Saturday, November 28, 2009

Now What?

*Retold with permission.

Years ago, somebody working for the Veterans Affairs Administration told me that if we had a combat action ribbon, we automatically rated 10% disability for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Apparently the mere act of being in such a life-threatening situation meant we were certifiably crazy – well, 10% crazy. Even though I certainly have that ribbon, earned multiple times over, I never asked for my 10%. It seemed embarrassing, not only because I don’t consider myself nuts, but because other men from other wars had been through far worse and still come out in the other side of it just fine – or at least seem to be so.

Besides that, I expected many of the tragedies of war. I expected to see bodies. I expected to see blood. I expected that some of us would get hurt. Sometimes, I was convinced it would be me. Occasionally, I was fairly certain I wasn’t going to make it at all. I distinctly remember sitting in the humvee with my feet as far apart on the floorboards as I could get them. That way, if the shrapnel came through, maybe I’d only lose one leg and not both. Or one arm. I’d practiced putting on a tourniquet with one hand in the event that I’d lost the other. That part of it was expected, though I hesitate to call it fun.

I know a lot of guys absolutely hate the “did you kill anybody” question, but I’m going to be honest about it. Yes. How did that make me feel? Truthfully, it was remarkably uneventful. It was necessary at the time, and the alternative – potentially losing people because I hesitated – was far less appealing. Am I guilty about it? No. I did the right thing. The only troubling part is hindsight; I, singlehandedly, made the decision and took action to terminate the life of another human being. It’s not guilt, but wonderment.

Recently, I met a girl who shot an aggressor as he attempted to force his way through her window into the bedroom. I told her I thought it was pretty badass, and she confessed that it was most powerful she’d felt in her entire life. I think we feel that way in the military, too, but don’t talk about it. If we were to say it, people would assume we’re warmongers, which we are not. We just volunteered for an ugly business – knowing full well and agreeing that it’s ugly. Nobody hates war more than those fighting it. But it didn’t make us crazy.

All the flurry in the news about veteran suicide is bothersome, since they almost always blame it on PTSD, or us being crazy. I don’t think that’s it at all. If it were, then why didn’t previous generations of veterans kill themselves more frequently? God knows many of them saw more friends die in front of them, saw their own violent demise as a near-certainty, and lost countless friends along the way. There are plenty of veterans from my generation who genuinely have PTSD, but their situations are excusable. I know what many of them went through. I also don’t believe it’s why many of them take their own lives. There are other reasons for that.

It wasn’t killing people. That, perhaps horrifyingly so, was fairly easy. Identify the target, make a decision, and then respond accordingly. More often than not, the aggressor was hidden, or elusive. Fire a shot and leave. Detonate the IED and run. It was infuriating. We WANTED to shoot something, but there was nobody there to shoot. They’d inflicted their damage and flee, leaving us bleeding, dying, and angry.

It wasn’t being gone for months on end, either. Sure, it’s miserably, lonely, and stressful, but those are the dominant emotions of a deployment. Go away, lose a few people (or a lot of people), and then come back demoralized. With the deployment schedules being what they were, we’d come back and start training to leave again in a matter of months. After a time, you get used to it, watch the calendar closely, and eagerly look forward to being done with it all; or out of the military. Being overseas didn’t kill us; it just burned us out, broke our spirits, and made many of us rue the day we joined.

It wasn’t the living conditions, either. Those were total exasperations while we were enduring them, however. All the days sitting in the mud and trying to keep the mosquitoes from eating us – they were over soon enough. All the night mission chainsmoking to stay awake or punching yourself in the head trying to keep from slumping over the steering wheel, they’re great stories for the grandkids someday. Besides that, I take some pride in having gone through all of it and not completely shut down. I’m proud of my intestinal fortitude, self-discipline and endurance. Plenty of other guys didn’t do so well. Even still, I had my days. During one tour, I wasted away to a zombie from stress and lack of sleep. But none of this makes me want to kill myself.

Why do so many want to? I wish I knew specifically, because then I’d make every effort to help them. Though the specifics are still a mystery to me, I have a few ideas. It was purpose; more specifically, the total loss of it.

Throughout boot camp, we’re inundated with stories of heroism, dedication and patriotism. Before we were ordered to jump into our racks [beds] at the position of attention, we were required to scream out, “honor, courage, commitment,” at the top of our lungs. From the very beginning, we were told what we were doing was honorable. Even now, I sincerely believe that it is.

Whenever we went out somewhere in uniform, we always attracted attention – even the ugliest among us. Something about the uniform drew people. Women would naturally forget that we’re morons and gush about how dashing we looked. Men would come up and tell us about how their friends served, or they served, or how a distant cousin was in the Navy and I guess somehow they felt a connection with us. We were quasi-superheroes or something, or at least we garnered a lot of attention. Many civilian guys didn’t like us because we automatically had a leg up when we hit on girls. But when we lost the uniform, we lost everything that went with it. We were suddenly just like everybody else.

Whenever we ran out of things to say in a conversation, we could always tell a war story, or one from training, and people would listen with rapt attention. It was a foreign world to them; far off places, imminent danger, guns and explosions. If we were good talkers, we could dominate every conversation. Even when people said something awful to us, they were usually so much in the minority that people immediately sided with us, defended us, felt sorry for us, and then hung around even closer when we vented about how we’d been wronged. This, too, helped us hit on the girls. We were special. When we left the ranks, it stopped abruptly.

Whenever we were overseas, strangers from all across the United States would send us letters, pray for us, and inundate us with packages full of things that they wouldn’t normally buy even a close friend or relative. We were rock stars. They thanked us for keeping them safe, for volunteering to do miserably difficult things on behalf of strangers, and then thanked us on behalf of a grateful nation. We were heroes in their eyes, though few of us felt like it. Still, though, it was great to be put on a pedestal. Our service wasn’t just a dirty job; it was an identity. We lost it when we were discharged.

At first the discharge was freedom – almost the end of a prison sentence, but that changed. In reality, it was also a discharge from the reality we’d been living in, as well as the unique identity that went with it. What once set us apart from everybody else was now completely, irrevocably gone (unless we got so desperate that we elected to go back in). We didn’t just lose a uniform, but also a job, a calling, an elevated status, and direction. We poured our hearts into earning the mantle of warrior, but promptly extinguished our hearts when we left it all behind. We walked away with nothing. Without purpose and completely adrift.

And that, I think, is why many so quickly give up. That’s why they kill themselves – they see life as over. They’re jobless, they’ve lost their purpose, their motivation, and everything that once categorized them as worthy of respect. They try to keep telling war stories, but people lose interest quickly. They’re just the ramblings of a washed-up veteran. They’re told to move on.

They go off to college, but it seems a waste of time. Listening to kids and professors with no clue about the world pontificating how stupid and evil war is, but none of them has ever seen the face somebody who truly wanted to kill them simply because they were different. Besides this, it’s not purposeful. Instead, it’s an endless stream of boring information, mostly forgotten, and far less interesting than doing patrols and carrying a rifle.

What profession, pastime or hobby can come close to the respectability that they earned in the military? Law enforcement? Hardly. Academia? Not really. Besides, few of them ever end up in positions if great importance. They’ve put aside an adventure and picked up monotony. After the military, “normal life” is boring. Nothing seems meaningful.

And so, with the best behind them and blinded to the hope that the future might offer something equally rewarding, they flounder, turn inside themselves and see life as mostly over. The remainder is survival, not living. With a total lack of hope, why bother to keep trying? What’s the point? At best, it’s all less interesting, adventurous, and meaningful. Life, as they know it, is over.

They never prepared us for this in training, either. They spend months readying us to go fight, live in filth and get by on little to no sleep, but then they do virtually nothing to see us off. And I’m not even sure it’s their fault, anyway. We all made the voluntary decision to go in, so it seems appropriate that we also make the voluntary decision to do something great after we get out, too. What I wish they DID do, however, is help us see beyond the patriotism, beyond the service, and beyond the identity of warrior.

Even for the guys that do 20 years and retire, there’s still more living on the outside, and that’s what none of us were ready to face. Having exhausted our hearts becoming warriors, there’s little energy left for much else. Life isn’t over, but living seems to be. And with our greatest achievements behind us, why keep struggling? A quick end seems almost merciful, saving us years of futility. It’s not the war that kills us, or the PTSD, the sights and horrors; it’s the end of the war and the end of purpose. We gave the military our all, and now there’s nothing left.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Meeting In The Rain

For mid-autumn, the weather was typical. The skies were grey and the clouds low – alternating between irritating drizzle, gentle rain, and short pauses before the next insult. It was arthritically cold and everyone’s joints hurt. As they walked, their feet turned sodden in the wet, perfectly-kempt grass. A number regretted not bringing umbrellas. It was fitting for the funeral. It was awful.

Half of those gathered were his “blood” family, and the other half the family with whom he bled, in uniform. Grief read on all their faces, manifested as total devastation on many, yet tempered with anger, guilt and disbelief on most of the veterans. In some way, though unquantifiably so, they felt they owned this. All grieved yet another brother who, after years of honorable service, took his own life.

Well-intentioned public figures are always eager to provide data that proves the military and veterans “aren’t that bad off,” but they must not know anybody who has endured a miserable deployment or struggled to regain their footing after transitioning out of the service. To me, their expositions do little more than demonstrate how little they care. They must not know the people I know, either. If they did, they would be unable to NOT grieve.

Since 2003, my Marine battalion has sustained well over forty combat fatalities in Iraq. At least twelve of those were from a single friendly fire incident. Back in the states, the same battalion has lost half a dozen in training accidents such as vehicle rollovers or “runaway guns.” Nearly that many have been lost to liberty incidents – mostly automobile crashes. They have also lost almost a dozen to suicide, and these are just the numbers I’ve been told about. Already, I struggle to remember their names, which embarrasses me.

Even those who have survived their service still seem to be doing poorly. Among those I knew the vast majority of their marriages have failed. Others have since begun relationships and watched them deteriorate, too. I know of few couples who are doing undeniably well.

Amongst my peers, college has become a default – the free option awaiting them when they left the ranks, but remarkably few seem to approach it with any ambition. It’s not preparation for greater dreams, but a way to prolong the inevitable. Real life is fast approaching, and none of it looks enjoyable. Physically, they’re falling apart. Mentally, they may not be far behind.

Those who elected to stay in the Marines are now regretting doing so. Despite their optimism, it hasn’t improved for them. One recently noted that, “it’s just not fun being a Marine anymore.” Those that moved into other branches of the military are also questioning their decisions. It’s turning out to just be more of the same.

And nor can I overlook the dozens from my battalion who have been discharged for medical reasons. They frequently stood right next to those who were killed, and somehow managed to survive – but barely. They’re missing legs and fingers, eyesight, or hearing. They’ve lost mobility, or are still waiting for shrapnel to migrate out from under their skin. Several grapple with Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs), loss of memory, radically adjusted personalities, and a host of other side effects. One of my own Marines, struck several times by IEDs, confessed to me that he can’t remember his own father’s funeral. He knows he was there, but can’t remember where it was, or anything about it. His girlfriend left him because she didn’t like who he’d become.

Nobody, as near as I can tell, is remotely happy. One friend announced with conviction that his greatest achievements in life are behind him and now he looks forward to a miserable life without meaning or purpose. People keep insisting that most veterans get out and thrive, but I’m not seeing it. Not the guys I know.

More than I can count are still reeling from some sort of emotional injury – and these are the ones who I have the most trouble understanding. We were infantry, so we expected to lose some in combat. None of us liked it, but such is the nature of war. Fewer always come home. We did not expect to lose any more, though. We did not anticipate an internal war. It’s one we don’t know how to fight; one with staggering casualty figures. In 2005 alone, for example, more than 6,100 veterans took their own lives in the states. To put that in perspective, approximately 5,000 servicemembers have died in either Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001. But in the states, more than that died by their own hands in one year.

Several of my surviving friends wonder what they could have done differently. They mull over what warning signs they should have seen. They soul-search for how they could have made themselves more available, or approachable, or attentive. They’re angry with themselves for what they see as a failure on their part. They’re angry with the departed for not talking to them, because they would have gladly helped. They’re haunted. We are haunted. “I just talked with him, and now he’s gone.”

They say the wars may be ending soon, but I fear the casualties are just beginning to mount. For the majority of veterans I know, to include myself, there is a pervasive feeling of discontent, desperation, and protracted misery. Statistics keep insisting that we’re mostly okay, but I see differently. I see men and women caught in a slow and lonesome death. I see defeated warriors. And I see little being done about it.

The US Army recently admitted that they have no idea what to do about the epidemic of suicides within their ranks. Nor have their aggressive ad campaigns done anything to reduce the numbers. Similarly, the VA has seen only marginal success – a sad realization considering the thousands of mental health professionals they have recently hired. In some regards, it’s as if the war has chewed up a generation of young men and women and permitted them do great and terrible things, but then spit them back into society alone, unprepared, and unsupported. I have no great solutions. I wish I did.

If I knew what else I should be doing, I would do it. Just as it is for my brothers, I see this as personal failure. More than perhaps ever before, we need this nation’s help. Yet more than perhaps ever before, we don’t know what to ask for. Instead, there is a growing generation of complete screw-ups. Something changed in us, and we have no clue how to reverse it. Something died, and many are simply waiting for the rest of their beings to follow.

We were all trained to be leaders. We were trained to be problem-solvers and to rationally overcome any situation even in midst of total chaos. The enemy was tangible, and easy. The one that consistently slays us, however, is nebulous, evasive, and clever. We’re fighting demons; a battle for which we’re gravely unprepared. But trained leaders and problem-solvers are loath to ask for help. They suffer, wage war, and frequently lose in silence. Even at my worst, I never sought any help. It seemed an exhibition of weakness.

There will be more rain-soaked cemeteries with assemblies of grieving parents and angry, guilty, devastated veterans. There will be more haunting questions about how we’ve failed our brothers. There will be more self-doubting and discontent. There will be more struggling, and there will be more defeat. We’ll stand there quietly and not know what to say, and we’ll walk away not knowing what to do differently next time. Who will the next assembly be for? A close friend? Us? The training never addressed this kind of battle. For as much as we struggle to put our war behind us, we keep being pulled back into it. Men, our brothers, our friends, our subordinates and leaders, still keep disappearing from the ranks. Helplessly, we watch them fall.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved