Beware The Coming Storm

We’ve pulled out of Iraq and the politicians are figuring out how to do the same in Afghanistan.

Combat deployments for US troops will decrease over the next year and eventually drop to zero.  This might sound like great news for the millions of families with loved ones in the military–and on one level it is–but it will bring new challenges that must be addressed.

Military personnel and their families have spent the last decade living with repeated combat deployments.  After each deployment there should be a re-adjustment period, a time when the recently-returned veteran comes out of the combat mentality, processes his or her experiences, and reverts to the reality of living in a civil society.  This is a difficult transition that can take years to fully accomplish.

But what if the veteran doesn’t have years?  What if the next deployment is only eight-months or a year away?  Few veterans facing another combat tour would consider it a good idea to try and process their past combat experiences.  No, those events and the emotions and reactions they created are best left untouched and unexamined in the dark corners of a veteran’s mind.  To muck around in those dangerous mental places is to invite disaster on the next combat deployment.  Instead of trying to regain “normal” between deployments, most veterans just stay where it’s safest–ready for war.  Maintaining the combat mindset is of utmost importance for success and survival in battle–but it makes for a pretty crappy home life.  And some of them have been doing it for over ten years.

These repeated deployments have kept American service-members mentally focused on war–at the expense of almost everything else in their lives.  Compartmentalization, the ability to shove distractions aside and accomplish a task, is a skill veterans learn out of necessity.  It is the skill that allows them to ignore death, pain, and fear on the battlefield and, at home, the reality that their marriage is falling apart, their kids don’t know them, and they barely know themselves.  On the battlefield, the driving motivation to compartmentalize is survival.  At home, the driving motivation is preparing for the next deployment.  If you don’t do everything possible to survive that next combat tour, then it doesn’t matter if your marriage is in great shape or your kids understand why you’re never home–you’re just dead.  That’s a fact that’s pretty difficult to get around.

But what happens when there is no “next deployment”?  What happens when that need to subjugate personal relationships beneath preparing for war evaporates overnight?  When that 900-pound gorilla finally gets off the family couch and walks out the door without a word?  Families may feel intense relief and happiness that their loved ones are not going back into harm’s way, but they shouldn’t expect domestic bliss to blossom overnight.

Until now, the next deployment has been a dependable “boogy-man” that provided motivation and justification for service-members to ignore changes in themselves and their relationships with friends and family.  Ignored or not, these changes have happened and must be rectified before life can return to “normal”.  When that boogy-man disappears, veterans will have to face these changes or risk becoming the person people say was “never the same after the war.”  That guy’s only cool in Hollywood.  In real life, he or she is a mess.

Nobody comes home from war the same as they left.  Understanding how they’ve changed, and why, is a difficult and confusing process for anyone.  I underwent that process when writing After Action and, for as much good as it has done me, I admit it wasn’t easy.  In fact, until the cost of my continued refusal to address what was bothering me got too high, there was no way in hell I was going to admit I wasn’t “100% okay.”

Unfortunately, I think most veterans will have to endure some sort of negative life experience before they admit to feeling anything approaching emotional, spiritual or mental pain.  This may take the form of a failed relationship, loss of personal identity or some other personal crisis.  Upcoming deployments may have hidden the fractures and fissures in the foundation of a veteran’s life before, but soon those cracks are going to become visible. Some of those cracks are big enough to swallow whole families.

This is the coming storm that families of veterans need to prepare for.  It is possible to weather it, but only with effective communication, realistic goals, and, most importantly, a veteran willing to honestly examine his or her own mental state.  Help is available, but it must be sought out and asked for.  Without the veteran taking the first step, there can be no meaningful outside assistance rendered.

Don’t expect decisions made at the White House to fix the issues in your house– the President can only bring veterans home physically.  Veterans, and their families, need to prepare for the challenges of peace with no less rigor than they prepared for war.

And that “peace” is coming soon.

8 thoughts on “Beware The Coming Storm

  1. Ali Mignone

    Thoughtful post, Dan. Much to mull over about the difference between national peace and internal peace. Here’s hoping both are achievable for us all…

    Reply
    1. Dan Sheehan Post author

      Thanks Ali. I think internal peace is achievable for us all–but only if we listen and act on what we as individuals need in order to get there. Movies and popular fiction are full of stereotypical characters reacting in ways that are designed to sell a product. They are not providing models for appropriate and healthy behavior, yet, and I know I’ve done this, many people think “Hmm, xyz character acted this way in this situation, guess I should too.” Once we stop reacting the way we think we should, and begin reacting to how we truly feel inside, then we’re setting ourselves on the path toward achieving internal peace.
      Achieving national peace is a whole other can of worms…

      Reply
  2. Jenn

    Well said, Dan. Thank you for voicing your thoughts on the challenges of peace. It sounds like the “unpacking” of the contents of your compartments was a very individual process for you, and I suppose it truly is for everyone. It’s disheartening to think that each veteran may need to experience a very personal low point before seeking help. Do you think the idea of reducing stigma associated with seeking help is in direct conflict with the mindset cultivated in our modern warrior culture?

    Reply
    1. Dan Sheehan Post author

      Hi Jenn, Great comment. While I think each veteran will have to figure out their own process of de-compartmentalization, the underlying themes and conflicts they’ll probably uncover are not unique. Warriors throughout history have experienced the intense highs and lows of combat and many honest, compelling tales have been recorded that detail the exact issues facing warriors today. These are captured most effectively in books, not movies. The problem is, most troops spend more time watching movies than reading books.
      I’m not anti-Hollywood, even though it might sound like it, but I think movies have done tremendous damage to America’s veterans. They’ve done this by promoting a false concept of what it means to be a warrior for entertainment value. That’s their job–to entertain. Movies are generally surface-level entertainment (especially ones depicting warriors or combat) in which deeply nuanced explanations of complex emotions are simply not possible. Even if they’re portrayed accurately the watcher might not detect them. The net result is that young men and women watch superstars in ‘combat’ act in stereotyped ways that evoke specific emotional responses in the viewer. Rage, elation, righteous anger, sorrow, pity, hate, love… Most movies leave a watcher feeling one, maybe two of those emotions–and thinking that is normal. Real combat jams all these emotions into white-hot milliseconds that take years to fully comprehend. The resulting confusion leaves the veteran questioning why he/she is reacting so differently than their hollywood concept of warrior would act. The conflict between fantasy and reality is keenly felt when it occurs inside your own head.
      So, in answer to your question, I do think asking for help will be seen as a sign of weakness–until we develop a more mature concept of what it means to be a warrior. Veterans cannot wait for Hollywood to do this for us. I think we, as veterans of ten (+) years of conflict, are in a unique position in history to re-define the concept of a warrior. We can do this by taking the challenge of fully understanding what we’ve been through and sharing it–honestly, openly, and without fear of what anyone thinks–with mainstream American society. If that is the legacy OIF/OEF veterans pass to the next generation of veterans then the sacrifices of the last ten years will have been truly worthwhile. Maybe then the next generation of veterans will be more open to the idea of getting help, or helping themselves, before they experience a very personal low point. For current veterans though, living through a personal low point might be required to overcome the stigma they feel against asking for help. I hope, through your efforts and mine, we can help change that.
      Thanks for your comment.

      Reply
  3. Pat Lloyd

    I enjoyed your book immensely. Your comments are extremely valid. we are Carolina veterans support group and we had two missions. First, to aid returning veterans in making the transition from military life to a successful civilian life. Second, to provide an advocacy group supporting veterans as they struggle with the Veterans Administration, the Labor Department, and other state and federal agencies. Our observation has been that there are no advocates within these agencies to aid the veteran in obtaining much-needed assistance. An example is the current 940+ days required to process a medical disability application at the Winston-Salem North Carolina of the VA. we would very much like to have you join with us as we were to a the returning veteran. Our website is http://www.cvsgnc.org and even though it is currently under reconstruction, we invite and look forward to your visit.

    Pat Lloyd
    founder

    Reply
    1. Dan Sheehan Post author

      Thank you, Pat–both for your kind words about my book and for what you’re doing to help veterans. Organizations like yours, with their roots firmly planted in the local community, offer concrete support and assistance where it is needed most. I’ll keep an eye on your website as it develops and look forward to working with CVSGNC in the future.

      Reply
  4. Mitch

    Dan,

    Haven’t read your book but discussed with a friend of mine recently; he recommended it to me. I’ve been saying this since 2006; I think we are on the verge of an “epidemic”. The surge of PTSD and other war-related ailments is upon us. I’m a Marine leader and my main concern is for the population of officers in our military who are expected to take care of subordinates. But who is taking care of the officers? Expected to maintain the “even strain” and uphold the highest standards, our officers are suffering just as bad. Thanks for speaking out. I’ll read it soon. S/f, Chief

    Reply
    1. Dan Sheehan Post author

      Chief,

      You’re right on the money. Some of the recent reading I’ve been doing has been aimed at discovering how previous groups of veterans dealt with their post-war challenges. While the negative coping mechanisms, suppressed emotional responses, and personal denial of re-adjustment challenges have been very similar across time and conflicts, I think veterans of OIF/OEF are suffering at a higher percentage than veterans of other wars.

      Each conflict has it’s own particular flavor and, eventually, aftertaste. The basics of combat have never changed: kill the enemy and destroy his stuff. But the warriors who participate in combat are products of their societies. How they conduct themselves before, during, and after combat reflect the preparation they received from their particular society. American society has done a great job of producing idealistic, selfless young men and women who are willing to forgo their birthrights of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness to serve in the military. After receiving the best training in the world, they are used to protect and defend the Constitution. But how do we, as a society, prepare them to return after combat?

      We don’t.

      Herein lies the problem. Unless we figure out a way to prepare members of our military for the challenges they’ll face after combat, we will continue to lose the valuable contributions that millions of well-adjusted, mature, warriors can bring to our society.

      It is not fair to expect American Society to provide this preparation–we’re too small a segment of the population, and our experiences too foreign, for that to happen. I think it is up to us, the veterans, to share our experiences in a way that prepares follow on warriors for the challenges they may face. I hope you find After Action to be helpful in this regard.

      S/F
      Shoe

      Reply

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