The Spirituality of War

“Many will argue that there is nothing remotely spiritual in combat. Consider this. Mystical or religious experiences have four common components: constant awareness of one’s own inevitable death, total focus on the present moment, the valuing of other people’s lives above one’s own, and being part of a larger religious community such as the Sangha, ummah, or church. All four of these exist in combat. The big difference is that the mystic sees heaven and the warrior sees hell. Whether combat is the dark side of the same vision, or only something equivalent in intensity, I simply don’t know. I do know that at age fifteen I had a mystical experience that scared the hell out of me and both it and combat put me into a different relationship with ordinary life and eternity.”
–-Karl Marlantes, What It Is Like To Go To War.

Carry Me Home
There you have a longish quote from a brilliant writer and noble warrior.
I worry that in trying to demystify post-traumatic stress – separate the mythology of the media from the actual effects of the trauma of war – not enough attention is paid to the tremendous power possessed by combat veterans. It’s this power that draws me to these guys. They’ve walked point in a spiritual zone the rest of us glimpse only occasionally, as when a too bright sun breaks momentarily through thick fog.
If Marlantes is correct, and I believe he is dead on, the spiritual nature of the experience of war helps explain the intense brotherhood these men possess. It has been my privilege to witness the power of this brotherhood first hand and I’m here to tell you it raises the hairs on the back of my neck and touches a place deep inside usually reserved for mystics and monks. It’s the reason these guys NEVER leave a man behind.
Which is why I was surprised by the immediate and intense reaction to the release of Bowe Burgdahl. Especially as I have heard many Vietnam combat vets tell of their own feelings of wanting to walk away, of feeling that they should not have been there, that nothing was being accomplished but bloody awful killing. I was surprised because I layered the present situation with my own personal history and I am a child of the sixties. I was surprised because I did not at first see the complexity of emotions the release of Burgdahl would free in other combat veterans.
Burgdahl abandoned his brother warriors, and in the church of combat, that is the unforgivable sin. It’s the reason for survival guilt. It’s why combat vets struggle to allow joy into their lives even fifty years after they’ve returned to us.
Personally, I’m happy Burgdahl has come home, but then I am not one of those consecrated by the fires of war.

Wounded Warrior Project Guest Post

Guest Post.

The Growing Role of Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs)

National issues can deeply divide a country. The economy, healthcare and national security each cause political gridlock. The debate over these broader policies has specific effects on subjects most of us agree on.

Providing adequate care for wounded veterans is a cause that nearly all politicians and citizens voice their support for. However, how services are delivered to vets and the budgets available to provide care remain in question.

Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) play an important role in helping returning soldiers transition to daily life. VSOs provide programs specific to the needs of military families. This includes the unique physical and emotional aspects of combat related experience.

Here are ways that VSOs offer common benefits for different vets:

Healthcare:

As more vets return home, shortfalls in care could become more severe. Healthcare beyond the V.A. will likely be needed for returning soldiers. A new deal that gives vets access to Medicare doctors and government healthcare programs was just approved.

There are unique physical and emotional aspects to combat related injuries. How limbs, sight or hearing were lost is also a critical part of recovery. The trauma of injuries from gunfire or bomb blasts affects emotional health as well.

VSOs offer custom options for military families. These include:

Service Dogs: Assistance dogs help wounded veterans on several levels. A guide dog helps soldiers who have lost their sight while hearing dogs serve as the ears for deaf soldiers. The trust of a PTSD service dog gives assurance to soldiers dealing with anxieties.

Car horns, standing in line or shouts across a room are daily noises that cause anxiety for some vets. VSOs select service dogs for their ability to provide physical and emotional support for injured veterans.

Multiple VSOs provide or help veterans find service dogs. This includes national and local organizations. The Los Angeles branch of Hounds for Heroes 1 is a recent example of local support for vets with national resources.

Adaptive Sports:The loss of mobility is a profound change for injured soldiers. Adaptive sports, such as sled hockey, track and surfing, all help wounded vets regain an active lifestyle. These meetups also restore the camaraderie that many vets miss when returning home. Many VSOs team with hospitals to improve injury recovery. Warfighter Sports 2 is a group that works with military hospitals through over 100 local chapters.

Economy:

A changing economy affects the job prospects of some returning vets, who have not had the time to learn newly in demand skills. Physical injuries, PTSD and other trauma may also limit an injured vet’s job search.

Skills Training: Education and skills programs for wounded vets helps narrow the gap. These programs are tailored to military veterans of all abilities, whether injured or not. VSOs provide most, if not all services, free of cost to veterans. The support system of other soldiers helps overcome past and present academic hurdles.

Wounded Warrior Project features the TRACK Project, which brings vets to Jacksonville or San Antonio for a 12 month curriculum. Job and life skills are taught, along with internships at local employers to gain work experience.

Job Placement: Many VSOs build a network of companies eager to hire returning soldiers. To prepare for interviews, vets learn to communicate how their military training has value for employers. Vets also get help crafting an effective resume that links their military experience with civilian jobs.

Changes in Military Goals and National Security:

Since national security threats are dynamic, how and where soldiers are needed quickly changes. Many military members have been stationed on multiple fronts. Veterans Services may have trouble adapting to changing military climates.

Conversely, smaller VSOs can quickly shift resources to meet changing needs. For instance, basic toiletries for departing soldiers or personal care packets for returning vets in military hospitals. The nature of the conflict may also affect what type of support is needed.

Summary:

Veterans care is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘how’. The recent controversy over V.A. care will spark more reforms. Whatever the changes, VSOs will play a role in supporting wounded veterans.

Credits:

(1) Founded with support from Elliott Broidy, the Los Angeles office of Hounds of Heroes matches services dogs with wounded veterans.

(2) Warfighter Sports is a program of Disabled Sports USA.

Brittany Deatherage , WWP / Wounded Warrior Project

 

The Complications of War

Show me who makes a profit from war and I’ll show you how to stop war
–Henry Ford

Carry Me Home
Every so often someone approaches me, someone who knows I do my best to be an advocate for combat veterans, and either belligerently or apologetically, they proclaim:
“Young women should not be in combat. War ruins women.”
My reply is the same to all of them, be they meek or angry.
“I agree with you completely. And neither should young men be in combat. War ruins everything it touches with the exception of those few individuals who make a profit from the ruination.”
I mention this now in reference to Sergeant Bergdahl.
Lots of emotion flying around about this one. Yesterday, my friend Velda Brotherton wrote this thoughtful blog post. Now, and this could change by the time I get this essay on-line, it looks as though Berghdah did indeed desert. At least according to the men we’re seeing on the media who claim to be his buddies. My inclination is to trust a combat vet, so I’m going to go with the theory that these men really were with him in Afghanistan and that they are telling the truth as they know it.
I’ve been struggling to wrap my head around all this, so this morning when my good friend and Vietnam Veteran Jim Hale sent me the following email, I immediately asked him if I could share his thoughts with you about this complicated situation.
Here’s what Jim has to say.
This whole thing with the return of Bergdahl, the Afghanistan POW, took me back to 1968 when I considered walking away. Like him I was also 22 years old.

My illusions of the cause were broken after just 4 months in country. We were hated. Bad stuff was happening and it was all for a lie. Not just to me but most of us felt that.

Got on a C47 and went on an unauthorized R&R for two weeks in Thailand.

The girl I was with didn’t want me to leave, said she’d go with me, up to northern Thailand.

It sounded pretty good but I thought of my mother and never seeing her again. And I had buddies back in Vietnam some of them I’m still in touch with now.

So I went back to Vietnam and had to fill 2000 sandbags for my punishment. Was told I earned the sandbag beret and oh yeah, promoted to E5 within a few weeks.

Then all that shit happened, the Navy Seals, the mad minutes, the dead pregnant woman. The coup de grace, the Christmas skirmish and friendly fire. Severe PTSD for three quarters of my life.

What price we pay for our loyalty.

And the consequences are severe no matter what we do.

I can’t know his motivation for walking away but I think five years as a POW, all alone like that should be enough.

Yet I fear the last pound of flesh will be demanded. I fear they will now throw him in a US prison.

Please, let us all approach this complicated issue with as much compassion and insight as this Vietnam veteran, this man who, like Sergeant Bergdahl, has walked a trail that most of us can only imagine.

VA Rant

DSCN4939

VA hospitals are under attack right now. The whole country is suddenly aware of what every vet in the country knows and deals with every single time they want medical care. Half a dozen people this week have asked me, “What do you think of what’s going on at the Pheonix VA?”
Here’s what I tell them:
This is not news. Inadequate care is prevalent and built into the VA system. Every veteran knows that if they want good health care they are going to have to work hard to find it within the system and fight tooth and nail to receive it.
Is the system better than no health care at all? Of course. Is it what they were promised when they joined the military and risked, and in many cases lost, life and limb? Oh, hell no. Not even close.
We live in Fayetteville, Arkansas and the VA hospital here is one of the best in the nation. Some of the best nurses and psychologist and social workers I know work at the Fayetteville VA. Some of the worst are there too, but one quickly learns who to avoid when making an appointment. Telegraph, telephone, tell a vet. These guys look out for one another.
Veterans here fought hard to get alternative treatment for their post-traumatic stress. The VA now offers bio-feedback and acupuncture and rapid eye movement therapy and tapping. All excellent alternatives to opiates to control both physical and mental pain. But, this is the VA and when something is working, the solution is often to mess with it. It’s a bureaucracy. A beast not known for efficiency. A beast that eats tax dollars and poops poor results.
My husband, Jack, and four of his buddies are currently caught in this vise of VA bureaucracy and lack of funding. These are not peace-time soldiers and marines and airmen, all of these guys fought incountry. The moment the VA approved fee basis acupuncture as a treatment for pain, these guys signed up. They were already doing biofeedback and meditation and every damn thing they could come up with to stop the physical pain and relieve the anxiety and the rest of the PTSD symptoms. It wasn’t enough.
Jack came home from his first acupuncture appointment and, for the first time in years, lay down and slept without medication. Over the last year, I’ve watched all four of these guys get better. Their pain became manageable, their outlook on life improved, chronic problems like fibromyalgia and asthma and panic attacks all but disappeared.
Now the VA has stopped paying for acupuncture. The stated reason is that it’s costing far too much and that they are concerned with the quality of care. The VA claims to be hiring a chiropractor and says they will require he have 100 hours of acupuncture training. This will replace the miracle worker these guys have been seeing who’s been working full-time in the field for seven years. Hard to believe that will improve the care.
But the real issue, and the reason I’m angry enough to be writing this post, is that this acupuncture-trained chiropractor has not yet been hired, while approval of fee basis acupuncture has been terminated. These guys do not want to go back to opiates. They hate taking the pills, but with the pain returned and no relief in sight, they’re desperate for relief. Here’s where the story gets just plain ridiculous.
The VA is currently under scrutiny for its widespread practice of throwing narcotics by the suitcase full at veterans, and their solution is to deny any new prescription for narcotics. So decorated combat veterans wounded in the line of duty are caught in a vise. They can’t get the acupuncture that relieved the pain and now, because they worked hard to get off the pain meds and thus are technically asking for new prescriptions, they can’t receive the opiates either.
What a system.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

soldier

Don’t sweat the small stuff.
When you’ve been in combat, unless you or a loved one is truly under the gun, it really is all small stuff. By truly under the gun, I do not mean a boss yelled, an exam was failed, a bone was broken. I do not mean a friend disappointed, a book proposal was rejected, or a business opportunity was missed.

I mean, literally, a life is in jeopardy.
Period.
This is one of the things I love about marriage to a combat vet.
Let me give you a recent example.
This last month, I decided to drive 10,000 miles (two round trips from one end of the country to the other). I did this because someone I love was in trouble and my heart said I might be able to help. This loved one has an old, old dog, Preacher, who cannot travel by bus or plane. Traveling with Preacher meant we’d be making a road trip. When I told Jack I was going, he did not hesitate, did not try to convince me not to go.
He said simply, “When do we leave.”
On our return journey, on a cold, bright morning in Tehachapi, New Mexico Jack lifted Preacher into our vehicle and the old dog let loose with his morning poop. This not being a common occurrence, it took a moment or two for Jack to figure out that he was standing in dog shit. When he realized what had happened he patted Preacher on his speckled head, told him that was not the kind of bonding experience he sought, and shuffled quietly back into the motel to wash up and meticulously scrape crap from the waffle soles of his shoes.
At no time did my husband rant or rave or cuss. All things I might well have done. Okay, all things I most certainly would have done.
When I thanked Jack for his calm acceptance of the situation he said, “Why would I be upset? It’s only shit. Nobody died.”
Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Heavy Traffic

tanks and bravery
A few weeks ago Jack and I went to our local National Guard Unit to renew my ID. The young man who took my picture and laminated my card was back from his third tour in the middle east.  He’s seen some stuff.  Had that coma-cool, laid-back vibe going on that so often scabs over a throbbing layer of PTSD. 

I admired the silver-framed picture of his beautiful wife and two adorable little daughters.  Asked how he was doing adjusting to being back in the states.

“Good,” he said with a practiced smile.  “Real good.”

“No trouble with being in traffic?” Jack asked.

“Ah, no sir.  No trouble.”  He stared off into the space just over our heads for a moment.  “I leave home an hour so or early each day to avoid the rush.  Stay on base a few hours after the day ends.  You know, give them roads time to clear a little.  Then, I’m good for the drive.”  He met my eyes.   “Most days I’m good for the drive.”

As I said, this young man had seen some stuff.

“You’re lucky,” I said.  “Blessed, to have a good wife and those beautiful little girls.”

“Ah, huh.  My wife she understands when I get the need for solitude, you know?  Just need to come home and spend some time in the den getting my thoughts lined up.  Mostly she understands.  We been to classes at the VetCenter, her and me.”

I nodded.  Kept my mouth shut.

“She knows I can’t do all that socializing she likes to do, you know?  She’s good with taking the girls and going on her own.  Used to it with me gone so much.  My wife, she gets me.  Don’t push for me to go with her to do the shopping in those crowded stores or to the parent/teacher deals at the school and such, you understand?”

“I do understand,” I said.  “Jack’s a Vietnam vet.  A Marine.”

“Ah, huh.  I seen that when y’all walked in.  He’s got the look.”

“You know that PTSD is a natural reaction to the trauma you’ve experienced, right?” I asked.

He met my eye, nodded.  “I get by.”

This little exchange left both Jack and me with a good feeling.  This young man wasn’t drowning his feelings in alcohol or repressing it with drugs.  He was getting on with his life, doing his best to be there for his wife and daughters.  He’d received some education on the symptoms of his PTSD and was using healthy tools to deal with his issues .  He was, indeed, among the lucky and blessed.

I shared this experience, of meeting this grounded and solid young guardsman, with several friends.  All had the same reaction. They were saddened, worried, upset by the limitations this man had on his enjoyment of life.  I’ve been thinking about this reaction for the last few weeks.

I’ve concluded that while civilians have a working understanding of war, they mostly don’t understand the central fact of coming home from battle.

Going to war changes a person.  Forever.  There’s no going into battle, doing your duty, and coming home good as new.  Not ever.  Post-traumatic Stress is a natural reaction to trauma.  The intensity and duration of the trauma determines the severity of the reaction.  War is intense.  War is every second of every day.  Even when the battle is done.  The potential for attack exists and therefore, the adrenaline pours into the brain and the body.  The world grays and dims and changes.  Forever.

This is a part of the true cost of war.  Civilians understand this intellectually. Warriors know this truth with every cell of their bodies.

Frost Bite to Buddha Trees

snow from Smashing Magazine

-21 degrees today in NW Arkansas.  That takes into account the wind chill, but still, that’s far colder than the proverbial witch’s tit. I am not amused.  I am, more and more, envisioning a small apartment in Chiang Mia.  One in a complex with a pool and a garden in which I won’t slip on ice and break my hip. Perhaps you recall me mentioning before that I am cold intolerant.

chiang mai pool

I try to be a good sport about the weather.  I do.  When the temperature was 17,  I was game for putting the top down on Jack’s convertible, cranking up the heated seats and roaring around town like a couple of horribly misplaced, and obviously mentally-challenged, striped-assed apes. But -25?  Are you freaking kidding me?

At -25, I begin the search for warmth.  It’s always been a puzzlement to me that people live in places like Fargo.  My grandpa, a native Brockmueller of North Dakota told me that frozen state was a good place to be from.  He ran away to the lumber camps of the Oregon coast when he was twelve.  Maybe my need to roam didn’t originate with Jack’s PTSD at all.  Maybe, I come by it natural.  Maybe the reason I refuse to stay anyplace where the temperature dips below freezing for longer than a couple nights a year, is genetic, passed down by Grandpa Fritz.

At sixty-three the inclination to seek warmer climes, like so many other proclivities, is a knife-knot of influences and choices, past regrets and joys.  What is clear is that Jack is happy with this need of mine to avoid frostbite.  As I’ve mentioned before, our old 150 pound dog – the dog that acted as Jack’s service dog for almost ten years and may well have saved his life on more than one occasion – that dog turned 12 last month. That’s the equivalent of 99 years-old for a dog his size.  When we lose our big boy, Jack will need a distraction from the grief that, if history is an predictor, will bring back every other loss he’s lived through.

Chesty

I’m not going to catalog these loses.  If you’re a combat veteran, you understand.  If you’re not, you might consider buying a copy of the anthology Proud to Be:Writing by American Warriors.  Check out my essay Boogie with Chesty or simply open the book at random and fall into the experience.  Hell, buy a copy of My Life with a Wounded Warrior or Clueless Gringos in Paradise.  Any of those books will make you laugh and cry and understand what it’s like to be a combat veteran.

When our loyal dog dies, the arrangements for wintering in Thailand might well be a fine and good distraction for both Jack and for me.  Besides, I miss Asia and if I have to endure another winter of these temperatures I may well eat myself into such a state that, if I ever do get back to Chiang Mai, I’ll be unable to climb the 106 steps to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthrep. 

chiang-mai-doi-suthrep-stairs-2

Already I have to force my mind to Buddha trees and flowering gardens instead of dwelling on mac and cheese and chocolate fudge cake.

Think warm thoughts.  Now there’s a great cognitive therapy goal.