hormonal dysregulation, anxiety, and even depression. This is the dilemma of post traumatic stress, caught between dysregulation and death.
Denial is the common response. It was mine for thirty nine (39) years. Recovery began when I admitted I was lost and called for help to figure out where I was. Today, I read my own behavior as the tracks on the ground, the cues that I am lost or, at least, not where I want to be. I admit I am lost and I reduce my vulnerability by calling in the artillery, by getting help to figure out where I am.
You may be lost, but you are not alone, and if you need some artillery, here I am.