Learn about the positive lessons from Operations in my new book
There is no doubt that to train as a soldier and to be involved in combat can be traumatically stressful and have far reaching effects on one’s living, relationships, mental state and well-being. However, it is possible that to see war and to think about combat from only the point of view of an experience resulting in PTSD may be to ignore other less spoken about aspects of this experience that could be used to facilitate healing and an ability and right for all veterans to live a healthy productive life.
What about the intensity of combat, the living on the edge in the presence of others and intimate reliance on others. It’s that feeling of being intensely alive, the “high” of the hunt, the power of the warrior within, knowing where you are, being located in community, camaraderie-it’s about a level of “meaning” and experience that can leave one yearning for a lifetime afterwards in what can be experienced as the humdrum routine of civilian life and the daily routine and predictable pattern of work.
So many veterans I have spoken to yearn for the time when they truly felt like Men, when the deeply close and intimate connectedness with fellow soldiers bonded through the blood rite of combat, could almost transcend the intimacy of marital relationships.
In a deep way, it’s not just about trauma and stress but also about loss and grief and the difficulty of finding meaning in a different, less intense world.
To heal is to therefore also respectfully acknowledge this loss and grief at so many levels. It’s about understanding that the seductive intensity of combat with its sounds and smells does not need to leave one feeling lost, bereft and dislocated. It’s about understanding that the memory of the thrill of the hunt, the contact, the long days of hyper alert patrolling does not mean that they are maladjusted.
It’s about acceptance of these feelings without guilt. It’s about recreating new and constructive challenges in civilian life.
These can be challenges such as maintaining personal fitness and well-being, taking up a sport and setting goals that can extend one and bring one back into the presence of other men-running a marathon, walking Oxfam, swimming etc. The “edge”, the feeling of being authentically alive, of being challenged and being with other men is not the sole right of war. Part of combat training about being taught how to kill. It’s about being “rewired” for life in a way which is counter to being human in an institution which sanctions the need for aggression and the ability to take life.
Veterans need to make their peace with this rewiring, with the deep and often shameful sense that 40 years later as a husband and father there is still the sense of that part of oneself that is capable of the unspeakable.
Healing is not about burying or forgetting this. It’s about allowing Veterans to acknowledge, own and respect this part of themselves. Many of the lessons of war and combat can be used by veterans to move forward in their civilian lives. It’s about helping Veterans to draw on their strengths and the constructive lessons of soldiering.
Life and relationships are very much like a patrol. You need to think about where you are going and what you will need. You need to plan and ensure you work as a team. You need to be able to listen and when lost or uncertain look at a map. You need to pace yourself and at times when under significant levels of stress draw on reserves and tap into supplies of resilience. You need to trust and care for those around you. You need to exercise judgement. The qualities of planning, listening, preparation, consultation, care, respect, resilience, effort and trust are the foundations of being human.
War need not just be an experience relegated to the psychiatric or counselling encounter. It need not be just traumatically stressful. Yes, it can be all of these, but the soldier never dies- commemorative gatherings will live on as soldiers continue to gather, grieve, and walk the road of memory while for a brief moment in time recapture a moment they hold at the deepest part of themselves.
It’s about embracing the soldier and re-finding the warrior in the present and drawing on the positive aspects from the past, who they were and who they still are. It’s about re-membering that as veterans they can still stand tall and be good men, good husbands and good fathers. It’s about acknowledging grief, guilt, loss and shame and learning to stand tall. Combat need not just be the end of a good life but the beginning of an even better life firmly grounded in the wisdom, learning and experience found in that place called War.