“I’m just glad that my pain can be used to help someone else”. (Quote used with permission by a combat veteran who decided to seek therapy as a way to heal)
As had happened many times before, the combat veteran came to see me for issues that seemed (at least to him) to have nothing to do with his time in combat. His transition from military to civilian life was seemingly smooth as he was able to obtain certifications that led to jobs enabling him to provide for his family. Yet, being referred to my office by his boss because of his “aggressive” style of leadership in his civilian job would soon lead to discussion surrounding how that style was reinforced by his time of service to country.
With all veterans or citizen soldiers (National Guard) I see in my practice, I ask about service-related history. This includes inquiry about their military occupations, their leadership status and stresses, and deployment or training history. For him, deployment included two tours in Afghanistan with the second having ended nearly ten years prior to when he first stepped into my office. The quick turn our conversation took from rather benign to being charged by strong and painful emotion stunned even me. Up to that point, the initial interview was progressing in a rather perfunctory fashion. Within seconds of mentioning the deployments, his face turned red and he became unable to speak – he was too busy choking back tears. He skipped the details and went straight to the impact of two particular incidents. In both, he walked away physically unscathed though witnessed the loss of battle buddies. Like many warriors, he’d taken full ownership for the fate of the comrades flanking his left and right in combat, so it was no wonder he perceived having failed at being able to save their lives. I can’t imagine the chaos experienced when being ambushed in war. The noise of weaponry flying within inches of one’s head, the cries of fellow warriors as they fell prey to wounds being inflicted. He placed his head in his hands and bent over his knees as he found himself overwhelmed by the memories. He described the desperation of trying to yell out guidance to the young fighters under his care. When he realized they were unable to hear or unwilling to heed what he was saying (perhaps frozen by the immense fear that surely engulfed them), the scene apparently gave way to moments few of us could survive. He explained that this is when he had to make a decision between two belief systems. Either his voice did not matter, or he needed to use it more intensely so that others were safe. He chose the latter and came home from war. He buried that belief in the footlocker of his mind and continued the mission of becoming a civilian.
That’s where he learned that what we bury doesn’t disappear. It just waits its turn. Fast forward to his leadership role in the civilian workplace where the frustration of watching a supervisee ignore on-the-job warnings to stay safe on the work site grew into a gentle suggestion from his own supervisor that “maybe you should talk to someone about that”. So, here he was in my office, claiming he just needed to figure out why they thought he was a “tad bit aggressive” in giving guidance to others. He seemed genuinely perplexed. After all, he was just trying use vocal tone and intensity to ensure their safety on the tenuous construction site.
For many veterans-turned-psychotherapy-clients in my office, the storytelling of deployments ended as abruptly as they’d started. The sudden unleashing of emotions gives way to the Oscar-worthy performance of staunch and unaffected countenance that is compartmentalizing. That’s when he looked up at me and said, “Well, I guess I’m not over it after all”. He flashed a boyish grin and we agreed that perhaps his boss was right. Maybe he should talk to someone about that. I also made sure to point out that still being affected by such powerful moments didn’t mean he wasn’t “over it”. It just meant he was human. We talked a bit about how the body keeps the score (in reference to Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s classic book on how trauma affects the brain, mind, and body) and decided we would honor his stories by being careful to rightfully identify whether he was truly storing trauma, if moral injury was lurking unidentified, or if his grief was demanding to be heard. In any event, he was relieved to know that it was not unusual to still be affected by war and loss so many years after the fact. That’s also when he decided that he wanted to become so intimate with his pain that he could repurpose it to help others who might be suffering the same invisible wounds. Hence, his proclamation “I’m just glad that my pain can be used to help someone else”. His courage was a testimony to the leader he’d been in those two fateful battles and to the leader he wanted to be in his transition as a civilian.
Any fear he had that he was weak for acknowledging his emotions or his pain gave way to a fervor for learning more about mental health and wellness.
I took note as a reminder to myself of how powerful our bodies and minds are in serving as the vessels for our stories. I continued working with him and remained in awe of his willingness to study everything he could about trauma, psychological injury, and mental health. Rather than minimize the humanity of his story, he embraced it and committed to advocating for the mental health and wellness of others in his circle. Any fear he had that he was weak for acknowledging his emotions or his pain gave way to a fervor for learning more about mental health and wellness. In fact, the education he adopted with respect to mental health became one of his greatest strengths. We can only pray that everyone in today’s society would empower themselves with such knowledge.
Any similarities a reader might find between their own story and the elements of this writing are purely coincidental. All efforts are made to change identifying details (rank, time period, campaign served, gender, etc.) to protect the identity of any person mentioned. The essence of the story, however, remains authentic in honor of the men and women who have humbled me with their disclosures.