Defining Terms

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Last week a Facebook friend posed the question – what does the word warrior mean to you?

A combat vet friend emailed a couple days later to ask me for a definition of Warrior. I’m pretty sure some lovely woman asked him this question and he was struggling to get the answer right without scaring her with so much honesty that she ran for the woods. Nonetheless, it’s a valid and important question.
The Wounded Warrior Project is now treating us to extended commercials interspersed throughout our evenings of zoning out on the couch, staring at the television, and bemoaning the fact that there’s nothing of interest to watch. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the work The Wounded Warrior Project does. Though it angers me each time I see one of their commercials that an individual who goes to war at the biding our government, now has to resort to begging for donations in order to get top-notch care for the injuries sustained doing what he was ordered to do.
But that’s another blog post altogether.
My point here is that the word warrior is being bandied about with great frequency and it would behoove us to think about just what the term means to us.
I suspect, like most complicated concepts, the meaning is different from individual to individual. Therefore, I’m going to tell you my understanding of the word and I am asking you to comment and share what the word warrior means to you personally.
For me, a warrior is someone who has found a way, reached within themselves and found a power most of us don’t even know exists, to walk through horror and come out the other side alive. I, personally, never use the word warrior for anyone but a combat veteran. But I do not call them warriors because of what they did during war. I call them warriors because of what they do every single day since returning from war. Many have done things, seen things, experienced things that changed them. Forever.
No one goes to war and comes back the same person. No one.
The rules of war are not the rules of polite society. Battle is about keeping yourself and your buddies alive. Period. War traumatizes because what is required in combat is directly and dramatically opposed to everything we are taught, and everything we know innately within ourselves about the sanctity of life. Why else demonize the enemy? Why else work so hard to convince ourselves that for those we kill in war life and death hold different meanings than they do for us.
All of this denial of long-held beliefs in order to survive is burned into those who go to war. If it were not, none would return to us.
The courage, the incredible power of the warrior, is that once he returns to us, day-by-day, night-by-night he lives through the adjustment necessary to live among a society that does its best to transform his experience into flag waving honor when the warrior knows damn good and well there is nothing glorious about war. Nothing whatsoever.

Books by Pamela Foster
All books can be ordered through any bookstore or library. In addition they are available through Amazon.com as both conventional books and as download to Kindle

Redneck Goddess, Contemporary southern novel
Noisy Creek, Contemporary southern novel
Bigfoot Blues, Contemporary novel set in the Pacific Northwest
My Life with a Wounded Warrior, Personal essays
Clueless Gringos in Paradise, Humorous travel Memoir
Ridgeline, Historical Fiction, Western
The Perfect Victim, Suspense
Boogie with Chesty, an essay about a PTSD Service Dog

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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.

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.

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.

Love and Vulnerability

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It’s been an interesting week.  I’ve been busy promoting my newest book, My Life with a Wounded Warrior.  This little collection of essays is about living with and loving Jack, who in ’64 stepped on a landmine and got sent home early from his high school trip to the Marble Mountains outside Danang.  The book is proof positive, all printed up pretty, that I love and understand the stubborn old former-Marine to whom I have been married for going on twenty-five years.

And THAT scares the holy crap out of Jack.

Being loved makes him vulnerable.  Being vulnerable means losing control.  Which sends him running for the emotional woods.  So, here’s how my week has gone.

Jack puts down the book and wipes his eyes.  “I never knew you understood me this well.”

“Honey,” I say, “why on earth do you think I’ve hung around all these years?”

“I figured it was for the money,” he says, straight-faced. 

“You don’t HAVE any money.” I point out.

“I know,” he cries, “that’s what keeps confusing me.”

So, this little shared moment melts my heart a bit, reminds me of why I love the big lug.

Five minutes later he gets up without saying a word, and goes to bed.  For the next two days he says not one word to me that doesn’t involve what it is I’m planning on fixing him to eat.  At the grocery store he makes a crude remark about a woman one third his age, grins at me when he says it, dares me to love him.  I pat his hand, tell him, “Bless your heart.  Go wait for me on the bench out in front.”

On day three, he tells me he loves me and he’s sorry he’s been acting like a jackass and he doesn’t know why I stick around.  Then he doesn’t speak for the next two days.   Followed by, you guessed it, a remark so cutting it stops me in my tracks. 

It’s difficult, very, very difficult, to love a man with PTSD.  None of this behavior has one single thing in the world to do with me.  Or how much he loves me.  Or even what he wants from me.  It’s about him.  Period.  He’s adjusting to the knowledge that he is lovable. 

And it’s going to take a long, long time.

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Freedom Dog

Chesty

My Life with a Wounded Warrior, a collection of expanded essays from this blog, is due to be released in a few weeks.  A Special Author’s Edition of Clueless Gringos in Paradise, the humorous account of moving to Panama with two enormous service dogs, will be available at just about the same time.  That’s a big deal.  Too me, anyway.  Two books out within a day or two of each other.  Yippee Skippy, awesome possum, and hot damn, as they say in Arkansas.  Or, as they say where I come from, damn fucking straight.

Kim Pennell at Pen-L Publishing came up with the concept of donating a portion of the sale of each book to a Veterans Organization.  I loved the idea.  Let out a little squeal of joy when I read her email suggesting it. 

I’ve spent some time the last few days looking around for a worthy veteran’s group. 

But, before I tell you about that, here’s what you need to know about me.  I’ve never, ever, been in a position to donate money to. . .well. . .to any cause.  I married at eighteen.  My husband received his draft notice on our wedding day (I didn’t have time to wear the new off him before he was in basic).   My first son was born on my twenty-first birthday.  Two more boys followed in joyous succession.  Then, I was a divorced mom trying to decide which son got new Payless tennis shoes and which two boys had to go another month with rubber bands around the toes of their old ones. 

Then I married Jack, and while Jack gives generously to individuals, he does not give to groups or organizations.  Not ever.

So, I was pretty damn excited about the idea of donating my own money to a cause of my choosing.  I knew immediately I wanted to help unite veterans with PTSD service dogs.  That much was a no brainer.  Chesty saved Jack’s life.  That’s not hyperbole.  Chesty, beautiful PTSD service dog that he is, saved Jack’s life. 

There are several good groups out there training dogs to assist vets with their PTSD.  I investigated a few.  Sat dead-still in front of the computer with a giant grin on my face when I found Freedom Dogs. 

I’m still working out all the details, but I’m trying to arrange things so Freedom Dogs receives about $3 on each copy of My Life with a Wounded Warrior, and $1 for each copy of Clueless Gringos in Paradise.   I’ll keep you posted on the details, but, for right now, please, join me in my joy of being able to give a little something to a cause that is dear to me. 

Having my own money and being able to give that money to a wonderful cause, now that’s freedom.

FIREWORKS

fireworks

Last night was the sixth of July.  The sixth.  Not the fourth. The sixth. 

The neighbors behind us set off booming, roaring, popping fireworks from 9:30 until about three seconds before midnight or, as the time was counted in our house, at three seconds before Jack went off with his own explosion.

It’s ironic that, as a nation, we celebrate our independence with Chinese fireworks that mimic war.  Great fun for children and people who have never been in any actual battle.  Not so great for warriors. 

We had four combat veterans at our house for an informal barbeque on the fourth, the actual date when fireworks exploding again and again and again into the night sky is acceptable and expected.  All four vets ate steak and potato salad on our deck on Independence Day and watched the afternoon sky closely.  They fidgeted as the day wore on, startled when the kids next door set off a small string of firecrackers, and all left well before dark. 

For many combat veterans The Fourth of July is the worst day of the year.  Civilians love the color blooming against the stars, the flash and beauty of pyrotechnics.  Those who have been in war often see something else entirely in those flashes of color.  The combination of the light like tracers and the booming noise is far too much like war itself.  I suppose that’s why those who play at war love fireworks and those who have actually been there do not.   

One guy’s celebration is the next guy’s flashback.