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Homeless Veterans

A couple of years ago I was asked to be a Motivational Speaker at a picnic for homeless veterans in Portland. I was quite nervous. I was worried that I couldn’t connect with them and their story. In the end I picked what was, and is, our commonality… our military experience and the values we share. I read Shakespeare to them, St Crispin’s Day speech, which is one of my favorites. From what I was told, I was successful in what I was tasked to do.

A few months later, my job was gone, I couldn’t find other work, and soon I was homeless. At times I did feel self-pity raise its head, yet for the most part I took it as an opportunity to learn. Why didn’t I go to one of the resources that I knew of for the homeless? Why didn’t I call one of the many friends that offered their assistance? I felt deep emotional currents pushing/pulling me down different paths, none of which were towards a shelter or friends. This was fascinating to me.

In the 23 days that I slept in parking lots and behind buildings and at rest stops, the last few days sneaking back into my empty apartment (I knew the maintenance people were behind schedule in turning the unit) for a few hours of sleeping on the floor. This, in no way, makes me a bonafide experiencer of homelessness. 23 days is nothing. I took showers at a local armory. I could get food readily with the cash I had saved. I didn’t experience anything near what our homeless experience in their day-to-day lives. But I got a glimpse and I try to learn from that glimpse. Of all the things that stuck with me, it was the following that still does.

One night I was driving around (I lived out of my small truck) looking for a place to sleep for the night. In Beaverton, OR there is an abandoned Circuit City (or there was) and I drove behind it and in a corner and settled down for a nap. Soon there were headlights. A police car. The officer came and tapped on my window and asked me what I was doing. I said that I was just trying to sleep. I didn’t have a home. I would move along in a few hours. He said that there was a ‘no camping’ ordinance in Beaverton and that I couldn’t stay there. He looked at my window and saw my various stickers and asked me if I was a veteran. When I answered ‘yes’ I saw the quick flash of pity across his face. That was the worse thing for me.

Now to the present day.

Most of the time I am engaged in something or other, but at times I just let myself veg-out. Driving a long trip yesterday I turned off the radio and just let my mind fantasize. What if I won the lottery? This is unlikely, notably because I never play the lottery. But it is a fun exercise to do, imagine if I won. So I was driving home and imagined all the usual stuff… give money to my family, friends, etc… typical stuff. But then I got to the ‘what would I do’ part. Instead of just going down a list of charities, I fantasized about actually doing something.  There is a lot of about homelessness that is more than just people that are without a home because of employment. There are mental health issues (thanks Reagan) that I am not addressing here. I only saw one sliver of the whole, that of the homeless veteran. It is this that I fantasized about helping. Here is what I imagined…

I hire an executive assistant that knows stuff that I don’t know. Such as real estate, taxes, legal things, whatever. Then I buy a warehouse near downtown Portland. Many buildings around it are empty and the owner was happy to sell it to me and get some money back. I then light it up with inside and outside lights. It is bright. Inside I add a row of computers to a computer room. Another room is a barracks style room with beds and footlockers. There’s a box of locks and keys available for anyone. Free linen for the beds.

In another room I have a large laundry facility, no coin-ops, and lots of soap. There are showers too. In another portion I build a dozen small rooms of various sizes, 1 to 4 person rooms. The rooms and laundry and shower are open all the time.

Computer room is open only with staff. Volunteers from the community offer resume classes, and other skills teaching from time to time.

Another room is the kitchen with tools to make and cook. There are freezers and refrigerators lining the wall. I hire a permanent staff to oversee the kitchen, particularly with sanitation. But mostly this is a place where people can cook for themselves. They can store food. I’ve worked a deal with many local businesses with rotating donations of food. Some of the companies have staff volunteer to come and cook or setup a buffet table. I emphasize that the food must be healthy. I accept nothing that is detrimental, such as overly processed food. Whole food. Nourishment.

Along the walls are various flags, mottoes, insignias, etc… to fill a person with pride. Nobody pays to be here, there are no tenants, it is use as you need it. No lengthy questionnaire, no microscope, no history, no shame… just come here and regroup yourself. I’m not here to fix you. I’m just providing coffee.

In another room is a wardrobe room. Donations of suits and shirts, ties, shoes, and jackets to assist in job hunting. Local dry cleaners offer to clean for someone doing a job interview. In another room there is coffee and pastries. People congregate there. Music plays. Some of the people volunteer to ‘work’ at the cafe, though nothing is for money.

Another large room has the equipment in it… weights. Twice a day, morning and night, an instructor from some gym in the city comes and gives a WOD.

Sometimes a yoga teacher gives a class. In another room it is sparse and quiet. A meditation room. I’ve established connections with different religious traditions in the area. On various religious holidays, a local religious leader of (insert religion here) stops by to assist.

In another room is the bike room, with lots of tools and benches. Local bike shop owners give classes on maintenance. Some of the people have built their own bikes.

In another room there is the ‘theater’ where there is a regular movie night.

And here is where there is a real difference… we have formations. Every week a new ‘Platoon Sergeant’ is picked from the ‘ranks’, as are squad leaders and squads. Every person that walks in is greeted by someone who lives there. They are put in a squad, the SL meets them, and spins them up. It isn’t me, or any other people who are saving them. Give them space and they’ll take care of themselves. I recognize this is applicable only to a portion of the homeless population. I recognize that there is a need for specialized treatment, psychotherapy, and more. But I was not that, nor, I believe, are many of our homeless veterans. But I am open to seeing the data.

Not only formations, but posted Plan of the Day as well. The vets who live there are encouraged to sign up for ‘working parties’ when they are not looking for work/housing. These working parties offer volunteer services around town. They give to their community. In other words, they are not moochers taking hand outs. They are veterans who are, again, giving themselves to their loved communities. It is easier to receive services when you feel that you’ve done something in return. I know, I know… we’ve served, that is all that is needed. Not really, it is more complicated than that. But see further below for more on this.

Let me explain. I’ve been to a couple of Veteran Stand Downs as a service-provider. From Portland to Medford and in between. I’ve seen the generosity of the community as they offer services and goods to a population that needs it. But it lacked something.

I saw this 60 Minutes episode and it was night and day from what I was used to. Watch that clip. It is powerful. It has something that I’ve never seen in 6 or more stand downs in Oregon… pride. All the problems found in the homeless community are there, but there is pride in this clip. Standing in formation you can see it in their eyes. That! That bit right there is huge! How could I create an environment that allowed for pride?

After my brief stint of living in my truck, I was talking with some workers at Central City Concern about my experience. There are some wonderful people that work there and I have great respect for them. I told them that everywhere I looked at services for homeless, didn’t apply to me. They all REEKED of victimhood. The term ‘handout’ was poison to me. I wanted nothing to do with them. I told them that if there was a small room some place where I could have just showed up, checked my email (for a job I was looking for), grab some coffee, take a shower without having to make excuses or play a part, maybe do some laundry, no questions asked, no big drama, no ‘how can we help you’, I would have loved it. If, instead of a shelter of services there was something like a ‘tactical resupply checkpoint’, I would’ve been all over it. I didn’t need anyone to save me (how I felt whenever I went anywhere near some services) but I could use a resupply.

This is what I know. That veterans are different. Give them space and opportunity and get out of their way. They’ll surprise you. They can organize, plan, and execute.

Speaking, briefly, to the mental health aspects and the possibility of some having PTSD, TBI or moral injury, given a chance to step outside of the role of victim and into a role of autonomous person, is powerful. Moral injury is not easy to get over. In one study that I read (I’m looking for it again so I can cite it) the author states it takes 25 acts of heroism to balance one act of murder. It is possible that in an environment like this, they can start to work themselves out of that hole. Working on work parties, picked and chosen by the tenants. They are the ones that find the work and opportunities to volunteer. They are not a cheap labor force to abuse. They might find a school with a broken fence, or a help rebuild a playground for kids, or something of the sort. Who knows. But they are in control of their fate.

In my fantasy about this, I merely provided space and equipment and then I got out of their way. I paid staff to regularly do maintenance, food safety, security for items, etc… but that was it. If case management was needed, or more involved services, there are entities in town that did that. We were just a bad ass tactical resupply checkpoint where bad asses, who happened to find themselves homeless, could regroup.

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squirrels

I’m trying to get into a habit of short writing exercises where I just free-form anything that comes to mind. I started out with the first sentence and went from there.

The squirrels leapt from the limb. With wild abandon they gave their fates to the wind. They didn’t know what was to happen in the next fifteen inches of free fall, the next fifteen seconds of life. All that they did know was that behind them was an angry hawk that had crashed onto the limb, razor claws tearing the bark from the limb where the squirrels had just been sitting mere breathes before. The decision, more of an instinct, was to trust that some unknown was better than the known of piercing talons and ripping beak.

So they leapt.

At this time, a man had been walking by. His feet dragged the ground as though shackled to a ball and chain, though his heart was heavier than any iron links would be. He wanted to scream at the universe, the gods, fate, at the injustice that he found himself in. He did. Yet, wounded as his spirit was, all the vitality leaked out through the sobs late in the night, all he could muster for his screams were but wisps of sighs. He ached for things to be different. He longed for something to change his frame of reference on life. Under the water of hopelessness he longed for the brilliant Sun in an optimistic sky.

Instead he got squirrels.

Onto his head they landed, their tiny hands gripping in frenzy, trying to regain some control in a trajectory where they had abandoned all control. Touching down on physical possibility, they did what squirrels do when faced with oblivion and given multiple paths. They zigged, they zagged, they went bonkers. This is a highly adaptive response to a lunging predator. There is no rhyme or reason, no pattern, no way to predict where the squirrel will run to next. The squirrel runs to what is is safe, and away from what is moving toward it.

For example, hands.

The suddenness of the squirrels on his head ripped the man out of his melancholy as powerful as any lightning bolt ever thrown by Zeus. Electricity poured through his nerves, sinews snapped, muscles flared, and he leaped up and down, ran in circles, shrieking incoherences, flailing his arms, and trying with all the desperation of man on fire with only wet sponges to douse himself, to swipe the two squirrels from his head.

Terrorized, with only a hopeful panic to fuel them, the squirrels darted up and down and around his head. As one hand came swooping in, the squirrel would dart down below the ear, under the jaw, over the shoulder, and up behind the other ear. Meanwhile the hawk had flown off. Mice are easier. Still, the squirrels ran round and round, up and down, and left reddened trails around the man’s face and head. He, meanwhile, became more and more animated. Twirling around and around so much, he entered a rare state of transcendence that only the most experienced Sufis have touched.

Nirvana.

The man fell to the Earth, panting, sweating, and euphoric, the blood still swirling in his veins, the crackle of electricity raising his hairs. The squirrels, seeing grass, darted through the green and under a hot dog cart. His lungs expanded, his pulse full, he gazed upward into the sky. The day was bright, the sky was aqua, and puffy white clouds hung motionless. For the first time in weeks his gaze looked outward, not inward. Laughing, tears streaming down his face, he spies a cloud overhead…

… it looked like a squirrel.

Running in a what?

I started running marathons when I was 39. Before then I rarely ran, if ever. I did a marathon because it was on my bucket list of things to do.

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I’ve logged a lot of miles over the years and really started to hit my stride in the last 2 years. Oddly, it wasn’t until after a couple of marathons that I began to consider myself a runner.

Any runner will tell you that there are things that annoy the crap out of us. Things such as inconsiderate dog-owners that allow their dogs to poop everywhere, bicyclists that don’t announce their passing (and too close), people that love to run in packs and cover the entire trail (at a snail’s pace), and more. Many of these things are outside of our control and when I meet them I try to keep this in mind. Some things, however, are in my control. Hydration, fuel (gels, nuts, butters), chaffing, proper shoes and equipment, routes to run, times, rest, etc… Like many runners, I’ve experimented with many different variations, run at night vs day, 3x week versus 4 or 2, gel or M&Ms, etc… And still there is one thing that drives me bonkers… my shorts.

For whatever reason, whether it is the size of my thighs, my gait, or what… my shorts ride up and bunch up in the crotch. This drives me bonkers. I’m not talking about after ten miles… after 1/4 mile. I am CONSTANTLY tugging down on my shorts. I’ve bought the really short men’s runner shorts, and they still ride up on this as well as the sides are shorter, but the inseam is still long. I’ve tried running commando, different briefs, and so forth. When I wear my shorter running shorts, I get comments from friends (Nice legs!), but then again, I get them when I wear my regular running shorts as well. It appears that the ‘guy standard’ in shorts is at least mid thigh and below, moving ever toward the knee.

During the summer I often wear a kilt when hiking. I freaking love it! Some guys think it is strange, others have told me in hushed tones “I wish I could wear a kilt”, implying that they’d be ‘girly’ if they did. After all, no matter what some of the vociferous kilt wearers say… it is a dress. So I started looking for running kilts online.

Here is a review of a running kilt.  But seriously… $175 for a running kilt? And all that fabric? Isn’t it hot? Note, scroll down the page a bit to see the running shorts he is wearing. Quite short. So this got me to thinking, what about running skirt? A quick google found me this website about Skirted Running Man.  He writes about the utility aspects of it and after reading a bit, I decided to order one from Running Skirts.com and cut the liner out.

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Before dawn I took it out on a 6 mile run where I did some fast pace running. And after running in it, all I can say about the utility of it is HOLY COW! No bunching up, no annoying rubbing and chaffing from fabric. There is a debate on various runners websites about the running skirt, and much of the hoopla, especially the anti-skirt side, is around the idea of fashion or ‘looking cute’ on a run (and getting unwanted attention from men). But on the utility side, I’ve seen all positive. Such as this story about Shannon Farar-Griefer (she is a BADASS!).

So on the utility side, these are a win. Not even close. I much prefer wearing these and I’m contemplating wearing them when it isn’t so dark outside. My resistance, as you might understand, is the grief that I would get from people for doing so.

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So it comes down to this for me… bullshit gender schemas. I was basically going against the grain of accepted masculinity.

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As the above article notes, the thing about masculinity is that it is a social value. You are a woman by biology, but you are a man by behavior. In the several hundred presentations that I’ve given about mental health, crisis intervention, stress responses, how to be freakin’ awesome, resilience, BATTLEMIND and PTSD, and more… a common component to all of this is the highly restrictive and sometimes damaging effects of narrowing definitions of masculinity on mental health. Since my own return from deployment to Iraq, and the trials of reintegration and readjustment, I’ve leaned into this to learn what I can.

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Then there is this side of masculinity gone haywire… misogyny. It is odd that valuing ‘feminine traits’ in women doesn’t demean masculine traits (in men or women) but valuing feminine traits in men somehow devalues masculine traits.

Many people (men) who have sat in one of my presentations have scoffed at the notion of a pervasive and sometimes hindering rule of masculinity. So I’ve always issued the challenge “wear a dress to the grocery store and report back to me your findings”. Thus far nobody has taken me up on my challenge. So this leads me to another reason to wear this… I am interested in what reactions I will experience within myself (already noted lots of negative when a car drove by me this morning).

As a Stoic I try to look at underlying patterns and find the true causes and act in accordance. Fashion, it seems, is arbitrary. Other than the utility of an item, what reason is there for preference of one or the other? This has already been shown to be of added utility and comfort. So the only negative left is social approval and emotional responses on mine and other’s. Thinking of this I came to two conclusions.

First, on my reaction. It is an opportunity to remind myself of my Stoic ideals and try to get to the heart of the matter. The closer I get, the less I care.

Second, on people that will not approve. Why care I for their opinions? (see first point above) But also, and here is where my masculinity raises its head in anticipation, there have been various physical assaults against people for a variety of reasons, among which are because they were assumed feminine (women are attacked, effeminate men are attacked). In this regard I WELCOME the opportunity for someone to attack me. In my reasoning if there is a person who is looking to attack someone because that person is (whatever stupid reason goes here), then I would welcome their attention being placed on me. Perhaps we could have a discussion where my inner Socrates would debate with them, or perhaps they’ll meet my Marine side (which can get very mean).

It is early in this experiment… we’ll see how it moves forward.

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Dreams of fleas, fighting aliens, and Dexter

I am not a clinical psychologist (yet) and have not much more than the basic undergraduate training in such. But I do have experience in other matters of the mind and soul, about life, and everyday brings more questions for me.

Descartes was known for his naps and long periods of working in bed. There is something to this. I’ve used the half awake, half asleep, late morning period as an experimental shop for as long as I can remember. I’ve set myself up in situations to note my automatic emotional reactions, I’ve tested out theories and stories and more. I find that I have just enough focus to render input, but not too much as to rid any unbiased outputs. It is also a time when diffused thinking is strong and my mind makes leaps and new connections are found by my awake self, already known to my unawake self.

This morning I had a variety of dreams in this state. First there was the dream of the fleas. I kept waking up due to fleas on me. I was dreaming I was in bed as I was. This isn’t too far from the truth as I have treated my cats for fleas in the past week, though I’ve only caught 2 on my person and none in bed. I would half wake up and itch the body part that I dreamed I had the fleas on, half asleep, and drift back into slumber. This occurred over and over, and I had enough realization to know that I was exiting a deep sleep for this dream. Next time I imagined 5 to 10 fleas on my calf and I could see them distinctly against my skin, under the covers, in the dark room. I noted that this must be a dream and not reality because I was able to see them in this dark environment without moving my head toward my leg, lifting the covers, turning on the lights, contorting my body, and more. And yet I felt the sensation of fleas. What’s more, I felt them other places as well. So instead of lazily swatting at them, again and again, I focused my attention on one area I knew I could not see yet could feel… the back of my head. I felt a flea walking behind my ear and I strained to noticed its path of movement and speed. It didn’t move. It wasn’t fleas. Suddenly al of my fleas were gone and I was able to drift back to sleep.

Another dream that connected to some other thoughts followed later this morning. The Earth was being invaded by aliens from outer space. I never saw them. In my dream I was in the Army Combat Uniform because I work at the Military Department Headquarters here in Salem, Oregon. There was a large ship in the sky and lots of small fighter/attack ships swarming out of it. They were the size of small cars. They were flying around and shooting everything. The world was filled with burning cars, buildings, and smoke. I ran to my convertible Mustang, put the top down, and had another soldier sit in the back, backwards (not easy to do in such a small seat), kneeling and high outside the car. The seat-belts were double wrapped and the buckles were facing me in case we needed a quick egress. And I burned rubber. I put that car through the paces, screaming around wrecks and corners, while the other soldier shot at everything with the weapons. Turns out the M4, with such a small round, was useless. Then the dream had me in the seat of a space fighter. It was roundish and able to accelerate into almost any direction at my discretion. It shot four laser burst forward and one diamond burst to the rear. Think the 80’s movie ‘Explorers’ meets the Raptors of Battlestar Galactica. So off I went into the sky, the Earth below me, and I zigged and zagged, flying into weak spots and then flying into dense spots. Firing and blasting aliens.

Now, while I was doing this, I was monitoring myself, my emotions and thoughts. In the movies the hot shot pilot flies by the seat of the pants, emotions running, and yet here I was… cool as a cucumber. My thoughts were:

  • If I die I will have lost nothing as all must die
  • It matters not when I die, only how I live
  • the aliens cannot anticipate my moves because they think me guided by emotion
  • emotions will get me killed, making me susceptible to manipulation into traps and baits

It was known in the dream that the aliens were emotionless and operated from pure logic. They understood what our emotions were, how our fears worked, and this went into how their squadrons worked. I didn’t play that game and was successful. I kept blasting aliens. But then I noted that I wasn’t using my emotions, my strength, but neither was I using logic. I was using randomness. I could have set up a remote drone to do what I did. But could I really? Was there something guiding me at a deeper level? A sixth sense? What I refer to here as a sixth sense is a deep emotion. In my dream I had confused the cognitive state of self aware feeling and classification as the emotion and had forgotten the much deeper portion of the true emotion.
Dream jump. The Showtime series Dexter. I had just started the final season where Dr Vogel is talking to Dexter about what psychopaths are, do and don’t do. In a recent episode she said that psychopaths are needed demographics, they are a part of evolution, they are not mistakes. She was curious about what Dexter thought was love, what motivated him to look after Debra, if it was self interest as she believed it was, or if it was emotion as Dexter did. With these thoughts in mind I asked myself the question: Why is it that psychopaths are assumed to always be violent? Why is it that they are treated as needing to kill? This is how Dr Vogel speaks of them, the Alphas. What is this need if not an emotion? To speak of them as having no emotion and yet a slave to urges and needs is a mistake. During my walk yesterday (non dream) it seemed to me that what we talk about as therapy, the majority of it is how to get a grip on our out-of-control emotions. Back to Dexter, perhaps it is wrong to think of psychopaths as emotionless, but that emotions are felt different in different context. Certainly I understand the violent part. I’ve contended that one of the effects of military training, culture, and war is that it dampens the emotional barriers to producing harm against others. The ‘emotional brakes’ that hamper someone from going too far in a physical altercation are not there. And as expected, many veterans are over aggressive in their dealings with family and others. Look at Domestic Violence. But while I’ve identified this in myself, I believe that it isn’t so much a wired state of affairs so much as it is a function, though complex. For as prone to violence as I’ve become, as easy as I could imagine myself hurting others, I could not stand violence in other situations, such as horror movies.

Dream jump. Back to the alien battle. I now looked at the humans in the star fighters attacking the aliens. The aliens were supposedly advanced species from outer space without emotion. Why would humans have an advantage in logic vs logic thinking? Our tactics would likely be infantile to theirs. Randomness, I believe, doesn’t truly exist. Chaos theory shows order out of randomness while it also shows the limits of knowledge. Just because we continue to push the boundaries of the unknown does’t mean there aren’t rules outside the light of measurement, rules that influence actions within. I read a great article on how the random coin flips have tiny influences we are unaware of, but might alter the result. You might not notice for one out of 100 flips, but perhaps 1 out of a trillion you would see it working. Looking at the cosmic scale, it is no wonder that that life is varied. Who knows what else is out there.

Back to the alien space war. I looked at the humans now with an evolutionary view. They weren’t merely humans, but the end result of a long line of mammals. Mammals that have worked in packs, struck out alone, hunted prey using their wits, and have been the prey of a variety of animals, notably giant eagles. All of this evolutionary behavior has created a deep system of emotions that act as the rear seat radar operator, Goose, and constantly seeks out threats to avoid as well as advantages to seize. What gets in our way is when we think that our thinking mind, the ‘I’ behind our thoughts, is what drives the show. It isn’t. The emotions are the engines, the ‘I’ is the captain, or could be the captain. In the end, it can only steer. The captains of large trading vessels could go nowhere if there was no wind. Serenity could go nowhere when it was out of gas. I saw that my earlier flying wasn’t cold and emotionless and random, as I had first believed. But that it was influenced by unseen emotions that constantly scan the environment. It was just that I wasn’t getting in its way.

Then my two cats said ‘enough of this, we know you are not asleep’ and they told me to get up and feed them. They had bee patient enough.

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Meaning in military deployment

It is a beautiful Sunday. Not a cloud in the sky. Normally I would go running, or watch football, but of late I have been pondering the psychology, philosophy, and spirituality of Meaning in Life. I’ve been reading writers in Depth Psychology, mythology, psychology, religion, and more, and struggle with the usual dynamics of my desire to go macro (big picture) and micro (application in a particular instance). An elegant theory would be able to zoom up and down. In having a discussion with a treasured friend, who is currently undergoing her own PhD program, she made the comment “you’re working on building a theory aren’t you?”. I was jolted. No, I replied, my goal isn’t to devise a theory. My goal is to understand it. Right now I do not. The limitations are of my own brain in being able to zoom up and down and jump to different nodes in the web of associations. So today, instead of running in the crisp air, I am drinking black coffee and reading, and trying to use a newly downloaded tool to aid my limited brain. Thus far I am liking Scapple. I only wished it had an iOS app.

Today I’ve gone over three studies, hence why the graphic of the web diagram is so very small. But one in particular is giving me pause to ponder. That is:

Britt, T. W., Adler, A. B., & Bartone, P. T. (2001). Deriving benefits from stressful events: The role of engagement in meaningful work and hardiness. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 6(1), 53–63. doi:10.1037//1076-8998.6.1.53

Granted this is written in 2001, prior to so many things happening in psychology and military deployment. I am hopeful that I will be accepted into a graduate program where I can again obtain access to research articles and see what new developments have occurred. But in the meantime, what struck me the most in this article is the influence of Contextual Experience. “The results revealed that soldiers who reported little contextual experience reported fewer benefits of the deployment“.

Elsewhere in the paper:

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“The fact that such factors as witnessing the destruction caused by the warring factions were associated with greater benefits might appear at first glance counterintuitive. For example, one might expect that being exposed to destruction would be rather depressing, leading to withdrawal and feelings of hopelessness. Mitchell and Dyregrov (1993) noted that destruction is a source of stress for many emergency workers. However, the present research showed that such exposure was in fact positively related to construing benefits from the deployment. In the context of the peacekeeping mission, destruction was likely seen as reinforcing the justification for U.S. intervention, adding meaning to the soldier’s work on the mission.”

So I am going to simply rap about the above paragraph a little, throwing caution to the wind and letting my free form go. I will flow between psychologist lingo and infantry lingo. So there will be curse words and time to time I will sum up psychology concepts into an infantryman’s simple summation. Then again, I do not see what the social disparagement against curse words are all about.  I would argue that to say ‘fornicate’, ‘make sweet sweet love’ or ‘fuck’ are all the same. If I am talking about sex, why does it matter to someone’s sensibilities if I use one term or another term? That one is offensive and another is not, to me, is utterly ridiculous.

It is not a paradox to me to see that Mitchell and Dyregrov noted destruction as a source of stress, while Britt, Adler, and Bartone noted it as a source of benefit. Imagine the life of an emergency worker, such as when I was a volunteer firefighter. You get the call to respond to an emergency. On the one hand you feel good because you are helping, you are being useful, you are protecting others. However, if it is a particularly bad event, there are casualties, and there is a ‘waste of life’ (waste: use or expend carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose.), then this would be a stressor. Why would God allow such suffering and evil? Why am I scraping drunk kids off of highways? Why am I searching for remains in homes torched by dry Christmas Trees? Why does randomness bad shit happen? (note, see the influence of cohesion on perceived meaning in life).  A study on mental models of meaning and purpose of firefighters in relation to such seemingly random and/or destined events (note the two polar extremes) would be very interesting.

Regarding Britt, et al, article, I recall my own experiences in deployments. My first one was as a young Marine in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. I was already in the Marines when it happened. I loved (still do) the identity of the Marine and all that it stood for and was caught up in the American orgasm of sending troops to war. As a side note, while I agree with Greenwood’s song, I am sick to death of hearing it. Desert Storm had every damn commercial, sports game, and so on playing that song. But the idea behind the song, fighting for my country’s freedom, was wholly bought into by myself.  I never questioned it.  Years later I was in Houston, going to the University of Houston (go Coogs) and I watched the movie Three Kings. It was the first time I actually considered our military actions as being for something other than protecting America. That is, we were protecting oil interests. As I looked at the bigger picture, how we had abandoned the Iraqi uprising, how we kept a puppet dictator in place that would justify increased military spending on our part (and influence in the world) and other actions, I saw it as a war to increase the rich. When I watched this movie and the wave of considerations came rolling over, which my naive belief that I was simply protecting American freedom was the damn holding the flood back, I went straight to a bar and ordered whiskey, straight, and let it all sink in. My faith in the motives of my country was shaken.

Flash forward five years. I signed up and deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom 2. This time it was easier. There were supposed WMDs to find, an axis of evil that was bent on attacking America (9/11), and I had fellow warriors overseas continuing the fight. I didn’t harbor ill will toward the populace of the country, only those in power. I am not haunted by the images that car bombs will do to a crowded market. I saw it as a tactic used by the enemy.

I will state here that I am antagonistic against fundamentalism of any kind, any religion. I hold fundamentalists all in the same category of distrust. Whether they are fundamentalists Muslim, Christian, Libertarian, Socialists, or whatever, I distrust you. Anyone who is willing to kill for their belief is intellectually lazy and a danger to everyone else. I will not kill for my beliefs, because beliefs are emotional states of ‘certainty’ in regard to wishes and paradigms. As such, they can be, and often are, incredibly wrong no matter how you feel about it. However, I will kill in defense. The astute observer will note here the thorny problem in the philosophy of ethics between relativism, nihilism, and other ‘isms’, to which I welcome such debate. This openness is the opposite of fundamentalism. No fundamentalist is truly open to respect of other’s opinion, nor the possibility of self growth or virtue. Not a one. Eventually you will get them to state “that is my belief, let’s agree to disagree”, even when given insurmountable evidence of their jackassery.

Back to the point. In recent years I have worked with helping veterans reintegrate. The majority of veterans will do so just fine, however a minority have hangups. It was often the case that I would work with an individual with legal, financial, family, social problems. In talking with them and their units, I would hear the sentiment “but we didn’t do shit on this deployment. We just rolled up and down MSR (military supply route) or pulled guard duty. We never got shot at.” The picture painted by these were a boring deployment. They were surrounded by a populace that was burdened by a poor economy, a lousy political system, little opportunity for upward mobility, a harsh environment, who were war-weary, and tired of seeing Americans, tired of seeing no improvement in their lives, tired of seeing futility. Interaction with the locals didn’t increase a sense of ‘helping them’ but instead a sense of ‘we’re in the way’ or ‘we’re not welcome’. So it was a shock to many returned soldiers when members of their units showed reintegration issues. They were using the same simple formula that our movies and pop psychology has given them… ‘war = hell = fucked up soldiers’. The formula of ‘war = boring = fucked up soldiers’ did not compute. There is generally a lot of confusion about this. To make matters worse, every reintegration powerpoint by well-meaning, but utterly out of touch therapist, perpetuate that war = hell, that violence shatters lives, that exposure to bad shit increases the chance of a fucked up soldier.

But if the above formulas were true, and I completely reject them, then the Britt et al, article is interesting because it shows something that counters it. That is, ‘exposure to fucked up shit = increase in meaningful deployment’. Going back to my second deployment, I remember walking down some alley. We were a single squad of soldiers on a waking patrol. An old woman came out with a pan of very chewy dates (like eating a mixture of tar and peanut butter). Though tactically stupid, I ate one as a sign of good faith. She was crying and giving us blessings and telling us stories of her family being taken away by Saddam and killed. She was very thankful for Americans in toppling Saddam. Now, the debate about why America went to Iraq is a big one. Personally I do not for a second believe (again that word ‘belief’) that President Bush sent us over because of Freedom. However, that IS why I went. The years since then the case has been made on the shoddy evidence for WMDs, the billions made by Halliburton on our war (I strongly dislike Dick Cheney), and so forth. Yet still, I recall this old lady, and many more civilians who came up to me on patrol, with tears in their eyes. Regardless of our crappy National politics are, it was a good thing to rid Saddam for the Iraqi people. Seeing the poverty and abuse that ten years of war, no fly zones, sanctions has done to the country, much of it our fault, I am happy to see the people of Iraq hold more autonomy in their hands. It is messy now, filled with inept and corrupt politicians, but it is a start.

This backdrop of the people of Iraq was a potent source of suffering for me regarding my combat actions. One cannot fight a war with high powered weapons within a densely populated area without it hurting others. Ignoring it will not make it go away. Calling it ‘collateral damage’ will not lessen it, because in your heart you know that ‘innocent people get fucking killed’, which carries more weight than the cognitive ‘collateral damage’. I guess this is the difference in curse words (see above) in that they emote the more/less emotional/cognitive appraisals. Emotions are generally regarded as ‘dirty’ and reason as ‘pure’. I need some whiskey and a philosopher of language to aid me here.

What about the current troops deployed? What purpose is in their deployment? I know from talking with some that they are on a ‘clean up mission’ where much resources are being taken out of the region and they are holding down the fort while the withdrawal process occurs. This ‘locking up the store’ is not welcomed by some of the soldiers that I know. Personally, it was this that kept me from going over. I wanted to ‘seek out the enemy’, not pull tower duty all day. But just as looking at the thoughts in one’s workout that help push further, so too might looking at a deployment aid. Some call this ‘spin’ (politics) but we spin everything in our lives and the nature of our spin colors our emotional reactions. Spin isn’t good or bad, it just is.  I know how to spin cold, wet, training to enable better performance, how would one spin a boring deployment?

Just some thoughts… and looking at the clock I must ready myself to go to Portland for an event. So I will end it here.

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Embrace the Suck

I am an infantry instructor in the National Guard. Now before any of you Active Duty types get carried away with your traps, lets ruck-up first and see who’s first to the top. I’ve run people half my age into the dirt. I’m prior service Marine Corps, I used to look down on anyone that wasn’t active duty Marine (even reservist Marines). You think its’ tough being active duty? Why do you think they’re called ‘lifers’? Try maintaining a standard in training and readiness AND doing a civilian job and college. I hope you brought your A-Game.

Now to my story…

It was a miserable Winter evening in Oregon. The rain was a constant drizzle, everyone was soaked, the temperature was cold enough to make you hate being outside. I loved it. Whenever there is a chance for training, I call the Rain Gods every name in the book, daring them to rain us out. So it was that myself and a couple other instructors had volunteered to give some of the Officer Candidates some night LANDNAV training. They were all green as Hel, miserable, tired, unsure about anything, and in a general state of dismay. They were all standing off to the side, awaiting instructions for the night’s training. The sun was setting behind the Coastal Range, darkness reached from the hills, and the rain stayed.

I walked over to them and looked in their faces. Morale was low. Things sucked. Different people join the military for a variety of different reasons. But those reasons seemed a distant thought behind the “why am I out here?” To top it off, this was also a weekend that many people in Oregon were all coming together for some reason or another. It might have been college football or something. I don’t know, remember, or care.

So I walk over to the young people wanting to become officers in my beloved Oregon Guard, and I say:

  • “This rain just keeps coming. I think my boots are soaked through.”
  • “I haven’t eaten all day. I am starving. What I wouldn’t give for a hot pizza, or some beef soup, or some scrambled eggs with bacon and cheese right now. Or a hot cup of coffee. There was a coffee shack on the highway not three miles from here.”
  • “It’s sure to be really dark tonight. Plus the terrain has lots of holes and hidden spots filled with briars. Last time we got here, someone fell into one. We spent two hours looking for him.”
  • “Isn’t there a game on tv? I bet there are parties all over the state! Everyone drinking beer, eating BBQ, having a great time!”
  • “Few people pass this the first couple of times. Its a doozy of a course.”
  • “I can’t feel my fingers, I’m so cold. I’m glad that I get to leave soon and warm up in a hot shower. You guys have this, plus field training, plus inspection before you can go inside… sometime tomorrow! Man, I’m glad I’m not you.”

I said these things and more, poking at all the things I could think of that were the voices of their misery. I drew out their suffering and put it on full display.  Why? Is it because I’m an evil bastard? Contrary to what some may say, no. There is a reason we do this… to develop grit.

As I talked, I watched their faces to see their morale sink lower. Then I looked up into the rain and took it in, relishing it. Then I looked back at the young officers-to-be…

Think about this world we live in. We try our best to prepare, to be ready, but sometimes you can’t avoid it… trouble. There are jack wagons that want to blow up people, use dirty bombs, or attack villages of helpless people. There are others who want to drive vans and planes of explosives into buildings. There are asshats that want to posture with their guns and proclaim they are the law and will shoot at anyone they don’t like. There are sudden floods that destroy communities, fires that ravage countrysides, earthquakes, volcanoes… yes… Oregon has some as you know, and who knows what else! Zombie apocalypse, Justin Bieber concerts, aliens from space, Kardashians in Portland… any number of god-awful events could happen. And when it does, and it will, my President or my Governor, will call upon me and my fellow Soldiers to stand ready, to do what is needed. I’m not gonna lie to you, I am a certified bad-ass. I can run down a cheetah, wrestle a bear, piss napalm and  eat concertina wire, and when I show up at a site, write home to your mommas that things are well in hand. But let me ask you a question… what officer am I going to follow? Just anyone, wet behind the ears that relied on textbooks to get a bar? Whether it is war or famine, flood or fire, and chaos and blood and confusion swirl around like demons on Samhain, I want to look over to my PL and know that he’s got his shit together, that he’s the center of the storm, that he will lead. For that PL I will render mountains into dust, walk across fire, go against the armies of Hel. But do you think this PL was born this way? That he came out kicking and screaming OPORDS? If you do, you’re dense. He worked at it. He pushed himself. He challenged himself. He welcomed failure because it is a yardstick, and he developed into that leader that I respect, that this Nation and State deserve. Right now, civilians are huddled inside warm shelters. They are eating fattening food, they are getting soft. They’ve not pushed themselves, they don’t know how to operate under duress, stress, sleep deprivation. They have no muscle memory for organization, for movement, for communication. They are gelatinous panic bombs waiting to go off. And next time something big happens, watch them… they’ll scream and yell and wet themselves as they fly in every direction. You are these people. You are these undisciplined, soft, panicky, bundles of fear waiting to fall apart. But you did something that none of them did… you decided to join up and begin training. You are here, now, in this glorious night, looking uncertainty in the eye. Guess what happens if you fail tonight? Retrain. We’ll go over what you missed, you’ll get better, and you’ll learn. If you start to freak out, you stop and regain composure, then move on. This night, right now, is your opportunity to work on the muscles of your character. Your virtue is a 98 pound weakling and tonight you are doing bench presses. Tonight you gain five pounds of virtue muscle. Keep it up, tonight, tomorrow, next week, next month, and eventually you’ll be that 250 pound badass of virtue. We’ll be on some highway, chaos, burning trees, flooding rivers, jumbled trains, and I will look to you for direction, for leadership, and you’ll deliver. You get there from here. Embrace the suck. Oohrah!

After that little speech, I could see their demeanor change, there was a fire in their eyes, and they performed excellent that night. Leaders are not born… they are made. It is my job to train them.

 

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The Mustangs in My Life

In High School in the 80’s, for one magical summer, I had a girlfriend who was the hottest girl at school. But this wasn’t all (nor enough), she was also the sweetest girl with a genuine heart of gold. She was my first love. She also had a 1964 1/2 Ford Mustang. It was maroon. We’d take drives around Grenada, MS… go to the lake, and life was good. This is when my love affair with the Mustang began.

In 1993 I bought a 1966 Mustang. It was Sunburst Yellow and had a 289 in it. I was a good F/A-18 electrician, but didn’t know anything about cars. I had to learn. I was always adjusting the timing, tinkering with the carburetor, or something. I had a stack of manuals and diagrams, tools and fluids. Due to a bad oil pump, the engine was destroyed while on the famous ‘Orange Crush’ north of Irvine as I was on my way to see the Chicago Bears play against the LosAngeles Rams. Never made it to the game. Dead engine. I ended up replacing it with a Boss 302. Summer of 94 I got out of the Marines and was now a civilian in SoCal and I was loving life. I’d drive my beloved car around the beaches and mountains and have a blast. I started to learn what it was to go out on dates, and was doing things that I never really did while in the Marines and traveling around all the time, living out of a seabag.

Due to a series of events, job loss, roommate leaving in the middle of the night, brakes going out, and more, I had to tuck my tail between my legs and return home to Arkansas. I did not like leaving my car back in Irvine. But my plan was to have a buddy put it in his brother’s shop while I was back getting my shit together in Arkansas. It was a supreme heartbreak when I received a letter from the City of Irvine stating that they had seized the vehicle (flat tires are apparently enough to seize the car) and would auction it off to the highest bidder. The respond-by date had already came and went by the time I got the letter. Therefore if there is a major apocalypse and Irvine falls into the ocean, I will be drinking a beer in Oregon, watching the t.v., and smiling my ass off. I hate Irvine.

Fast forward  twenty years. Those twenty years has seen me struggle in a variety of ways. I’ve been to war, been homeless, had battlefield stress, too many broken hearts to keep count, two close calls with suicide, moved to three states, four universities, two community colleges before I finally got my degree in Philosophy and Psychology, lots of different jobs, going hungry, fighting for my principles, making concessions, and more. So it was that I had a small little Range pick-up truck and put it in the shop for work. The loaner car was a 2013 Mustang. Driving it the weekend, I fell in love with that car. Over the past three years I’ve driven a lot of cars, mostly the economy types (Prius, Corollas, Taurus, etc…) and I never had fun driving any of them. Driving this mustang, it felt different. The seats, the feel on the road, everything. When I came back, I made a trade for the car I had driven over the weekend.  She’s mine… her name is Marilyn.

You can’t beat driving this car. It isn’t the fastest, though it’s got guts. It isn’t the most responsive, though it can hug a corner plenty well.  But it glides down the road, it purrs enough without trying to sound brash.  I enjoy the hell out of it. It is a convertible and the rules are ‘if it is 50 degree or above, and it isn’t raining, the top comes down’.  I’ve driven to the office, picked up a company car, drive 5 hours to give training, turn around and drive back, bone tired and weary, and as soon as I sit in my Mustang, it melts away. It’s all good.

Sometimes I do get impatient in traffic, but they are rare. Most of the time I must simply remind myself of where I am at, pay attention to the sensations I am having. It feels great. I love the drive. And if it is a sunny day and I’ve been cooped up all day, I may go out for a cup of coffee, taking the long route, just to drive. Yes, it is that fun.

As soon as I got it, I started getting jokes from some people. I was the 43 year-old who got a Mustang. I must be having a midlife crisis. On the contrary, I am gaining clarity every day. I am healthier now than I was ten years ago. I am in better shape emotionally, physically, spiritually than I was five, ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. I am not trying to hold on to any shifting identity, I am becoming more fully who I am.

Today I was talking with someone on my plans to apply for graduate school. This supervisor told me that “I believe you were born to have a PhD and do great things with it”. I’m not sure if I subscribe to such an idea as that. I only see the increase in knowledge and doorways to create, learn, explore. I cannot shake the feeling that I hold an egg, and inside it is a secret, a mystery, if only I’d tap it open. While telling this person of my plan to apply for grad school, I was asked how I was going to pay for it. Well, student loans, but also any small work I could find that is allowable. I said that I’d find my pets new and better homes, I’d move in a small, crappy studio, I’d sell my Mustang and ride a bike. I’d do what it takes to get through school. I’ve got shit to do.

This is the truth. I would sell my car. I love it dearly, driving at sunset in the mountains, on an early foggy morning, whipping down a winding road, but it is a tool among tools, for being in this world. It helps, but I am no dependent upon it. And if I do sell it, perhaps in another twenty years I’ll be 65 years old and will get the new 2035 Mustang.