Andersen: How a veteran survives survival
Most U.S. soldiers today don’t die as casualties during war; they die afterward as veterans, from despair, helplessness and alienation.
Navigating their way back into the civilian world is a perilous journey. The mythical Odysseus described this well in his 10-year journey home from the killing fields of Troy.
Sebastian Junger writes: “The American military now has the highest (post-traumatic stress disorder) rate in its history. … American combat deaths have dropped steadily while trauma and disability claims have continued to rise. … Today’s vets claim three times the number of disabilities that Vietnam vets did.”
Junger knows what he’s talking about given his own recovery from covering a war zone in Afghanistan, where he came under fire.
“The inevitable counterattack started with an hourlong rocket barrage,” he wrote. “All we could do was curl up in our trenches and hope. I felt deranged for days afterwards, as if I’d lived through the end of the world.”
Later, Junger had a flashback in a crowded New York subway stop.
“I couldn’t quite explain what was wrong, but I was far more scared than I’d ever been in Afghanistan,” he wrote.
Junger suffered subsequent panic attacks in airplanes, crowded bars and ski gondolas.
“I thought I was going crazy,” he wrote.
Surviving war requires instinct and training. Surviving civilian life requires adaptation and transformation. Many veterans find themselves as pegs that don’t fit the round hole of home life after they’ve been edged and squared by military service.
One of my Huts for Vets veteran alumni — an Army sniper in Afghanistan and Iraq — described himself on a recent wilderness trip as a survivor of war who now struggles to survive the peace.
“I realize that, in some sense, I am a survivor,” he said. “I survived a war. I was a victim of a system that prayed on lower-income individuals to encourage enlistment into conflicts that perpetuated private interests and not community interests. I have anger over allowing myself to be used.”
During his service, this man was a willful automaton, killing the enemy for his country. Now, as a veteran, he is a wilderness conservationist, father, husband and repentant human being.
“I keep working for positive change in our systems that took advantage of me so that others might not experience the same in the future,” he said. “I give everything I can to my family and friends to affect the people in my closest circle.
“I don’t think it is the best plan, but for now it seems to be working. I am no longer suicidal or self-destructive, and most of my symptoms of (post-traumatic stress disorder) are gone or muted. I have hard days or even weeks, but it is better than the monthly spells I had before.”
During our wilderness foray three weeks ago, he shared a dream he had during the trip. The enemy was advancing, and he was lining up a human target in the crosshairs of his rifle scope. He was about to pull the trigger when he glanced aside and saw his young son watching.
“I didn’t know what to say,” he said. “I don’t know what I will say when the time comes to tell him what I did.”
This veteran has come to an internal rapprochement. Personal happiness and joy are not to be part of his normal life. He denies himself pleasure as a measure of self-punishment.
“The only way I have survived is by abandoning self-love,” he said. “It isn’t healthy. I tread a balance, allowing myself only marginal pleasure while sacrificing everything I can to my loved ones, good causes and others. Through that effort I can offer myself some indirect happiness. I continue waking up every day, and I can be productive.
“Atonement involves me working on good things. Hopefully, I can tip the scales a bit or offer the chance to put the good back into the world that the people I killed might have contributed. I feel like I have had to do double time to make up for it. All of it comes down to a real transformation, accepting that I am a better person and that I am no longer a person that would do the things I once did.”
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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