Tag Archives: flight

Greater Love

Combat Veterans have an affinity for other Combat Veterans.

Combat defines vulnerability, and vulnerability threatens life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Vulnerability steals our peace. The result is a fight or flight response.

We learned that in combat, some people really do try to kill us. Alone, we are vulnerable to the ultimate. The only comfort in combat is the support of our comrades.

The man beside me stood willing to fight to his death to protect me. Sure, he fought for his life, also, but he did not abandon me. He had my back.

We learn these two conflicting facts in combat: Some people really are trying to kill us, and some people really are risking their lives for ours.

And for the rest of our lives, we remain obsessed with determining friend and foe.

Two Vietnam Veterans can disagree about politics, religion, music, sports, or branch of service—yet there remains a bond of trust between them that can lead them beyond all these disagreements. Of course we argue like brothers. But, we protect and support each other like brothers.

With the swiftness of jet planes, we are scattered from our comrades in arms and sent packing to our pre-trauma homes. We are immediately and irrevocably vulnerable in a dangerous world, alone. This is how our families receive us back home.

Life threatens us. It threatens our safety, our dignity, our purpose, even our identity. Without my insignia, how can anybody recognize me?

Here are two hard facts I have learned from my fellow Veterans in Dr. Hart’s PTSD Aftercare Group: Many of us pass through multiple marriages, and those of us having wives who have stuck with us from before or soon after combat seem to make faster and more complete recovery.

Greater love has no man than he lay down his life for his brother (my paraphrase of John 15:13).

Greater love has no woman than she lay down her life for a Combat Veteran, and make no mistake, to endure life with a Vietnam Veteran, she had to give up much of her romantic notion of love and marriage.

(Note: It is not that I am being sexist in my discussion of Veterans and wives. It is that this is my only experience in our little group.)

Today is a good day for me—a very good day. On Valentine’s Day, it is my professional privilege to address my colleagues at Arizona Western College and Northern Arizona University—Yuma Branch Campus on a topic of my heart. I will share thoughts on things we can do for Veterans, on “Accommodating Combat Veterans in the Classroom.”

For you, I will share the secret of accommodation: We can take steps to help them manage their vulnerability. This will not only relieve some anxiety, it can literally liberate cognitive resources from the tasks of survival to the tasks of learning.

Love is the answer. It is always the answer and it is the only answer. Only love can manage vulnerability to allow faith to grow.

I will not be alone, today. A fellow Vietnam Era Veteran will be there and she will have my back. My Valentine, Nancy, a Veteran Women’s Army Corps medic, will be managing my vulnerability while I lay my heart open, sharing my story. She will be accommodating me in the classroom.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

The Rub

“To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;” (Hamlet soliloquy, Act 3 Scene 1)

While I was discussing combat PTSD with friends, a WWII Veteran asked if someone could get that from bombs. Then he shared that he hardly has a night without a nightmare.

Reminder: For the past few months, this blog has been dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.

“One of the most common complaints of combat veterans with combat post traumatic stress disorders is the problem of sleep.” (Hart, 2000, p. 144)

For years, until a few weeks ago, I maintained that I did not have sleep problems—that I did not have nightmares. I was wrong. While it is true that I do not have recurring dreams of combat experiences, I do have frequent dreams, and even night terrors, with recurring themes of helplessness, frustration, and/or danger. I have concluded that my trauma is as much situational and conceptual as related to one specific incident or engagement.

I also have concluded that dreaming is not just what I thought it was. Dr. Hart describes a physiological reaction to decreased respiration as an endocrine response of hormone secretion. This triggers our brain’s reticular activating system pulsing electricity through neural pathways, and we dream. He says, “Our dreams are the result of electrical stimulation of specific areas of our cortex.” (p. 145)

He then goes on to describe the production of RNA and amino acid rearrangement as learning. I find that really cool. Okay, I’m an old geneticist, and the DNA–>RNA–>protein thing fascinates me, partly because I find it plausible as explanation.

Deep in the subcortical regions of our limbic system or primitive brain lie the hypothalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus, the latter associated with long term memory management. Trauma survivors have reduced hypothalamus (short-term or working memory) capacity and enlarged amygdala structure and function (fight/flight response). We also seem to have impaired hippocampus function. It is less effective and the amygdala takes over. The result is an increase in feelings of terror and panic (I would add, rage) in response to stimuli including these electrical impulses called dreams. This is my conclusion or inference from Dr. Hart’s discussion. I invite you to read the original.

“Combat veterans are frequently diagnosed with sleep apnea.” (Hart, 2000, p. 146) He goes on to explain why: We have a tendency to not breathe when we are stressed, a natural reaction to threat that prods the body to produce adrenaline for the fight or flight. We can awake in full arousal reaction even into a wild ride of dysregulation (Dinosaur Dump).

This is not conducive to marriage.

There are many avenues of help, and my friends in group report successes. Medicines improve sleep time and quality (with side effects, of course, including male impotence). Machines support breathing while we may be holding our breath. Some life habits improve our sleep significantly as can certain practices.

Dream inoculation is one that fascinates me although I have not tried it. (Note to self: Try this.)  Just before dozing off, I tell myself that if I dream I will recognize that I am in a dream and I will be able to change the outcome. It is a metacognitive process of seeing myself from outside or above.

Deliberate relaxation with deep breathing and beautiful visualization before bedtime really helps. It is a matter of making it a habit. Watching news or disturbing TV does not.

Because of serotonin production is conducive to quality night sleep, periods of peaceful relaxation during the day helps. Again, it becomes a matter of discipline. A few minutes listening to the birds (real or recorded), babbling brook, seashore, or Native American flute music not only improves my efficiency during the work day, it improves it the next day as well because I sleep better at night.

It is hard to be a good guy on a bad night’s sleep. There is help. Rest easy.

Intelligent Inspiration

Toddlers teach us the lesson of the tantrum. They hold their breath until they turn blue, then they scream and kick and writhe in anger for interminable periods of time. There is a scientific explanation for the phenomenon.

Feeling becomes emotion of violent living through chemistry. Frontal lobes of our brains recognize the shortage of oxygen as a grave threat. Panic sets in, triggering primitive brain structures to stimulate the release of adrenaline which becomes norepinephrine in our brains. This is the neurochemical which leads to the fight/flight response.

Evolution. The tantrum saves our lives because we fight or flee with the strength of our chemically enhanced prowess. We survive.

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.

PTSD is a learned condition of living these episodes of tantrum-like fight/flight reactions to stimuli, internal or external. It could be a noise, some smell, a light/shadow combination, an unexpected touch, or maybe a dream or wakeful intrusive thought. Maybe just a conflict or feeling, and we are off on a tantrum, a wild ride or dinosaur dump, lasting up to three or four days.

There is a solution. Breathe. Yes, it could be that simple. Recognizing the signals in time allows us to stop the chemistry.

  1. Exhale (as in a deep pool of water, coming to the surface);
  2. Inhale through the nose slowly and deeply to a count of one thousand one, one thousand two, filling lungs to maximum capacity;
  3. Exhale through the mouth even more slowly to a count of one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four;
  4. Visualize your clear space (safe zone, medicine area, sacred place), some peaceful, serene place where you are powerful;
  5. Repeat a second time;
  6. Repeat a third time;
  7. Stop at third, fourth, or fifth.

The key is to recognize signs of the tantrum before you start holding your breath. We have been conditioned, and the only defense is conscious awareness of our feelings, especially of our bodies. Remain alert for the warning signs.

  1. Any recognized feeling trigger;
  2. Chest tightening;
  3. Tongue pressed to roof of your mouth;
  4. Fists clenched;
  5. Biceps or triceps flexed;
  6. Jaw set;
  7. That tiny voice in the back of your head that can’t quite seem to say, “Stop!”

Look around you. Still alive? Cool. That wasn’t so bad.

Monitor your feelings and your breathing. Give yourself a pat on the back for preventing the dump. It might be wise to linger awhile in your clear space—besides, you are happy there, free but not vulnerable.

Our conditioning will not be unlearned. Our amygdala will not shrink back to healthy size and our hippocampus will not grow back the normal volume. That is okay. We can cope with the symptoms and the triggers. All we need are awareness and inspiration.