Debt of Gratitude

Originally posted at on September 10, 2011

war – military – Vietnam – Afghanistan – PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – Armed Forces

We owe a debt of gratitude to the men and women who serve our country in the Armed Forces, not simply for what they do, but for what they are willing to do. Because we love them, we must support them throughout whatever process they find themselves in.

Young soldiers who see a lot of action, who are in the thick of things, who have even one traumatic event full of the rush of adrenalin, the tragedy of seeing their brothers or sisters die, always come away changed. They have witnessed something momentous, especially when taken as a large fragment within the short span of life they have lived and the limited experiences that have shaped their worldview.

Many soldiers come away addicted to the adrenalin rush, unable to find similarly intense action when they return to their homes. They have killed or seen killing, injuries, highly emotionally charged scenes. When it is time to come back down and join society, how do they assimilate?

We made a huge mistake after the cold war in Afghanistan. We left that country torn apart, without making sure the young Afghans of that country (half the surviving population was under 14 years old) had a means of making sense out of their lives. More impressively, we left them with the example their elders shooting large weapons at the Soviet helicopters, feeling a thrilling sense of victory through a game of shoot ’em up. Or so, a 14 year old might see it that way.

And so these youth may have been conditioned to feel a thrilling sense of reward for the act of shooting things out of the sky, or making things blow up, not really knowing why, on a gut level, these things were so attractive.

Violence can be addictive. It depends upon your experience with it, and your success in not getting killed. This is part of what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is all about. That, and the warped thinking that violence solves problems and so it is rationalized.

When I was 25, in 1986 I met my first Vietnam Vet. He was a hulking Samoan man with a shiny dark face and a beautiful soul. I was treating him for a knee injury and like many people I’ve known, he started pouring out his story to me. He didn’t want to tell me all the gory details of war, but I could see it in his face.

He told me he is a Christian and very religious. But when he was in ‘Nam, he did things he still cannot explain to himself. This huge man started sobbing crying in front of me.

He said his religion told him not to kill, yet that is what he had done. He could not reconcile his past with what he knew in his heart was the difference between right and wrong.

This man profoundly affected me. I knew instinctively that what he had been through was a horror beyond my complete comprehension. What I took away from the experience of watching a veteran cry is that the toll of war follows these men around for the rest of their lives. And if it doesn’t, we should all be worried. Because in my mind, his humanity was crying tears of guilt and remorse. The best part of this man was still grieving over something he had done 20 years ago that could never be removed from his life.

I tell this story, not to bring us all down, but to show that the kernel of this man, the seed he was as a child, was basically a good person. Not a killer who needed to be controlled at all costs, but a good person who was told by his superior to do a terrible thing. Or else. He had nowhere else to go, or so he felt at the time.

If our soldiers say pshaw, it’s because they don’t or can’t think ahead. The ones who say they’re just doing their job don’t realize that the psych carries the cost long after their boots are put away.

When we left Afghanistan in 1979, after a job well done what we might have done, to prevent future Afghans from seeking to repeat their wartime adrenalin-producing activities was to counsel them through the aftershocks, the ripple effects, and to show them a peaceful existence is possible. We should do the same for our own people. War does not have to go on and on.

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