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Accepting Fit

“You are truly home only when you find your tribe.” (Srividya Srinivasan)

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. March seeks SERENITY.

A Native American student invited me to a local Pow Wow and Nancy and I decided to view the Grand Entry. We love the drums, the regalia, the dancing. We love fry bread. But I had a sense of loss, a feeling of something lacking in my life. I have no tribe.

The next class, I mentioned this to my student, a mature man, Army Veteran, and father. He told me to go back to my people. That is my tribe. That would be Wales and Cornwall, and I have no connection to that land.

Ah, connection. We have separated ourselves from our ancestors. We have separated ourselves from others who do not share our ancestors. Well, biologically, we all share ancestors, but we separate ourselves anyway.

“A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.” (Seth Godin)

I need a tribe, a group of people connected to one another, a group with whom I connect, all connected to one single idea. And I need a leader.

Gangs come to mind. Humans are pack animals establishing status in the mirror of our pack or tribe. Often, our status becomes our identity as a member of a tribe, our group which is separated from other tribes by some discrimination of genes, heritage, and/or ideas. Individual identity is a subset of tribal identity.

You don’t think so? Who is your favorite team in March Madness? Super Bowl? NASCAR?

Do you have a political identity? Geographic? Ethnic? Socioeconomic?

Oh, where, oh, where is this unselfishness we seek (from last week’s blog) that might liberate us from our troubles and free us to find serenity and power?

There it is, in the tribe. Serve the members of your tribe.

I had never desired to be a soldier. It was a duty of grave inconvenience to me, and I was happy to leave the Army early and return to the University of Wisconsin where I felt at home. Except…once I got there in 1971, I no longer felt really at home. So, I joined the Wisconsin Army National Guard—my tribe. I had combat medals and patches. I had status. But, more importantly, I belonged.

Until I didn’t. I lost the leadership I had respected. I no longer found a common idea to serve, and so I abandoned that tribe and went back to school. Except for a few intermissions, I have been in school ever since. School is a place I fit.

Life is a dance. Finding a tribe in which I fit is a futile challenge. Adapting to fit into a group is a dangerous endeavor. To find my tribe without losing my self AND to find my self without losing my tribe, that is my wish.

I have abandoned many groups because I could not believe in their ideas or their leadership, and in the abandoning, I lost myself.

I have found some groups accepting of me as I accept others. Working toward an important common purpose transcends trivial differences like race, language, political party, or team loyalty. Veterans’ organizations allow me to serve. Teaching allows me to serve. Serving allows me to think of others besides myself, to see our similarities rather than differences, to find unity rather than division.

When I seek ways to serve, I find myself surrounded by a tribe of others doing the same. When I stop seeking the tribe to save me from myself, I find myself accepted by a tribe.

My you find the tracks of service in your heart so that your tribe may find you.

Happy Tracking!

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.