Original piece written 6.6.2014 – When I first wrote this piece I couldn’t recall the name of the veteran I mention in this story. I eventually confirmed his first name was Kenneth. I’ve learned that Kenneth has since passed. My gratitude continues to him and my father for those first lessons in helping warriors heal. I am reposting, with revision, in reflection on continued lessons about moral injury, survivor’s guilt, and unrecognized grief in the veterans and active duty service members that still seek help from me.
My father was on a beach somewhere in France during WWII. Although he was undiagnosed, when I consider some of his behaviors from my youth, I suspect I grew up with the effects of war – post-trauma, combat stress, and moral injury. When I was seven, he made me go with him to see the movie “Patton”. I can’t remember any other time in my life when my father went to a movie, except for when the epic war movie “Saving Private Ryan” was released.
In my small rural town, we looked for things to fight boredom and relied heavily on known traditions passed down from other years. One piece of knowledge passed was about the war vet who roamed the streets day and night. He was shell-shocked (now what we call PTSD) and just walked endlessly in the middle of the streets. It was common knowledge that if you yelled “Fire in the hole” within his earshot, he would begin doing all sorts of strange moves in the street – crouching low to the ground, rolling, eyes scanning the landscape with extreme hypervigilance. Unbeknownst to a clueless group of small-town teens, we were traumatizing him again and again. We were attacking his soul – repeatedly tearing away pieces of it. And this was during the 1970’s, so it was not likely he was involved with a counselor or therapist working to regenerate that broken soul during some evidence-based therapy session on a weekly basis. When I became an adult and began working in my profession as a psychotherapist, I would reflect on this man. I read everything I could about the effects of war. Intimating myself with details of who he might have been and what he’d endured made me feel closer to him. I’m sure I was trying to alleviate the guilt and remorse as I grew to realize the ramifications of our behavior towards him.
Having listened to hundreds of combat warriors talk about war, I now know that in order to thrive in combat a warrior must manipulate the soul – sacrificing pieces of it when having to take a life or cutting off awareness of that soul’s cry for peace in order to push ahead with the mission.
The soul weighs in on our decisions, our choices for action. Knowing what I know now I realize that each time we yelled what was, to us, an entertaining, seemingly harmless chant “Fire in the Hole”, we required this man to return to a place within him that was riddled with pain. We forced him to break from his soul once again in order to survive. He perceived that our chanting was a real threat of danger. What we did was egregious and I regret it on a daily basis, often wishing I could find him and offer some piece of my own soul in exchange for his forgiveness.
When my father got wind of our antics, of course, he lectured me to no end and I started to understand with great empathy what my behavior was doing to that veteran. I think I’ve been seeking restitution ever since. I even confessed such to a gracious brigade chaplain of the 82nd Airborne once, and I was humbled that he allowed me to serve his soldiers after hearing my admission. Perhaps that’s been the driving force for my career choices in the past decade. I’ve taken every opportunity I could to put myself in a position to help warriors unleash the monster of traumatic memories locked away in their minds so that they may be reunited with their souls.
It’s not an easy task – convincing a warrior to trust the therapy space, no less with a civilian who’s never seen combat.
Talking with someone may seem threatening. My presence represents an effort in urging a person to speak about private or painful things. After all, one doesn’t know what I’m going to do with the information. Can I handle it? Can I hold the information without a detonation of my own self? Warriors always tell me the last thing they want to do is harm someone else with their invisible wounds of war.
“Fire in the hole” is a warning used to alert that there is imminent risk of an explosive detonation in a confined space. Although it originated with miners who needed to warn their peers that a charge had been set, it was subsequently adopted by the US Army and Marines to give notice of a grenade or satchel charge being tossed into a small enclosure. For the warrior, that ‘explosion’ can or has been literal. The seeming intrusion of someone, a therapist, attempting to excavate the warrior’s story can have the same effect. Questions, inquiry, urging – behaviors used by most behavioral health clinicians – can seem like a close proximity explosion of the mind, of the soul. So when working with a warrior, I’ve learned to move tenderly through the landscape of their memories while still remaining focused on not joining them in avoidance, which we now believe can heighten their symptoms. There are several interventions proven to have success in addressing the symptoms of post-trauma injury and we are now learning even more about dynamics such as moral injury. The landscape of war is broadening in our world and its possible we may never know “peace-time” again. I am grateful for all the efforts my colleagues make to sincerely learn how to help our military community. And to this day, I keep myself connected to the memory of that veteran walking down Fir Street in the 1970’s, making his way to whatever rally point he deemed safe at the time – always hoping when he arrived he was reunited with a peaceful regeneration of his soul. Always in honor of and my father, Kenneth.
If you are a healthcare provider who would like to learn more about helping veterans, please consider the following resources:
PsychArmor Institute – a free online training resource for effectively interacting with the military community – https://psycharmor.org/
Give An Hour – an organization whose mission is to develop a network of volunteer professionals capable of responding to conditions faced by our military and first-response communities – https://giveanhour.org