How To Help The Veteran In Your Life

I was getting the kids ready for bed last night when the phone rang.  I almost didn’t answer–I didn’t recognize the number, the kids were rebelling like only 3 and 5 year-olds can, and I could feel the chances of getting to bed at a reasonable hour slipping away.  As one pants-less monkey jetted down the hall–chased by another with only a spiderman mask on–I answered anyway.

I’m really glad I did.

On the other end of the line was a Marine I’ve never met–let’s call him Tim.  Tim had just finished After Action  and found that the experiences I wrote about were eerily similar to his.  His circumstances and battlefields were different, but the affects of continued compartmentalization and refusal to admit to any ill effects of multiple combat tours were the same.  Tim is solidly in the middle ground like I was–the place where you’re not clinically diagnosable but pretty far from O.K.–but he’s lacking what I’ve come to realize was a critical component in my own successful return from combat:  The unconditional support of his wife.

I didn’t ask, but he volunteered.  She’d finally had enough of him–two years after his third combat tour, she walked out.  He readily admits that he’d been difficult to live with and had not been an active participant in their relationship for a long time.  Three back-to-back combat tours will do that.  He’d been aloof, totally dedicated to work at the expense of all else, sported a hair-trigger temper, and refused point-blank to even consider the possibility of getting help.  Her walking out on him was the slap in the face he needed.  The shock of realizing that he’s losing his wife finally cut through his denial and he took positive action.  He’s currently meeting with a therapist and is gaining self-awareness with every session.

This is good.  But he’s in a critical stage right now.  He’s ready to share what happened to him, ready to understand how his experiences have impacted him, but he needs to share these deeply troubling reactions and realizations with someone he knows, trusts, and loves.

She doesn’t want to hear about it anymore.

Relationships are tricky and I’m not about to assign blame in this one.  The bottom line is that Tim is in a place where he needs his wife’s understanding and support now more than ever, but his previous actions have poisoned that relationship to the point where she isn’t willing to listen.

Tim’s phone call drove home the point that many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan need help moving on with their lives after combat.  Not necessarily from professional counsellors, but definitely from the people closest to them.  Wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, girlfriends, boyfriends, high school best buddies… these are the people who have intimate knowledge of who the veteran was before combat.  These powerful relationships give them the best chance of helping that veteran return from combat and move on with life, but many don’t know how.

If you are one of those people, I have some suggestions for how you can help your veteran process and share his experiences–regardless if they happened yesterday or forty years ago.  This is a critical first step toward understanding how those experiences have shaped him into who he is today.  Helping your veteran take that first step could make all the difference–to him personally and to your family as a whole.

(In addition to the female veterans of past wars, over two hundred thousand women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.  They suffer the same challenges returning home as their male counterparts do.  I’ve chosen to use “he” to denote veterans in this post because it gets too mealy-mouthed to continually include both genders.  I mean no disrespect to my sisters-in-arms.)

“What happened to him over there?”

This question isn’t new–families have agonized over it for centuries.  Neither are the reasons veterans often take their combat experiences with them to the grave without telling a soul.  Men, in particular, stuff painful and confusing emotions away and lock them up in their minds–embarrassed of their very existence.  When it comes to generating painful and confusing emotions, combat is king.

Veterans build elaborate holding cells in their heads to protect themselves from the horrors of war.  Sometimes the walls last for decades and the veteran lives an outwardly stable life.  But these emotions don’t lose intensity over time and the personal costs of keeping them sequestered increases.  Like toxic waste, these poorly quarantined emotions leak out, poisoning relationships and ruining lives–often without the veteran even realizing it is happening.

Collective amnesia of the post-combat struggles of veterans from past wars makes it seem like this is something new.  It’s not.  Drug abuse, failed marriages, ruined families, suicide–these and other tragedies have destroyed returning veterans’ lives throughout history.  And now they’re affecting the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

This isn’t all doom and gloom.  There’s a wide range of reactions to combat, from nearly imperceptible to debilitating.  On the debilitating end of the spectrum, professional help is needed.  Short of that, though, there are things you can do to help the veterans in your life move beyond suppression as a coping mechanism.  Here are some suggestions for how you can help.

Educate yourself
This might sound like self-serving advice from an author, but, you need to read some books.  Not movies.  Not most novels.  You need to read non-fiction accounts of combat detailing the human cost of war as told by those who truly comprehend it.  War stories told for entertainment value fall well short of the goal here.  Dig around online and look for books written by veterans or containing veterans’ voices.  Some of these books have the best chance of cutting through the stereotypes and exposing how real people react in, and after, combat.  They can give you a general understanding of what your veteran might have been through and provide a foundation of general knowledge you can use to build comprehension of your veteran’s specific experiences and reactions.

The best scenario is that you can get your veteran to read the books as well.  Then you have common ground to begin a meaningful discussion without him having to explain everything in his own words.  It might sound something like:

“Remember in that book when Bobby got all screwed up when Sergeant Smith died?”  You ask.
He thinks for a minute.
“Yeah, I had one like that, too–but my Sergeant Smith didn’t die, he just got his legs blown off…”

Sometimes it’s way easier for us to use somebody else’s words to get started.

Here are some books I’ve found to be helpful:
On Killing, LtCol Dave Grossman
Those Who Have Borne The Battle, James Wright
Soldier From The War Returning, Thomas Childers
What It’s Like To Go To War, Karl Marlantes
War And The Soul, Edward Tick

Listen to what we don’t say
Pay attention not only to what the veteran says, but also to what he doesn’t.  When I got home from the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I’d tell anyone who’d sit still about combat.  I’d talk about the long flights, the firefights, who killed who where, my dead squadron mates… anything other than how any of it made me feel.  I detailed the harrowing adventures I’d had with my fellow pilots as if I’d watched them from outside my helicopter.  At the time I thought my ability to easily discuss those things meant I was unaffected by them.  It wasn’t until years later that realized the opposite was true–I’d been protecting myself from the troubling reactions I’d had by reciting cold facts.  No one ever called me on it.

If you’ve built your foundation by educating yourself on human reactions to combat, you might be able to identify where your loved one skips over them.  If you know what to listen for, omissions of these reactions can indicate where your veteran is hurting most.  This can provide clues for where you should focus as you piece together how his combat experiences impacted him.

Give Space
This may seem counter-intuitive, but sometimes you do need to back off.  Some people process stuff on their own or with a specific, trusted, friend.  Don’t be hurt if that trusted friend isn’t you.

Even though my wife had also served as a Marine in Iraq, she wasn’t the first person I turned to when I started unpacking my mental baggage.  That fell to a close friend of mine who I’d served in combat with on my second tour.  He and I would go for long runs while I threw partially formed concepts and thoughts out with abandon.  Miles and hours would go past unnoticed as I explored my reactions to traumatic events without a hint of self-consciousness.  There was something about running side by side with a trusted friend that allowed me to enter places in my mind and soul that were otherwise inaccessible.

My wife knew this and gave me space to do it–taking care of the kids after her long week at work and freeing me to go running.  Those runs gave me the clarity to weed through the distractors and, when I did finally open up to her, my thoughts were cohesive and almost fully formed.  After all the rough edges were hammered out on those runs, my wife’s input helped me understand the finer details about how my experiences were affecting me–and what I needed to do about it.

Listen like a woman
Men, when listening to a friend’s problems, usually try to come up with a “fix”.  Women, on the other hand, generally listen and commiserate with their troubled friend while validating their feelings (I think I read that in Glamour once.  What?–it was the only magazine in the can).  When trying to get a male veteran to open up about painful and confusing experiences, this generalization works in a woman’s favor.

There is no “fix”.  The experiences of war are with a veteran forever.  There will come a time when even the most stoic veteran will attempt to open up and talk.  When that happens, listen.  Don’t provide anecdotes from something you read, don’t interject how you felt the same way at some point, just listen.  Remember that there is no fix, so don’t look for one.  Allow us to get the words out no matter how long it takes–each one is like an anvil crushing our insides.  When we do finally spit them out the weight drops off.  We can breathe again.

But it’s really hard to get to that point.

While writing After Action I found myself struggling over a specific firefight–trying to put my finger on what exactly was bothering me about it.  I’d been working on the book for over a year and thought I’d told my wife everything about my experiences in Iraq.  The more I struggled to understand that particular fight, the more agitated and withdrawn I became.  This lasted about a week before I finally opened up to my wife about the confusion I was feeling.

We sat in our quiet living room, the kids asleep, dog snoring by the fireplace, while I walked her through the battle.  I explained each action I’d taken–why I chose to fire, what happened, how many people I killed–and then, somehow, I got there.  I entered the mental room where I’d stuffed the emotions generated by those intense experiences.  That particular battle took place over seven years ago–but I spewed pent up emotions as if it happened yesterday.  When it was over I sat back on the couch, drained.  But content.  For the first time in years, I was content.  I kind of looked around the room in amazement for a moment, then looked to my wife for comment.  She’d sat, unmoving and silent, for almost an hour while I talked.

Finally she spoke.  “That was really hard to hear”.

That wasn’t what I was expecting.

“Hard?  Hard how?”  I asked.

“I mean, I really had to focus on what you were saying to keep my mind from wandering.”

This floored me.  Inside I was saying “I’m pouring my f-in heart out and you’re thinking about what?  Work?  A grocery list? What could have been more important?

Luckily, I kept my mouth shut.  She continued.

“It was hard to listen to because I didn’t want to think about you that way–scared, angry, and hurting.  I didn’t want to hear that you’ve felt that way for years and I never knew it.  I just didn’t want to imagine you that way.”

As hard as it was for her to hear, it did me a world of good to get it off my chest.  From that conversation I gained comprehension of what had bothered me the most from my combat tours.  That one conversation gave me perspective and allowed me to move forward–and she hadn’t said a word.  That’s the power of a good listener.

These wars are drawing to a close–the shooting is winding down and soon there won’t be any more pending deployments.  But that doesn’t mean the suffering will end.  The remainder of the butcher’s bill still has to be paid.  It comes due when veterans try to move on with their lives.

The emotions and reactions created in combat don’t go away.  Unaddressed, they fester and poison lives.  You, as a central figure in your veteran’s life, can help draw those emotions out of the darkness.  Getting them into the light can make all the difference.

We may never ask for it, but we need your help.

8 thoughts on “How To Help The Veteran In Your Life

  1. Ali Mignone

    Great post, Dan. A real thing anyone can do for a vet who’s hurting – listen with your mouth shut. Really listen.

    I wonder if you’d consider writing a post about how to support someone who’s still in that earlier ruminating, replaying, not-ready-to-deal-beyond-the-facts phase? Someone who’s not really ready to think about, much less talk about, emotions. Is listening still the answer?

    It’s important for all of us to know that the earlier phase can last for a lifetime; thank you for shedding light on that, too.

    Reply
    1. Dan Sheehan Post author

      Thanks, Ali. It’s funny you should mention that earlier phase–the one where a person is reacting to unanticipated emotions and subconscious interference in their daily life while angrily repeating “I’m fine, it’s nothing, I’m okay…” I wish I could help someone through it with a blog post.
      But I can’t.
      That phase is Everest. It’s the toughest thing in the world to climb and a person has to do it on their own, right off the bat. It takes a person throwing caution to the wind to honestly ask, and answer, questions they are truly scared of. Once a person reaches that peak, the place where they are willing to listen to themselves, then the path gets easier. But that first step’s a doozy…
      So, while I can’t do it in a blog post, I hope to do it in a second book. I’ve started preparing an outline/storyboard for a second non-fiction book with that express goal: providing adjustment advice to veterans who don’t think they need it.

      I can hear marketing/publishing types rolling their eyes. “Who writes something for an audience who doesn’t want to read it?”

      Well, here’s why I think it’s needed: Many very good books exist that can assist a person through difficult life transitions–provided the person picks the book up in the first place. For veterans, most of the available books on post-combat adjustment are written by PhD’s, MD’s, scholars, or spiritual leaders in their specific discipline. These well-intentioned authors, some of whom serve in the military, provide solid support if the reader is receptive to their approach and can understand their language. Problem is, many of these very highly educated authors write to their academic community first, and the veteran second. We’re missing a step here.

      I intend to provide examples of past heroes and warriors who have triumphed in battle only to suffer defeat and tragedy upon returning home. These examples descend to the depths of human archetypes and provide a foundation for current warriors to see post-combat adjustment challenges not as weakness, but rather as a traditional final battle to overcome.
      These young men and women charge dug-in machine-guns in the mountains of Afghanistan and poked roadside bombs with tweezers in Iraq–they like the idea of taking on a challenge. I want to identify and explain that the challenges don’t end on the field of battle. Some of the most dangerous and life-altering ones occur when you get home.

      The stigma exists against admission of any mental or moral pain from combat because modern warriors are not prepared for the human costs of what they’re called to do. I intend to show that those costs have affected warriors since recorded history and are thus universal experiences to be expected and overcome, not ignored and hidden away. I want to paint them as a challenge to anticipate and to prepare oneself for before the veteran ever sets foot back on US soil.

      Warriors are much more likely to take on a challenge than to admit to something they misunderstand as weakness.

      I’m using this blog to air some of those concepts and ideas as they occur to me. This will definitely be a work in progress and I welcome feedback of any type.
      Thanks,
      Dan

      Reply
      1. Ali Mignone

        Really looking forward to hearing more about the second book. Sounds like just as big a project as the first!

        Reply
        1. Dan Sheehan Post author

          Thanks Ali. As I develop the approach I want to take with this project I’ll bounce some ideas off you. You gave me great advice on After Action that helped keep me on track. Now I just need to define the track for this next book, explain it to you, and then you can help keep me on it. Sound good?

          Reply
  2. Valerie Ormond

    Outstanding blog post and advice, Dan. I particularly like the way you offer suggestions without being “preachy.” You have a definite gift, and I am glad you are sharing it.
    Regarding your ideas for your second book, I like your approach. You may not be at this stage, but perhaps the word “challenge” should be in the title to highlight how key a concept this is to your work.

    Reply
    1. Dan Sheehan Post author

      Thanks for the support, Valerie. I like your idea about incorporating the challenge aspect into the title, but, like you said, I’m not anywhere near that stage yet. Picking a title was the least enjoyable aspect of writing “After Action” for me, so I’ll probably put it off for a little while on this one.
      Maybe I’ll get lucky this time and it will “just come to me” in a flash of brilliance. Yeah, about that…

      Reply

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