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*Editor: Some mild coarse language“Drink water, drive on.” I think anyone who’s spent any time in the military has heard that expression or something similar.
There’s no doubt that in the military we have a tough mindset. If it ain’t broke or gushing blood, take some Ibuprofen and get moving!
That’s great when you’re dealing with a genuine malingerer or someone who’s just being a bitch but what about someone who’s hurt in a way that you or I can’t see?
That mindset can, too often, lead us to question the sincerity of someone who legitimately has problems that need to be addressed before they progress too far.
The media, of course, has no issues making a diagnosis and passing judgment.
Any time a veteran or a soldier twists off it’s automatically PTSD. After all, the media’s image of a psychotic killer is far more dramatic than the possibility that maybe the person in question was just a shit bag and a criminal. Which one gets better ratings?
That’s not to say that every case of a soldier committing a crime or committing suicide wasn’t caused in some way by PTSD, but what about the thousands upon thousands of soldiers and veterans out there who have PTSD or combat stress and never do anything bad to themselves or others? We veterans, the military, and the media need to stop jumping to conclusions and making assumptions.
I was guilty of an assumption a few weeks ago. I ran across a book, Unspoken Abandonment, by Bryan Wood. It was about some of the mental issues that soldiers can come back from war with. His experiences in Afghanistan were different from mine in Iraq and I ended up questioning if he had ever been there. In the end it turned out I was probably wrong and some of the perceived discrepancies were for literary purposes only. I gave the book five stars in the end, and kicked myself for committing the very offence I’ve so often thought the rest of the Army was often guilty of.
Most importantly, after swallowing my foot, the book got me thinking. Anyone who has gone to war has probably been through something that human beings aren’t meant to go through. It might seem minor compared to losing a limb or watching a friend die in your arms, but you don’t have to get blown up and knocked out or shoot someone at point blank range to experience something that 99% of the population will not. And, if it’s not normal for a human being to experience, then who are we (or the Army, or the VA) to say that the person enduring that should have a “normal” soldiers reaction and simply shrug and move on?
I’m not advocating for soldiers to thrown down a “stress card” and sit down on the job, saying they have combat fatigue and they need two weeks R&R any time they get a little tired and stressed out. When the shit hits the fan, or even if there is simply a mission to be done, you have to drink water and drive on. That’s what the oath we took and the uniform we wear means. But, when all is said and done, the simple check the box evaluation and RTD isn’t always the right answer. The mindset of looking for reasons not to treat a soldier or veteran so they can be sent back to wherever they came from, “cleared” because they didn’t go through something as bad as losing a limb, or a have a friend die right in front of them, is bullshit.
Dave Grossman broke down the mentality of the military well with his analogy of wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs. Let’s take that a step further though. If most of the population isn’t capable of violence, then isn’t it possible that most of the population is also not capable of handling most of the things experienced in war? Those of us who willingly put on a uniform and go into harms way are a different group than the rest of the population, but we are still only human. Is it too far of a stretch to say that things that would traumatize a civilian might just leave us with scars too?
Not everyone who goes to war will get PTSD. I’m not even sure that most of the people who go to war will. When I interviewed Chris Kyle regarding his book, he gave me his opinion that most soldiers will experience some sort of combat stress though. I think that’s very true. My own experiences in Iraq were, by the Army standard I guess, mild. Yes I got shot at and I saw dead people. I did have to shoot a few times and I got blown up once by a small IED (it didn’t even really knock me out). I lost friends but thankfully never in front of me. I got stressed out, hurt, hot and dehydrated. 90% or greater of the soldiers who were over there went through some of the same things, and some went through far worse.
There were a few nightmares that went away in time, and a few flashbacks that still happen now and again if everything is right. I went for a run at night a few years ago and the moonlight combined with the Texas breeze and the smell of dust all combined just right to where it felt like I was in Iraq, even though I knew I wasn’t. Is that PTSD? No. Significant events can imprint themselves in our minds and familiarity can trigger parts of those memories I think. It was nothing more than that.
But, that was my experience with the war and combat stress. My buddy is not me, and the next veteran is not him. A friend of mine went through one of the same shooting incidents that I did and he handled it differently than me. I talked about it to anyone who would listen until I’m sure they were all annoyed as hell. He didn’t. He bottled it up and now the psychiatrist just throws pills at him in handfuls (though he won’t take all of them and is trying to find healthier ways to cope). Both of us are human though, and pulling the trigger on another human being isn’t natural, so having some sort of adverse reaction to such an experience is natural. To my friend’s credit he fights on, trying to find the healthiest way to cope and even gave me permission to mention him in this article.
I think that this is the most important point that the military and the VA need to grasp. Most everything in war is not natural so when a soldier has a negative reaction, that is actually a natural reaction to a negative thing. When we put on the uniform, contrary to what some activists might think, we don’t give up our humanity. We aren’t permitted to commit war crimes simply because we are at war, even though we have to endure stress and hardships and killing. There is nothing that says we aren’t permitted to still be human though.
As sheepdogs we are capable of great violence, but we are also capable of empathy and sorrow and every other human emotion too. We are not the savage wolf that is capable of violence but incapable of empathy for their fellow man. Empathy is the tether that keeps us tied to our humanity in inhumane situations, and anyone who retains their humanity through war will probably have some sort of scars from it. They will not always match the perceived size of the injury because every mind is different and every person has different coping methods. I hope that one day the military and the VA will fully grasp that and extend more of a helping hand to those scarred by war.
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