It’s no secret that the vast majority of people in distress can get relief by asking for help. Indeed, most issues get worse when ignored, not better. This is especially true for veterans where adjustment issues and PTSD mutate into insurmountable obstacles for the lack of professional assistance. So why, if help is available, do we prolong our suffering by refusing to ask for help?
Because that’s how we were brought up.
I don’t mean by our parents or society. I mean by the military. The changes a person goes through when joining the military are designed to prepare them to emerge victorious from battle. One of the primary lessons learned, from basic training onward, is that our pain and suffering are acceptable as long as the mission is successful. This lesson, so thoroughly driven into our heads in peacetime, pays huge dividends in battle.
Here’s an example from when I was with MCSOCOM Det One:
Baghdad, late May 2004, sometime after midnight. The assault force had quietly infiltrated the neighborhood and was hidden in the shadows outside the target’s residence. The AC-130 orbiting out of earshot reported no suspicious activity over my radio. I didn’t pass the information over the team frequency–negative information is assumed, only threats are passed. Using hand signals, the lead breacher moved toward the door. Dogs and generators made the only noises.
From twenty-five meters away, I couldn’t see the doorway. I didn’t need to. Over the team frequency came the lead breacher’s whispered warning “Breaching Breaching Breaching”. On the third one he detonated his charge of C-4 on the door.
The explosion ripped the night. I tensed, ready to rush into the house as soon as the assault commenced. But something was wrong, there was no movement. No rush. Muffled animal noises from the doorway… shots fired… something heavy being dragged… then the slamming of a sledgehammer against steel.
There was no surprise, the insurgents in the house knew exactly what was happening.
The assaulters rushed the house as soon as the steel door gave way. Through the fatal funnel they raced, each man pie-ing off a section of a room and covering it with his weapon. Stepping over the twitching legs of our lead breacher, I moved into the house and gained access to the roof where I could best control the aircraft.
Below me the fight continued. The man we were sent to capture or kill was hiding in a bedroom. As a team of assaulters entered the room he fired several times before being cut down. Securing the body, the assaulters continued clearing the house. Once all threats were neutralized attention turned toward MEDEVAC-ing our wounded lead breacher.
Two of our four corpsmen were working on him. His arm had been almost severed and he was badly burned from the explosion. Once he was stable, one team of assaulters moved him several hundred meters to a landing zone. When the helo couldn’t get into that zone due to wires, they moved him several hundred more meters to another field. Finally, the helicopter lifted him out.
The assault team moved back from the MEDEVAC zone to the main residence. The main mission–capture or kill the target–had been accomplished. The secondary mission–MEDEVAC–had been accomplished. The tertiary mission–searching the residence for actionable intelligence–was ongoing. This is what the assault team began doing after returning to the house.
The eyes of the Mission Commander didn’t miss much. As the team re-entered the house, he noticed one of the returning assaulter’s pants leg was covered in blood. Pulling the man aside, he ordered him to get medical attention.
He was one of our Corpsman. He’d been shot in the leg during the firefight but refused to deal with his own injury. After being shot he stayed in the fight until the insurgent was dead, then helped his friend get life-saving medical attention by moving with him for several hundred meters to the helicopter, and was preparing to continue his mission at the house when he was ordered to accept medical attention.
This is what I mean about accepting personal pain to accomplish the mission. Our Corpsman did this not because had anything to prove, it just never occurred to him to stop. He knew he’d been wounded but also knew that it wasn’t too bad–he could deal with it when the mission was over. This is the mindset of a warrior.
This mindset isn’t limited to ignoring physical pain. Mental and emotional pain are also ignored, shoved aside in pursuit of mission success. This sort of fortitude is essential in combat, but afterward becomes a liability.
This mindset was one of the reasons I refused to seek professional help for my own re-adjustment issues–my metaphorical “bullet in the leg”. This “bullet” has been nagging me for years, not bad enough to be really dangerous, but bad enough that I always knew it was there. I figured I could deal with it myself, that it wasn’t really a big deal. Coupled with an internal voice that told me “the VA is too busy…the counsellor is going to tell me I’m a puss…only real broke-dicks go to the VA…” and I had a never ending litany of excuses to not seek help.
But last week I went anyway. A big part of what finally got me to seek help was the promise I made in the end of After Action. I wrote it there as a public declaration to seek help if my burden started to get heavy again. Well, it’s been wearing me down lately and I figured enough was enough–time to talk to a professional.
This blog is about the warrior’s journey after action. It is intended to chronicle how I deal with various aspects of returning from combat and moving on with my life. I’ve done a lot of self-assessing, have sifted through tons of experiences and reactions and have achieved a certain level of self-awareness about how I’ve been affected. But that doesn’t mean I have all the answers.
I worried, before going to the Vet Center, that I was wasting my time. I figured that they couldn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. I was wrong. In each of the two conversations I’ve had with counsellors, I’ve come away with specific knowledge of how my brain was working that made sense to me. This knowledge is giving me another set of tools to better understand myself. I’m looking forward to my next appointment.
This is the next step in my journey. I’ve done a lot of work on my own but found that it wasn’t enough. There was no big event, no bottoming out or life crisis that prompted me to make that first appointment. I finally realized that my mission now doesn’t require me to ignore my pain. It requires me to understand it.
The professionals at the Vet Center can help me do that. That’s what they’re there for.