In the past few years, a program was developed that allowed (and sometimes required) warriors to sit with a licensed counselor for a brief time following a deployment in order to introduce a chance for using counseling to flush the pangs of war from their souls and to provide an initial assessment of how well they might be adjusting to garrison (homefront) life again. One year, a group of warriors came home following such a grueling deployment that one single 30 minute appointment with a counselor wasn’t enough. That’s how I ended up in a room filled with 20+ soldiers who absolutely did not want me there.
Their most recent deployment had resulted in the loss of almost half their company. They had frequently battled the elements of war with inadequate tactical support in a land riddled with trauma. They positioned themselves as angry and ready to exclude me as a viable support because I “could never understand”. I’d never been to war. They were right. I’d never seen combat and would never feel or be haunted by the experience that would haunt them forever. Yet, I was the counselor tasked with facilitating a discussion for them. A discussion about pain, insurmountable loss, and perhaps, someday healing. You can imagine the contempt that met me at the door. What I admired most about those young warriors that day was how open they were in telling me I had little business offering any of my “expert” advice. We had all the elements we needed for healing to begin. We had the urgency of their raw emotion and my determination to exercise my most important skill – being fully present in that room. They needed permission to let the story of such pain begin to move. That kind of pain can be intimidating.
I mitigated any intimidation I felt by taking steps to prepare. I made myself privy to their plight by learning everything I could about their combat mission. I also spoke with their commander prior to meeting with them. This man was connected to the emotional journey of his warriors and himself was seeking a path to healing. Although the warriors weren’t scheduled for arrival to our designated meeting space for another 30 minutes, I’d already arrived. In part, arriving early helped send the message that this journey was as important to me as it was to them. Also, I’d learned from working on military installations for several years that arriving to any event early resulted in rich opportunity for observing and learning. This day was no different. The Lt. Colonel must have been thinking the same thing. He approached softly and asked if we could talk a bit. Unlike some of his colleagues in command, he did not seem reluctant to touch the healing side of war. He asked if he could spend time briefing me on what his warriors had been through. He voiced his concern and asked questions wanting to gain an understanding of the psychology behind absorbing, holding, and reconciling such tragedy. I was touched by his love for the warriors and humbled by his trust in any insight I might have to offer. We exchanged thoughts for a bit – a dialogue that also included moments of silence as we reverenced the space where these young warriors would soon be sitting. And then they started entering the room. As it turns out, some were so hesitant they did not sit, but stood for the entire group process that day.
As I mentioned, my presence wasn’t necessarily welcomed. Though as any good warrior will do, they gave me the respect of their attention and their honesty. Their preference was to continue just talking among themselves about what they’d endured. The trouble with that was, according to their commander, their talking usually ended up being what we in my profession might call ‘ruminating’. They would get lost in a loop of reliving trauma, get drunk to relieve the pain, then begin again the next day. The problem with this process was the continual re-traumatizing. Parts of the human brain and body that aren’t quite as evolved as others can’t distinguish between original trauma and the memory of trauma. So to be trapped in this tragic loop is not something anyone wanted for them. There are very structured types of dialogues a person can have with a behavioral health professional that can help this process be effective without further emotional harm. Enter me. I proceeded knowing that when need meets opportunity, missions can be accomplished.
Our goal was not too lofty that day. The commander wanted two things. First, to allow his warriors an opportunity to experience a process differently than they may have preconceived. Most warriors have the notion that counseling is a “mushy” conversation set to “make us cry and all that”. Secondly, their leader thought it might be important that they get a chance to tell their story as a unit – with their battle buddies to the left and the right sitting (and standing) by their sides. After all, they’d fought together. Surely we could afford them a day to tell the story together. And they did just that. The commander wanted them to be free for voicing any and all words, so he left the room before we began, hoping his absence would make way for openness. It did.
I heard about what happens to the souls of men and women who watch a comrade die in their arms. I heard about the guilt felt that their mission had now added to a lifetime of sorrow for more Gold Star families of the fallen. I saw tears float steadfastly in the eyes of young people who could have just as easily been getting dressed for senior prom that day. Out of respect, I did not urge those tears to fall completely. They fought for my freedoms. I could at least offer the space for them to keep their dignity. Somewhat to my surprise, after that group discussion, most of those warriors chose to meet with me individually as well. I always believed it was because I represented a mother or grandmother who reminded them of the first safe spaces in life where pain was allowed.
I’m not here to say we climbed tall emotional mountains together that day or that we saw complete healing take place. But, on this Memorial Day weekend, I feel compelled to acknowledge one of the many stories about a war that gives us reason to acknowledge the holiday. I think about those 20+ warriors. I reflect on heartache so palpable that day it nearly sounded like drums beating a faded cadence. And I am here standing in the gap as I know each of those warriors may be somewhere aching for their fallen buddies to return. Maybe that’s what this weekend is about – standing for those who can no longer stand at all because they were willing to fall for us.