Tag Archives: combat

Who You Are

“We choose the right to be who we are.” (THUNDERHEART)

Note: We have been exploring twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD and other past stress. August contemplates Vision.

Yesterday, I had a discussion in a meeting with a couple of other Veterans on campus. As I explained that I still didn’t know why I chose the path that took me to Vietnam, one of my friends said, “It made you who you are.”

I do not know which came first–who I am or the choices I made–but I know the two are intimately related, and it really doesn’t matter which came first. What matters is that I chose to be who I am.

One of my Officer Candidate School classmates came through our Special Forces camp on the Cambodian border in the Spring of 1970. After seven months in Vietnam as an Infantry platoon leader, he was still humping the boonies most every day. As he visited our team house and saw the way we lived, he told me, “Barnes, you really have it made.”

It made me smile because several months earlier some of my classmates laughed at me when a jump school student hung from his parachute on the tower across the road from our barracks. “That’s where you will be next week, Barnes.”

Maybe our choices make us who we are. Maybe when we choose to be who we are, we make lucky choices. Like Forrest Gump, I think it both might be happening at the same time. Maybe that is how Vision works.

In the movie, THUNDERHEART, which is grounded in some real events of the 1970s, an Oglalla Sioux named Jimmy Looks Twice explained to an Indian descendant FBI agent, Ray Levoi, why people were getting murdered on the reservation. “Sometimes they have to kill us. They have to kill us, because they can’t break our spirit.”

Jimmy Looks Twice is played by John Trudell, a man who lived the experiences of indigenous protests and losing his entire family to violence. He continues the explanation, “We choose the right to be who we are. We know the difference between the reality of freedom and the illusion of freedom. There is a way to live with the earth and a way not to live with the earth. We choose the way of earth. It’s about power, Ray.”

It is about power.

There is no greater personal power than living one’s Vision. But, sometimes they have to kill us. And, sometimes, like John Trudell, we have to go on after they killed our families.

Our power lies in our Intention to be who we are–and our commitment to that intention.

In my view of the universe, Vision is the way we see ourselves in relationship to the rest of our world, and specifically, how we see ourselves fitting into the world around us. I’m pretty sure another way of saying this is that Vision is our view of who we are.

Where do we get that Vision? Are we born with it?

For this sometimes cowardly human, it is a very good thing that my Vision is limited in clarity and scope, that I cannot see too far down the road of my future lest I lose my commitment to being who I am. So, my Vision becomes clear to me only like the road in my headlights on a dark night, a little at a time.

Sometimes it is foggy, dusty, snowy, or rainy. I have even driven into a mud storm, a dust storm with rain, but I survived because I could still see the tail lights of the truck ahead of me. Maybe I survived because I had had the good sense to be following a truck.

How have you survived? Have you been “lucky” because of some good sense, because of who you are?

Happy Tracking!

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Philanthropy Lost

“I can walk in those hills and no one is going to try to kill me, and I won’t have to try to kill anyone else,” I thought as I looked about Fort Lewis on my way home from Vietnam. Then, reality set in. Yes, part of me thought that, the conscious part, but another part clings to the belief that somebody out there is still trying to kill me, and I may have to kill, again.

I am compelled to judge. We all are, we sentient beings. It is programmed into our DNA.

Labrador Retrievers are programmed to believe that everybody loves them. Well, almost everybody. They still judge actions but are amazingly tolerant.

They also believe they can walk on water and almost do.

Are we born trusting our fellow humans? More or less, yes. We are born trusting smiling faces.

Then we learn to judge.

Note: On our journey to consider twelve attributes I see conducive to recovery from PTSD and other past stress, June embraces four kinds of Love.

Philanthropy is the love of mankind. We do that. Every one of us is willing to risk life and limb for another person in danger under certain conditions. Combat is such a condition. We risk our lives to defend and protect others. We willingly sacrifice our safety to help a brother or sister under threat. That is one example of a second form of love, a brotherly love called philos in Greek.

I have always known this. As the youngest of a family of six, I have always experienced it firsthand.

My sisters took care of me, fed me, clothed me, taught me colors, numbers, and letters, and loved me. They still do. They even gave me a perm fifty years ago. What hair I have left is wavy yet.

My brothers took care of me, too, in more ways than I can recount. They gave me jobs, lessons, and hope. I have always known that if I needed something, I mean really needed help, somebody would be there.

In the Army, I learned to trust some guys like brothers. I know of no bond as strong as the common experience of facing fire, of seeing the mettle of a friend in battle. It is philanthropy with the currency of self, of time and life rather than money. It is real brotherly love.

Who are my brothers? Who is worthy of such love, such sacrifice of safety?

We judge the other. We all do, based upon our education and experience. Some of us do it consciously. Most of us do it subconsciously.

Many of my Vietnam Veteran friends do not like the smell of nuoc mam, the sauce of fermented fish which is used like mustard on Coney Island, or the sound of tonal Asian languages.

I love Nature in part because it does not judge me. I am more secure with lions, tigers and bears in the north woods than with humans who would judge me, even kill me, because of the language I speak, the clothes I wear, the color of my skin, or the name of my god. It is my goal to be as civilized as my wild brothers.

But I am prejudiced.

Deep inside, we can all find tracks of prejudice that are consequences of experience. May we also find tracks of philanthropy that allow sentient management of our prejudices so that we may genuinely love one another, for philos is another doorway to greater love.

Happy Tracking!

Bower Power

June is Love month. Our exploration of twelve personal attributes I see contributing to recovery from PTSD and other past stresses continues with consideration of four kinds of love. Let’s begin with Eros.

It is no coincidence that the heart shape of our most common love symbol physically resembles buttocks.

Without the power of physical attraction, we would not…could not…exist. Besides, erotic love is a thrilling natural high. It is a good thing–an excellent thing. Eros is quite literally a portal to greater love.

Trauma sometimes damages this love, even if the trauma is not sexual. I don’t know why, but I know a bit of how.

Mentally wounded people are less attractive, or at least we feel less attractive. We are more guarded, self isolating, distant. Intimacy becomes more challenging.

We may appear to have lost something of our essence, our soul.

Then there is the anger thing–very unattractive, repulsive actually.

There is another issue: Trauma survivors gravitate toward addiction. Perhaps it is attempted relief from pain of mental obsession, but I am not a psychologist. I don’t even play one on TV.

Sex can become that addiction, that avenue of distraction and stress relief. Pornography raises its ugly head, a very real problem for some of our combat Veterans.

A doorway to greater love is closed. That is a great tragedy for all of us.

“Christianity gave Eros poison to drink; he did not die of it, certainly, but degenerated to Vice.” (Frederich Nietzsche)

I don’t know about the Christianity part of the quote, but I am certain this is often true of trauma.

I have spent the past few days hauling rocks to build a new rock garden for Nancy. She likes rock gardens. She likes most gardens, so I work to make them pretty for her. I am a Bowerbird, fixing up a pretty haven for her Bridal Bower in the north woods.

Isn’t that romantic? Our thirty-fifth year of marriage and I am still wooing her. Sure, there are ulterior motives; I want her to be happy in the north woods because I want to be here more, and I want her with me. Sure, I am happier when Nancy is happy.

Maybe recovery is really that simple: doing something for somebody else. Maybe that is the essence of erotic love, the drive to do something to make somebody else happy even if it is for ulterior motive.

I said it was a gateway to greater love, this Eros thing, not the greatest love. We will get to that later.

Erotic love is not a vice, but an addiction is. As with most addictions, recovery from PTSD requires first recovering from any sexual addiction, and the first step to that is admitting it has become a vice.

No, I am not going to ask you to look for tracks of erotic vice in your heart.

Please, look for the tracks of true romance in the young heart of your pre-trauma self. Remember it and cherish it.

Happy Tracking!

Low D

On a topographic map, there is a symbol marked by a closed loop representing a contour of equal elevation with hash marks inside. This is a depression, an area of land lower than all the land surrounding it.

One in ten older American Veterans suffers from depression (VA)http://www.va.gov/health/NewsFeatures/20110624a.asp

Last week at Dr. Hart’s Combat Veteran Aftercare Group, I heard him tell a brother that most Veterans with PTSD also have another condition and that his was depression.

Depression is like being lost in a cedar swamp on a moonless night in the fog. Pitfalls surround you between the roots of tall trees that shade you even from starlight. One wrong step could drop you into a hole in the bog, into cold, dark water. You know there is higher ground somewhere, but even your imagination has lost sight of it. There is no light, not even in your mind. Darkness enveopes you; purpose escapes you; hope echoes like a cruel joke.

NOTE: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD and other past stresses. May aspires to Hope.

Eleven (11) percent of our older Veterans suffer from depression. The number seems low to me, but I expect that is because a lot of Veterans do not live to be old. On an average day, twenty two (22) American Veterans commit suicide.

Depression kills.

It lies there, waiting, between the anger and acceptance of a grieving process.

But, there is Hope.

“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things…” (Shawshank Redemption)

A line from a movie, yes, a story written by an author of horror. I find that amusing in a way.

If you are a Veteran, or if you love a Veteran, please recognize anger as an alternative to depression. Anger is a lifeline to higher ground, to life, to rescue from depression.

Yes, acceptance is a goal, the state of conclusion of grief. Yes, acceptance is possible and desireable. But, it is over there, on the other side of that chasm or swamp of depression. Will we survive the journey?

Some of us will. Many, too many, of us will not. Like combat, itself, even the survival of PTSD carries a sense of survivor’s guilt. Now, ain’t that depressing?

Anger management in the customary sense is dangerous for combat Veterans because it makes us vulnerable to depression. It strips us of our lifeline. It casts us into the swamp of despair.

So, where is the Hope, already?

Here it is: Brotherhood. Nothing helps a Veteran like another Veteran. We don’t need to sit around and talk about our PTSD. We do need to sit around and talk. We need each other. I don’t know why, the psychology of it, but I know it works. And at some point one brother shares with another an experience of Hope, an improvement in conditions through application of strategies, a psychologist that can be trusted. Trusted, yeah, that’s it.

And service. There is a blessing to feeling useful in service to your brothers. You feel a purpose, again, to share your experience with the Veteran in pain. I have witnessed it, experienced it.

If there are tracks of depression in your heart, get help. Reach out to a brother and ask him how he does it. You will find them at Veteran’s organizations, VA hospital or clinic waiting rooms, or VA Centers dedicated to serving combat Veterans and their families.

May your tracks follow you to help.

The Dread

Expectations of a mind with PTSD lead to dread. Hope hides behind it.

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. May dares to Hope.

“Nothing is more frightening than a fear you cannot name.” (Cornelia Funke, Inkheart)

I would change that a bit. “There is nothing more dreadful than a fear you dare not admit.”

Dr. Hart relates a story of a Vietnam Veteran who came to his office appointment in an unusually good mood one morning. It was unusual because, like many combat Veterans, he faced dread most mornings, expecting something bad to happen.

When things are good, we expect them to turn bad. When things are quiet, we expect them to get loud. So, why was this guy happy this morning? Because he had a flat tire on the way into town.

He was driving along the straight highway through the agricultural fields in the Colorado River Valley. Some farm laborers were working in the fields by hand—hoeing or laying irrigation, maybe.

A tire on his truck blew. Boom!

Now, here was a combat Veteran already in his usual state of morning dread, and his tire blows, sounding a little like an incoming mortar or artillery round exploding. Suddenly, the field hands looked Vietnamese and the fields like rice paddies. He was instantly back in the war.

All the same stuff happened. His tongue went to the roof of his mouth and he stopped breathing. His brain told his body to dump a load of adrenalin, his heartbeat doubled in rate and volume, and he went into survival mode until he got out of his truck, took a few breaths, and regained his time/space bearings.

So, he fixed his tire, got dirty and sweaty, and went to see Dr. Hart with a smile.

Why the smile? Because his dread was gone.

Sometimes we get the notion that our dread is a form of premonition telling us to look out, that something bad is coming. Really, we do. And to be honest, our dread makes us expect some bad things so that we are ready for them. Sometimes we even prevent them by being careful, so dread does have survival value.

For this Veteran on this day, his tire blew. That was a bad thing, right? Then he went into a bit of a flashback and started to get sick. That was another bad thing, right?

Well, that was over with, now. The bad stuff had already happened and he was not only alive, but well.

This was going to be a good day. The dread had worked and was now gone. He could feel the hope.

The dread is real. The cause is real. It just isn’t here and now.

Waking with dread is nothing more than a reminder that I have PTSD, a reminder to breathe, kiss my wife, meditate, and do something useful with this day. A few hours of that and I find hope. Sometimes it only takes a few minutes. Sometimes I wake with no dread at all.

You don’t need to look for the dread, but deep down inside, behind that dread, can you find signs of hope?

Happy Tracking!

Mayday!

—an international radio-telephone signal word used as a distress call

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. May dares to Hope.

A Mayday call is hope for help. Sometimes we call for help, sometimes we don’t. Why?

There are several prerequisites to asking for help:
1. We believe we are in trouble;
2. We believe we cannot get ourselves out of trouble;
3. We believe someone else can and will come to our aid;
4. We believe we deserve help.

The first two are particularly difficult for combat veterans. We have learned to rely upon our perceptions of the world around us—and that of those who serve with us. But, those around us have the same perceptions we do. We have had the same experiences and we now have the same consequences. So, we cannot see anything wrong with us, but we can see a lot wrong with the rest of the world.

Sooner or later we go home. There, we no longer have those we trust around us. The people at home have not shared our experiences and do not share our perceptions of the world. Who do we trust?

“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” (Desmond Tutu)

When it does begin to sink in that we are in trouble, that we are no longer navigating hazards of the world to our satisfaction, we still have the problem of No. 2. Who are we going to trust to help us? Reaching out for help is not only risky; it feels too much like surrender. In my case, it took a trusted friend who is also a Vietnam Veteran to get me to seek help, and all he had to do was ask me to get a PTSD evaluation.

The VA came to my aid. The Arizona Veterans Services came to my aid. Dr. Hart came to my aid. His aftercare group came to my aid. I slowly came to believe No. 3. I gained hope as other Veterans reported ways they had been helped.

Only the VA asked for my qualification, how I deserved help. Other Veterans didn’t ask my specifics. I told everybody that my combat had been limited and mild by my standards. Still, they all helped me. True, my VA compensation is minimal, but I see that as appropriate. The help I received was not and is not minimal.

Expectations are extremely powerful. In education, we know that parent and teacher expectations can fuel student achievement.

A mature college student and Army Veteran, told me yesterday that he is anxious about the Semester Exam. He doesn’t test well, he said. A big part of my job is raising expectations or, mostly, reducing obstacles to hope.

On the other hand, expectations can disappoint us, especially when we expect something like an exam to be easy, when we expect results without working for them.

This is not really a paradox. It is simple disagreement between different meanings for “expectation”.

“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.” (Stephen Hawking)

Perhaps what we need is hope and hard work beyond expectations.

Sometimes things get worse before they get better. Next week we will address the sense of dread many survivors of trauma experience.

And when you look within, please hope, for if you find dread, know that we have ways of dealing with that, also. The dread is real, but we do not have to make it our expectation.

Happy Tracking!

Let It Rain

Acceptance is the key that unlocks Faith.

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. April aspires to Faith.

Recovery is a grieving process, for we have lost something of ourselves in the traumas of our experiences. We have left something of our youthful exuberance, even innocence, and joy for living. The person we were no longer exists. The world we knew before our trauma no longer exists, and that is the hard truth of it.

The wife I lost because of that truth told me she always thought I had lost my soul in Vietnam. There is an irritating grain of truth in that observation.

It was not my soul that was lost in combat. It was Faith. I no longer had the faith that the world works the way I had thought, the way I had believed it should.

The subconscious response to that faith-shattering conclusion is to fix it. Change it. Change the world.

So, we go through some stages of grief. We continue to negotiate the past in the sub consciousness of our nightmares, in our feelings, in the part of our minds (yes, brains, too) that process information irrationally.

This time it will turn out different. This time they won’t die. This time I will see it coming. This time, this time, this time….

I am a problem solver. It is what I do. Drives my wife crazy. Whenever she tells me about something she finds unacceptable, I fix it—or, I try. No, that is not a consequence of combat trauma, but it is an exaggerated development of a pre-trauma tendency. I had studied science because it is a problem solving enterprise.

I cannot fix Vietnam. I cannot save the two million Cambodians lost in the “Killing Fields.” And, I cannot regain my zeal for Cytogenetics that I had in 1968. Not ever.

But, I can accept it.

Yes, I know that feels, somehow, as abandoning those who were lost. Yes, I know that sounds like surrender. I know. I know.

When I feel myself sinking into despair deep in the chasm between the grief stages of anger and acceptance, when I forget acceptance is on the other side of that rift of depression, I find myself wandering to the arms of Nature. There I find acceptance, and Faith begins to grow, again.
During my first Vision Quest on our land in northern Wisconsin, it rained. It rained all night (8 inches), washing out roads, flooding my stream valley, sinking boats. It was wonderful.

“For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

Some of my thinking will never change. That is real as rain. My thinker is broken. Now, what?

The moment I accept the reality of my condition, it ceases to be an active addiction. I can learn ways of compensating. I can learn new ways of thinking. I can remember that Faith is free, over there on the other side of depression, holding hands with Acceptance.

From Vision Quests I have learned that I can gain acceptance in four days.

Of course, I can lose it in four seconds. My answer is to make life one Great Vision Quest.

Recovery is a quest for Vision. It is a process of seeing the tracks of our pre-trauma selves, deep down inside, in places we have thought dead.

Happy Tracking!