meaning and vets

I was watching CSI and a commercial came on for a UFC program.  UFC is pretty popular among the military ranks.  The Army Combatives program is based off of the mixed martial arts in the UFC.  A drill in the past had continual training for us by UFC referees and trainers.  It was good to have and I learned just how much I do not know.  To the untrained the UFC looks like just brute hitting.  But there is a lot of skill and thought and technique and training involved.  It is very much NOT just hitting.

As I was watching the commercial with its images of troops in Iraq doing a foot patrol down the street I noticed as emotional connection within me.  I scrutinized this connection, looking for understanding and classification.  A week earlier I had created a couple of videos that were collections of pictures of my time in Iraq; a slideshow to music.  They are on my facebook page.  I must have watched the iraq one a dozen times in the week since.  When I do so I am reminded of what was written in the book “Odysseus in America” about the pull of the Sirens in The Odyssey.  The sirens call was about the history of the Trojan War.  The veteran that listens is pulled into the siren song.  Nothing else is real or important.  Only the war is real.  Only the telling of the war, with it’s rising of memories and emotional feelings, are real.  In a world where one feels disconnected, feels adrift on waves of meaningless, surrounded by petty people living petty insignificant lives without honor, without a calling, without merit, only those stories of our time in war, of being with the best of humanity, do we feel like we had meaning.

This quote explains it well…

On the Experience of War
“I now know why men who have been to war yearn to reunite. Not to tell stories or look at old pictures. Not to laugh or weep. Comrades gather because they long to be with the men who once acted at their best; men who suffered and sacrificed together, who were stripped of their humanity. I did not pick these men. They were delivered by fate and the military. But I know them in a way I know no other men.

I have never given anyone such trust. They were willing to guard something more precious than my life. They would have carried my reputation, the memory of me. It was part of the bargain we all made, the reason we were so willing to die for one another. As long as I have memory, I will think of them all, every day. I am sure that when I leave this world, my last thought will be of my family and my comrades… Such good men.”
– Author Unknown  Pasted from

In talking to some of my buddies that I served overseas with, I have heard it said that thing over here aren’t as real.  There is a real longing to go back over to Iraq and patrol the streets again.  There are a couple of things going on here that rouses my attention.  First, and most obvious, is the changes in hormonal levels, in stress levels, in adrenaline levels.  One big ball of adrenaline, caffeine induced, danger seeking, meaning filled existence.  A colleague told me of the notion that veterans coming back are hopping up on coffee, a lot of coffee (and other substances) to help maintain them at a readiness level that they were used to in Iraq.  I’m sure there is a scale for this that psychology uses ot measure, yet I’ll just make up one here.  If 1 is deep, deep sleep, and 10 is full on tooth and nail fighting (or panic fleeing), and five is a state of rest (say sitting down and watching infomercials), then we find it hard to rest at a 5.  Our normal rest is at a 7.  Events that push people from a 5 to a 7 (from calm to annoyed) will get us ready to fight (from watchfulness to seek out and neutralize).  Neurology is not my strong suit but I wonder at comparissons between stress levels (chronic and acute) and substance addictions.  What comes to mind here is thrill seekers that have to find that taller mountain to climb, that bigger wave to surf, that taller cliff to base jump from.  Right off the top of my head I am unsure of connections between cortisol levels over time and the comparisson between combat vets and a general civilian population.

Another theme here is that of meaning.  From Walt Whitman…

O Me! O Life!

O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless–of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light–of the objects mean–of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all–of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest–with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring–What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here–that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.

In reading Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” he says that people will put up with anything, even seeking out suffering, in order to infuse their life with meaning.

Call back to memory and environmental philsophies.  Heck, draw on everyone… political, religious, and so on… a common theme from one side is that there is meaning in the traditions that we have lost and a yearning to return to that.  On another side there is the thought that our traditions are misguided and poor (what meaning is there in the Eden fallacy of the conquest of the American continent) and that it does not allow us to see truly what is with us and of which we are apart. This view holds that we ought to look at the real truths before us and to build upon those.   Both sides, however, seem to agree that what is now is problematic and a better way ought to be found.  Whether that is ludditism or a guided technology, the relationship between our species and the Earth is one that is need of a drastic overhaul with a lot less arrogance and hubris and more reverence.  I wrote in primarily environmental terms but the same can said in religious terms (a return to values versus more diversity in values) or politics or economics or whatever.

But I’ll get off track if I do not stop there.  Back to the point at hand.  We get our meaning from a variety of sources but I’ll be so bold as to say that the crux of all of them is the social nature of it all.  That is, whether we get our values from a particular philsophy or orally transmitted folklore or consumerist attitudes or a warrior ethos or peace activism, these values are learned, shaped, shared, and exhibited via social networks. 

There is something else here.  I did not want to join the military as a high school kid.  I wanted to go to college, drink beer, chase women, and party.  I had no real interest in reading anything other than fantasy novels.  I joined the Marine Corps because I loved the culture, the community, the ethos, the values that so fills it.  Watch commercials about the Marines and compare to ones about the Army.  The Marines show commercials that hint at all the tradition that they have, the very deep ethos.  Ask any marine about Chesty Puller, Smedley Butler, Dan Daily and others.  These examples codify what it means to BE a marine for us.  We might not be able to write a thesis on leadership and our code, but we FEEL this in our bones.  I ask random Army soldiers all the time about their history.  It is more local unit histories that I hear, but rare is the soldier that can tell me about someone other than Audie Murphy (and few are those that can do this).  Now, I am proud of the National Guard uniform that I wear, as are many army veterans I served with.  The point here is that the extent of the ethos that permeates everyday life between the Marines and the Army are much different in kind.  The Army commercials (Army Strong) seem, to me at least, not as deep, not as central to who we are.  They are skills learned, not core characteristics.  I saw one Army video, ever, that spoke of deeper characteristics of what it means to be in the service.  It was a simple montage of pictures of unit crests and insignias on rapell towers, walls, helmets, etc… and the mottos underneath.  Mottos such as ‘this we’ll defend’, ‘surrender nothing’ and others.  It spoke of deeper values.  It spoke of meaning.  Army Strong (motto of current ad campaign) is not a meaning.  An Army of One (previous campaign) is not a meaning.  The Marines… that statement is meaning.  Semper Fi. 

So, what meanings are there for veterans who come back home?  It was disheartening to me in 1995 when I got out of the Corps.  I had achieved the rank of E-5 and had been in charge of a night crew of mechanics working on million dollar aircraft.  I had demonstrated my skills at fixing avionics on aircraft.  I now found myself sweeping a floor.  That isn’t what bothered me, for in the Marines we swept floors a lot.  But when it came time to do a simple electrical job I was not qualified.  I understand the needs of certification in the civilian world and so on.  Yet in the eyes of the community I was now a part of I was not qualified.  It wasn’t a case of not having the right certification, I wasn’t good enough.  I was pushed off to the side.  It was a blow to me to have someone of lower virtue (didn’t work half as hard as I worked, didn’t have the same can do attitude, wasn’t trustworthy, lied, and wasn’t even a good electrician at all) tell me to sweep the floor while he crimped a grounding wire at a job site. 

Another point.  When I was in the Marine and on active duty, I noted a change in my noticing my self while on base compared to my awareness of self when home on leave.  On base we were all marines and all of the same cloth.  We had shared values and expectations and there wasn’t a lot of difference.  Sense of self as excellent was not as noticeable.  Everyone around me was excellent.  When I went home on leave I felt a sense of excellence.  I noted people around me who didn’t try as hard, didn’t work as hard, didn’t have the same values of leadership and so on.  I always noted how different I felt among civilians. 

Another point.  I go near the VA hospital often.  As I drive through I noted that many are wearing military clothing or hats or patches or something.  One man, walking down the street, had a body language about him, and the way he dressed in his Army field jacket, struck me with a feeling of loneliness.  I wondered what sense of self did he have and from what other sources did he draw on?  It seemed that all he had was his military service. 

Therein lies a problem, a gordian knot.  For I am very proud of my service and in no way am I condoning a lessening of group identity with the military.  I do wonder, however, how this works if there are no other social contacts, no other group memberships, and one is struggling with PTSD for decades. 

All of these thoughts ran through my brain in the span of a commercial and gave energy to my notion of a hero organization.  Veterans are heroes.  They have strengths and training and perspective and wisom and experience.  Being immersed in a culture that doesn’t understand or doesn’t want veterans (I am thinking here of hostility that I’ve felt toward me by some peace activists in Eugene.  Not all peace activists are like this, but a couple were so filled with hate and venom toward me that I still recall this feeling four years later) because of all that stand for.  It isn’t just the peace activist side, its also the other flag waving, send our troops off to war side.  Thank you for waving the flag, but shut up for a second and sign up yourself and join me on patrol.  Both sides don’t get it.  Both sides aren’t over there.  Both sides can’t see us for who we are. 

I read in the news today of some Oregon National Guard soldiers who were at a mall shooting in Washington State.  They had just back home from Iraq and when the shooting started, instead of running out they moved toward the shooting and startedg getting people out of the mall safely.  Their answer… it’s what they were trained to do.  As I’ve said in my presentation, it is what we are trained to do and to pathologize all of the traits of our warrior nature as disturbances of the mind (PTSD) is, I believe, wrong.  You want veterans around you.  As I gave the presentation at PSU to a mixed audience I said that in this age of school shootings you want us here on campu.  If a shooting happens now, I’ll tell you what would happen.  Myself and a few others in this audience would do a couple of things.  We’d secure the room and those inside, we’d seek out the hurt and try to aid them, we’d try to get intel to authorities, and we’d try to take out the shooters.  There were some nods in the audience, men who I knew were veterans.  How do I know?  A gunshot outside my apartment.  Without thinking I grabbed a bat and started to go outside.  Another incident in Eugene where I saw a man shoot toward a crowd.  I ran after him.  There are more, but the point is, in such times we don’t think of ourselves, we just do. 

In creating a volunteer organization of veterans that gives their time and energy to those in need around us we are able to exhibit traits that are held in esteem in our military culture.  We are able to show leadership, dedication, selfless service, and more.  Many of us want this in our military service and hope to get this on our monthly drills  Yet it’s hard to get that feeling when we are not doing anything of much value (to the grunt on the ground).  Morale in a line unit actually goes up the worse the training conditions are.  Give us mud and rain and no sleep on training and we feel better about what we are doing.  When we went to New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina, even though we were back only a few months from Iraq we were all excicted about going.  We wanted to help.  It felt good to go help Americans.  Yet the incompetence, the red tape, the distrust of the civilians toward the N.O.P.D., the meaningless tasks assigned to us to keep us busy, the pointless missions that were of no consequence, killed everyone’s desire to be there.  After a while every man wanted to come back home.  It wasn’t the job, the living conditions, the sights, the devastation, the hours.  It was the waste, incompetency, and being political and our not being wanted.  Morale was very low and we were coming up with whatever reasons we could to get an early flight home.  Red tape kills.  Red tape is more important than people.  Red tape is not the province of NCOs and those NCOs that stick to red tape earn the scorn and dislike of those on the ground trying to get a job done. 

Just a side note, got word from friends overseas that there are round counts at the front gate when a convoy comes back.  This makes perfect sense to some and I’m willing to bet that those some have never done a patrol.  If this is the way the war is going to be fought, pull out our troops today. 

I’ve spent too much time on this… I’ve got reading to do for a test tomorrow.


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