Tag Archives: Vietnam

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!

Passion of Purpose

Who are you?

It’s a serious question. Beneath the façade of style and guile, what is your name? Do you have a spirit name? Do you have a spirit identity?

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

Vision as an indigenous cosmology is a complex concept with purpose at its core.

When we find ourselves devoid of passion and purpose, the first thing we need to do is stop. But that’s not easy. The rest of the world is zooming by at full speed. Left alone with ourselves, without a project to occupy us, we can become nervous and self-critical about what we should be doing and feeling. This can be so uncomfortable that we look for any distraction rather than allowing ourselves the space to be as we are. (Dawna Markova)

I am a teacher and Nancy is a nurse. We are blessed to be people who have found careers of purpose matching our passions. We have lived our identities. We are lucky.

But, luck needs help. Neither of us found our way accidentally. We wandered. We made choices. I found I enjoyed teaching in graduate school and as an Academic Staff Specialist at UW-Madison. Nancy found she enjoyed taking care of people as an Army medic and a nursing aid. Still, each of us needed a personal crisis to push us to a decision and we needed family to coach that decision. Sooner or later, we all need coaching.

Some of us make major life decisions as children and adolescents that steer our lives by passion. Many of us begin a life of purpose and developing identity. Too many of us experience trauma that disrupts that development.

In 1968 I was a science student accepted into graduate school to study genetics at UW-Madison. I had a research assistantship offer. In three or four years I could be a PhD geneticist and maybe a professor.

In 1969 I went to Vietnam.

Trauma has a way of changing who we are—or, at least, who we think we are. It has a way of changing what we believe about purpose, and it discolors passion.

That’s all I have to say about that.

Oh, I came back to finish my Bachelors and Masters degrees in Genetics, but the passion was gone. I had lost my Vision (although I didn’t know about Vision at the time). That life no longer fit my perception of myself, had I actually faced a perception of myself.

I found my way to a new passion, a purpose that continues to grow and develop even now.

How did I find my way?

I looked.

How I changed over the past forty-five years is still a mystery to me, a mystery I intend to pursue in the next year, but I know it all began with my searching for a purpose. I stopped and let the world race by me. I caught my breath and saw a glimmer of distant hope. Somebody loved me and believed in me. Answers came.

Have you stopped, I mean really stopped, to look at the tracks in your heart that show you who you are?

Happy Tracking!

Momentous Journey

“You’ve come far, Pilgrim,” the old mountain man said to Jeremiah Johnson.

“Feels like far,” Robert Redford (Johnson) replied.

This week is a slight digression from our study of character traits conducive to recovery from PTSD and other past stress. Or, maybe not. August will focus upon the twelfth and last trait: Vision.

Have we come far? Well, we didn’t do it in a day.

Journey is a term originally referring to the work done in a day or how far we could go in one day. Just for today.

In the jungle of Vietnam, we could walk about one click an hour. One kilometer. So a day’s travel might be five or ten kilometers or five miles give or take a couple.

It is roughly twenty-two miles across the Grand Canyon, and people can do that in a day. Not me, but other people. My plan is to do it in four days.

Twenty miles was a journey for a wagon train.

Yesterday I drove nearly three hundred miles, but I have done many more in a single day. Today I hope to fly a couple of thousand. Quite a journey.

Our culture has twisted the meaning of journey far from the original meaning of marche du jour.

As I wait to go to the airport, I am pondering just today, this hour, this moment–while I think about the future.

Much of my life is wasted weighting events of yesterday or waiting for events of tomorrow rather than savoring my walk today.

My parents were married during the Depression, living on squirrels Dad hunted, day old bread they sold door to door, and what they could grow in a garden. “Those were the good old days,” Dad told Mom fifty years later.

“I think we’re livin’ in the good old days,” (Merle Haggard). I hope we don’t miss it.

Psychologically, we can never experience more than a moment, a fraction of one second. Everything else is memory, an illusion created by the mind to record the experience of a moment. Yesterdays are all illusions. Yes, they happened, just not quite like we remember.

Tomorrow is illusion. Yes, it may happen the way we imagine, more or less, but maybe not.

Today is all we have. Let’s make it momentous, grander than the tomorrow we dreamed, yesterday, grander than the memory we create. Let’s live in the good days.

We made a lot of tracks, you and me, some deep, some barely noticeable. Some we regret.

Tomorrow we will make more tracks, God willing.

Have you ever watched a track being made? Have you ever taken note of the Earth beneath your feet as you made a track?

I participated in a blindfold swamp walk in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. We were led in a group, one person behind another, along a string through the swamp as were blindfolded. It was fun and comfortable, slipping into holes, feeling my way around roots, finding footing. After some time, we were stopped and told to remove our blindfolds. Quickening the pace, I took three steps and cut my foot. I forget to feel my track being made.

Momentous is another word our culture has twisted, originally meaning of one moment. Well, maybe that is not twisted. Maybe making note of a single moment is huge.

A funny thing happens when you face the probability of dying soon. You find each present moment precious, momentous.

One morning this week I went to my spot along the stream valley and noticed the activity of Chickadees. One flitted in a tag alder but three feet from my face, eyeball to eyeball, leaving a visual track in my mind.

Today, will you take a few moments to notice your breathing? Will you admire another part of life sharing this moment with you? Will you take a slow, deliberate walk and feel your tracks being made?

Happy Tracking!

Quiet Love

If God is a Father, I can surmise that godly love is like pure parent love. Knowing little about godly love and more about parent love, I shall address the latter.

NOTE: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD and other past stress. June shares Love.

While I was in Bien Hoa, Vietnam, I bought a pair of ceramic elephants to be used as end tables or lamp stands. The Army crated and shipped them home for me. I still have one.

One arrived intact, but the other was broken, the elephant separated at feet and trunk from the base. At the time I really didn’t care. In the thrill of being home, it seemed insignificant.

My mother worked for hours, days I think, to repair that elephant. She found some glue that worked and chinked pieces into gaps like putting Humpty Dumpty together. It worked. I can still see her on her knees toiling away.

I wonder if she really knew, consciously, what she was doing.

When she grew feeble in her mid-nineties and had difficulty remembering names, she still recognized me, even though I only saw her a few times a year. Near the end she told me again that she loved me. She needn’t. I had always known.

I had not always known that my father loved me. Like me, he was not particularly verbal or demonstrative on his feelings. Until that day I signed away my little farm.

It had been on his recommendation that I bought it. I believe he said something like if I didn’t buy it, he would.

Then came divorce and I had to sell it, but that was during a real estate bust in the late seventies and it took two years.

I had to get a perk test and my dad came to fill the hole using what had been my D-17 bucket tractor. I was having a rebellious period and refused.

Then came that awful day when we stood in the little kitchen of that little ramshackle house and signed the papers. My dad stood there with me, silent as usual as I signed away my little dream.

I am sure he consciously knew exactly what he was doing. He taught me something really important about being a father that day, and I never doubted his love again.

It took me almost twenty years to get another piece of land and another sixteen to get a bucket tractor. And when I use it, I think of him.

I stopped grieving the loss of my father on Father’s Day of 1990, a little over two years after his death. I prayed aloud, that day in the Arizona Sonoran Desert, a prayer of gratitude for my father and for the privilege of being a father.

When I garden, I think of both my parents. Planting, cultivating, and harvesting is what we did.

Near the gate to my garden in the north woods stands a wounded ceramic elephant with a pot of flowers on its back. It symbolizes a few things for me, but most of all, it represents the healing power of Love, especially Agape Love.

Happy Father’s Day.

Happy Tracking.

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!