Veterans are primed to be extraordinary healers

Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.

Spinoza, The Ethics.

I am embarrassed to talk of myself. Like many others before me, I am wary of sounding like so many other braggarts who so casually boast of exploits at the local pub. For those who’ve served time among the noise and chaos of war, these loudmouths are as phony as a three-dollar bill. Though our service fills us with pride, we are caught in a peculiar position which forces silence upon us in most situations, or at least when we are surrounded by non-veterans. Though we train like we fight, how does one truly prepare for the stark nihilism met at the end of a fuse? Our country knows this, and fears the change they expect to see in us, though this, like every other fear of an other, is turned into a caricature. It is easy  to call veterans different in kind, as though we were a separate species altogether, forgetting that the violence that is feared, was once welcomed as protector and savior. As soundbites replace stories, we forget, and we are forgotten.

For many of us, war, in all its primal, basic, simple dictum of survive, set the stage for tragedy and comedy, depicting the noblest and vilest dimensions of humanity. Against this backdrop we persevere, we perish.

While it is fashionable to treat fighter, soldier, and warrior as interchangeable, a reading of literature and mythology would show this not so.

  • A soldier is a person that is trained in the tools and techniques of war. There is nothing inherently moral about a the identity of soldier. A soldier may be a member of a Nation, or a hired mercenary out to make a buck. A soldier is a profession, as are many others, and morality comes into play in the actions.
  • A fighter is one with grit, the desire to keep trying when all seems lost. This is easy to say, but developing this trait takes attention and time. Optimism, self-mastery, willpower, drive, determination; these and more are part of what it takes to be a fighter.
  • A warrior is defined as that class of people that willingly place themselves between what is loved and what threatens it. It is a willing sacrifice of the self for the benefit of our homes, families, communities, and nation. The identity of the warrior is shaped by consideration of others, thus the identity of the warrior is inherently moral. The drive of a warrior is, above all, love.

Though we are guard dogs, dogs are descended of wolves. I was raised on stories of The Lone Ranger and other heroes that fought injustice and never enjoyed violence for its own sake. Restraint was their watchword. It was a surprise to me when I felt exhilarated in combat. Life and death walked alongside me, we were actors on a gruesome stage… and I loved and abandoned myself to it. Each day my prayer was that the gods of war for the opportunity to meet my enemy. Unlike the movies of my youth, this war had days of no contact. When you let your guard down, boom. The constant waiting to be attacked only amplified my desire to find it before it found me. Nobody likes to feel powerless, waiting helplessly for the dice to roll snake eyes. I became predator. I became wolf. To tell civilians this I am met with a look of surprise, fear, and horror. To recount even a portion of the thrill of combat to someone unfamiliar with it is to confirm to them that we are more wolf than guard dog, to be feared.

The first time I was shot at was on route copper, East Baghdad, 600 meters north of Sadr City. My emotions went from shock and insult at being shot at, to frustration at not having a clear shot at those attacking me, to reckless love of violence. I was pure aggression as I walked down the middle of the street toward my attackers. Years later, reading The Iliad, I identified with the moving passages of Ares instilling the Trojans with a bloodlust.

Ares is the Greek god of War. Yet Ares doesn’t start fights, he is provoked, such as when the son of Poseidon raped his daughter, for which Ares kills him instantly. He often took the side of the underdog, those who were likely to lose. Ares is not subtle or rational. He is impulsive, protective rage. To begin to understand Ares, you must understand giving yourself in hateful glee to the fight. But to fully understand him, you must feel the need to fight for someone else. Ares may be bloodlust, but he is so for something greater than himself. The motivation of the veteran is love, the result of the veteran is sacrifice.

Though we might protest it, there is some cause for the fears our families and communities have upon our return. Veterans returning from war show increases in anger outbursts. The ratio of veterans in Oregon prison has almost doubled since 2006, making Oregon number 1 in the nation with the highest veteran imprisonment ratio. Taking a broad look, the pattern of violence throughout our lives, from disorderly conduct, brandishing weapons, to domestic violence permeate our communities like a cancer. It is love that pushes us to focus the violence upon ourselves instead of others. We sacrifice our lives, through isolation, drinking and drugs, imprisonment, or suicide. When told to reach out for help, the words ring hollow. How does a warrior, who willingly offers the self as sacrifice for the greater good, hand the burden over to another? How does one bring the war back to the homes we sought to keep it away from?

But we are not unidimensional Greek gods, we are human, with a multitude of archetypes within us. Ares, the god of passionate war, and Aphrodite, the goddess of passionate love, had four children, among whom was Harmonia. If love is what propels us to willingly enter war, perhaps love is what will help bring us back.

The ancient Athenian Tragic Theater was conducted by combat veterans for combat veterans. It offered another stage by which veterans could transition back from war. Aristotle said it provided katharsis. There are 3 aspects of katharsis, representative of a more holistic approach to the health of the individual.

  • Religious purification, removal of a stain
  • Physical cleanse, removing what is harmful
  • Psychological, removing obstacles to understanding

This is a much needed approach in our health, incorporating the totality of our complex selves than simply giving us a prosthetic, or anti-depressants, or confessing our sins. These overly simple treatments do not work because we’ve experienced the full range of our humanity, expansiveness, mortality, hopes and fears, the best and worst within our hearts. We’ve learned that we are grander than mere automatons influenced by operant conditioning. Ours are fierce hearts of grasping existence and no mere black boxes. Why would anything less magnificent, integrated, and elegant work in bringing about our health? No wonder we have contempt for those who live small lives of anxious frailty and who dare to proclaim the red pill will cure our wounded souls. Do not offer us your cures, when you are sick yourself.

Thich Nhat Hanh said:
“Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation. If Veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding, and peace, they can share with the rest of society the realities of war. And they can teach us how to make peace with ourselves and each other, so we never have to use violence to resolve conflicts again.”

Not only can veterans lead the way toward peace, but also as acting as healers. What healer is as effective as one who understands pain? Veterans know pain intimately, whether spiritual, physical, or emotional, we lived it. Back in world that no longer understands neither war or love, we lose out way. How does the values that exemplified us as warriors, fighters, and soldiers, aid us? Surrounded by a country that doesn’t share our values, we feel cut-off and isolated from the very families and communities we love. The greater our need to connect, the greater the drive to sacrifice, to keep separate. Fortunately, none of us are truly alone. For every veteran that cannot find the way out, there are many others, willing to be our guide, among the most powerful of which are caring civilians. For myself it was two years with a therapist who donated her time. I would come to session and say “okay, lets jump in the middle of this emotional jungle and work our way out.” It was messy, and looking back on it now, I can’t put my finger on any a-ha moments. Yet relating my story with her was an immense relief to me.

In Greek mythology two giants made a bold attack upon Olympus to steal off its treasures and brides. The gods rallied and barely beat the attackers back. However, Ares was captured and carried away. Chained and hidden inside a brazen vase, he railed mightily against his confinement. The angrier he got, the more he fought, and the more he fought, the weaker he got. Very weak and nearly dead, he was rescued by Hermes. Hermes is known as the psychopomp, the Guide of Souls. Hermes was able to travel between both Hades and Olympus, across boundaries, in day and night.

I think that what makes Hermes so apt for this role is that he is the trickster of the pantheon. That is, he seems to embody both the light and the dark simultaneously. And as such I believe that it allows him a perspective unique among the gods. Veterans, too, have traveled between Olympus and Hades. Some of us are uncomfortable with being called hero upon our return, for we know we are no saints. Yet we’re not without virtue either. We have seen the boundaries of the countries of the human soul. And having done so, we can truly sit with someone, with positive regard, in perfect love and trust, and guide them in their healing.

To quote Carl Rodgers:
“If the therapy were optimal, intensive as well as extensive, then it would mean that the therapist has been able to enter into an intensely personal and subjective relationship with the client — relating not as a scientist to an object of study, not as a physician expecting to diagnose and cure, but as a person to a person. It would mean that the therapist feels this client to be a person of unconditional self-worth: of value no matter what his condition, his behavior, or his feelings.”
Carl Rodgers “A Therapist’s View of the Good Life: The Fully Functioning Person”

We are primed to be extraordinary healers. Let us take up that next calling.

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4 thoughts on “Veterans are primed to be extraordinary healers

  1. Love your blog, Eddie. I am a civilian. I’m involved in Re-evaluation Counseling which is a peer based listening project. There is no charge and we take turns listening to each other tell our stories while encouraging feelings to surface along with the physical manifestations of emotional release and healing (such as shaking, yawning, crying, laughter). I do this process with men and women of all ages and backgrounds and my three veteran friends are the best at listening deeply to anything I say without judgment and with much compassion and love.
    They, and you and all veterans, are truly treasures! i am deeply grateful for you all.

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