Everyday people, Everyday heroes

In remembrance of September 11, 2001


In Remembrance of 9/11, 2001

September 11, 2001 is the day I became a much better therapist. The resources available to me grew exponentially due to an insurgence of funded research on post-trauma. My lessons from clients were enriched by the chance to serve alongside phenomenal combat veterans, military chaplains, “like-hearted” clinicians, and military families who showed me a new version of “Army Strong”.  Most service members and 1st responders with whom I’ve talked would ask that we not call them heroes, though in our simple-mindedness we continue. They are gracious in tolerating our need to herald them as such. My heroes are not heroes because they were willing to enter war zones and kill bad guys, although I remain stunned at the courage of anyone willing to negotiate with combat.

The heroes I reflect on today, those I have spent countless hours with, are heroes because they came home and were willing to persevere on days too dark to see the next step.  Everyday.  

An unfortunate discovery of trauma is how deeply embedded it becomes in us, on a cellular level.  These effects can remain, binding us for years, even decades. With a global response, new traumas were created and continue to date. Our efforts to dismantle stigmas of seeking mental health treatment can hardly keep up with the continual folds of new traumatic events happening in the world.

Honor and respect are noble enough reasons to give remembrance, though more importantly, it needs to fuel efforts toward helping the affected find and attain their recovery.  

To this day, I am grateful for those who serve and honored that some have trusted me to serve beside them. They entrust to me stories that continue to stir my soul and shape my life. Countless soldiers, marines, airmen, firefighters, paramedics, spouses and Gold Star families have left me speechless with their courage. I can only dream to mirror their walk in this life.  But my flowery words must be coupled with my diligence in being excellent in this vocation. Learning, advocating, persevering  with the everyday heroes revealed on September 11, 2001 must be a mindful effort, lest I join the complacent.

To all whose lives were changed 15 years ago today and especially to those who’ve shared their journey with me since that day, I remain humbled.

Veteran’s Crisis Line – 1.800.273.8255 or http://www.veteranscrisisline.net

Vets4Warriors – 1.855.838.8255 or http://www.vets4warriors.com

Give an Hour™ is a nonprofit 501(c)(3), founded in September 2005 by Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen.  By utilizing volunteer mental health professionals, GAH is dedicated to meeting the mental health needs of the troops and families affected by the post-9/11 conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  GAH works to provide counseling to individuals, couples and families, and children and adolescents.   http://www.givenanhour.org


Posted in 9/11, Military Mental Health, Tragedy, Trauma, Uncategorized, Veterans, War | Leave a comment

Memorial Day Safety Brief


written by chris cannida, May 30, 2016

In the military, there is an event that occurs every week called a “Safety Brief”. The unit leader will offer several points of guidance to encourage safe living for the service member before they embark on their weekends or holidays away from the unit footprint. I was graciously invited to many of these. Some were intimidating (at least to me) as the commander barked stringent orders to remain free from self-induced conflict until their Monday morning return to work. Some were poignant if following recent news of loss within the unit as the leader nearly pleaded that no more loss be suffered.

Memorial Day – safety brief required

There are active duty service members and veterans who will spend time today, Memorial Day, remembering buddies lost in battle. Some will gather with others and pay verbal homage to those lost. Others will isolate themselves and review mental playbacks of the very moments of loss. Over the years, some have said to me they’d give anything to ‘go back’. Sometimes they will tell me they left their soul in Afghanistan and could retrieve it by ‘going back’.  I’ve seen them fold their arms as if cradling someone, eyes drifting to a place I could not go. They have explained how tbeir best friend had died in their arms and how they are not sure full recovery is possible. I reflect on these soldiers and pray they have, in fact, survived and recovered. To all those walking in those boots, here is a safety brief to consider for days like today.

  1. Don’t drink and drive. Sure, tip your cups and bottles of beer in toast to those lost. Then, stay away from your motorcycles and cars. And guns.

Grief can easily morph into rage when mixed with alcohol and untangling the two can be difficult.

  1. Secure yourself with the support of others. This support can be your emotional seatbelt as you lean into those quiet moments that will drift in throughout the day. Honor the memory of your fallen buddy with the silence that the civilians around you can never understand. Then, come back. Remember that you’re here now, not there. You are bound to take countless mental trips back to there, sometimes alone, sometimes with unit comrades. Avoid letting those trips in your memory lead to permanent absence from the here and now.

There is a great purpose in the now. Let someone help you find it.

  1. Walk away from violence. Let the control center of your mind, your thinking self, take control over the, sometimes impetuous, will of your emotion. You were trained to block your emotional self from activation during combat so that you could perform. However, the emotion part of your brain needs a voice and may try to create a surge of expression now that you’re out of harm’s way and senses you are safe in the confines of the perceived mundane civilian world here at home.

Your emotions need a voice, though may also need help regulating and creating parameters for safe expression

  1. Wear proper coping gear. Pack your mental and emotional rucksack with the mission essential skills needed to survive. This includes emptying that ruck from the burdens of loss, conflict, guilt, or near-death experience that can weigh you down. Unload those non-essentials by allowing someone to listen as you tell your story. Give yourself permission to lay those burdens down. Instead, pack the following. Determination – to make the losses you suffered count for something. Calming and grounding skills – to keep yourself balanced when those memories threaten to tip you over. Trust – in the many supports that can help you continue the mission that is your life.
  1. Reach out before you take action on suicide plans. Talk to someone first. Resist belief in the lie of trauma and depression. You know, the thought that “no one cares” or “they wouldn’t understand” or “I’m beyond help”. Those are untrue statements, symptoms of the burden. Before you buy in, call someone or go to your local ER. Don the steps of a church. Head to your local VFW – those guys DO understand and will listen!  Just reach out.

This Memorial Day and every day, take the time to remember and reflect. Then, reach out. Until then, be safe out there.

Wishing all survivors a peaceful and reflective Memorial Day.

For phone apps and grounding skills that might be helpful, check out: http://t2health.dcoe.mil

If you’re struggling:

Call 1-855-838-8255 or go to http://www.vets4warriors.com

Visit www.maketheconnection.com


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No Grief Like a Warrior’s Grief


written by chris cannida, May 27, 2016

This is for seven men who died in the summer of 2009. They had made a one-way trip to war.  Because there had been a surge of conflict in Afghanistan in recent months, I’d been cautioned to be ready and responsive for early-morning calls, or calls at any hour for that matter.  I decided that on this beautiful Saturday morning in upstate New York, I would do just that, be ready. I’d jumped into the shower at around 6:30am and actually missed a call from the brigade commander. When I noticed the missed call, I responded quickly and vowed to be on brigade footprint no later than 15 minutes out.

There is no grief like a warrior’s grief.

When I arrived, there were 5 people sitting in a large conference room adjacent to the commander’s office. The Rear D commander, his deputy command, the chaplain, the wife of a down-range commander, and one of the unit’s senior noncommissioned officers were gathered to discuss how best to support the seven young families whose “Welcome Home” banners would now be lost in a sea of grief.  The air was thick and I could almost feel the sting of tears they refused to let fall and the cries being choked back. The notification to spouses was still in process, but they wanted to make plans for providing support. Seven men had been lost by one roadside bomb. I was fully prepared to offer my complete and mindful presence to these families. What I wasn’t prepared for was a quiet request from the commander later that morning in his office. His directive to me was to get his senior enlisted officer to open up. This man had trained these seven warriors. They were his pride and joy. He’d been chosen to stay behind and provide support in garrison, so being absent from this last moment in their lives was unbearable to him. The commander was concerned.

I was unable to reach him. For the remaining weeks of my time serving this unit with counseling, I exercised every quiet presence, every subtle and not-so-subtle invitation to talk, and eventually, just every prayer that he wouldn’t collapse from the weight of his sorrow. To this day, I imagine that some comrade he trusted did reach him. I’m not sure, though I have to believe that. I consider it a failure on my part that I wasn’t able to do so.   Every so often I consider what else I might have done to lend support so that he could avoid the hell that is true survivor’s guilt.  Most of us only know that term – survivor’s guilt – from a distance, as a headline or catchphrase in the occasional documentary on the topic.

True survivor’s guilt presents as an emotional, and even physiological, chokehold.

I can tell you, there is no one who experiences Memorial Day like a service member or veteran who has lost comrades in combat.  Warriors hold in their hearts, forever, their brothers and sisters lost in battle. So, I am certain he is somewhere this weekend remembering these seven. I can still see him sitting over in the corner, lips pressed so tightly I wondered if he was breathing. His eyes refusing contact with anyone, his mind surely locked and loaded on despair.   I can also say with some certainty that if we met today and I mentioned my concern for him, he would sternly redirect my thoughts to those seven men.  This is a weekend to remember them, not him, he’d likely admonish.  So be it.  Here’s to seven young men who had an outstanding and loyal leader.

I can reflect on those who’ve given their all to protect me.  My reflection will never compare to the way Memorial Day is experienced by those who survived as they remember anyone who served beside them.

If you are a veteran or active duty service member struggling this weekend, or any day, please reach out.

Veteran’s Crisis Line – 1.800.273.8255 or http://www.veteranscrisisline.net

Vets4Warriors – 1.855.838.8255 or http://www.vets4warriors.com


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Solid Support for Veterans


by chris cannida, November 11, 2015

“It’s as if I’m addicted to it and it’s the thing I have to avoid at all costs”. I’ve heard some version of this statement from countless veterans sitting in my office over the years. Most are not talking about alcohol or illicit drugs.  They’re talking about war.  Recently, it was spoken by one there to support his spouse coming to me for adjustment counseling. The veteran himself had announced to me his disbelief that therapy would help him as well, though he believed it might be helpful to his wife as they learned how to process all that comes with loving a service member turned veteran.

When he made the above statement disclosing how he felt about war, it was during the fourth visit they’d made to my office.   I’d invited him in to discuss ways he might help her along the journey. This former senior non-commissioned officer began our dialogue by telling me of a recent news headline depicting potential conflict in a land far away. I was familiar with the headline from the morning news, though veterans hear the news differently than the rest of us.   Many of them shift into “response readiness” mode and instantly begin packing the mission essential mindsets for combat and survival. For many, this means there is little cognitive space left for reminders that a small rural community in America’s Midwest most likely doesn’t require such calculating thought and caution. I found myself negotiating how far I would let him take his ruminations with my awareness that he could easily re-traumatize himself if his memories and the present moment collided. I was just glad he was talking. When I could sense his breath become shallow, heard the vigilance in his voice, and saw his eyes widen as if he could see the barrel of the enemy’s weapon pressed against his forehead, I gently nudged him back to the present moment. He’d not signed up for any trauma treatment so I dared not begin to implement those steps.

I gently expressed my concern for his health and his soul’s need for reconciliation with a more peaceful existence, suggesting he consider coming to see me just a few times.   Soldiers don’t care much for ambiguity. They need a ‘way-ahead’ plan, coordinates, and a sure path to the rally point where they find safety. Here I was, with all the surety that psychotherapy has to offer (basically, none) asking him to be vulnerable, take a risk. He’d taken his fair share of risks since 1992. To this day, he was paying the price. He’d not yet found his niche in the civilian world having transitioned after at least 8 deployments in his career. The ambivalence of civilian transitioning for this veteran outweighed the cost of uncertainties in Bagdad where he was at least surrounded by trusted battle buddies.

This awareness pushed me to think of all the support services we offer for veterans. Are any of them certain to bring healing, build renewed empowerment of self, and provide for them the needs of being heads of household, fully functioning members of the land for which they fought? No. So what do we do? We can offer security in our efforts by urging politicians, training healthcare providers, bearing witness to the veteran story so that we can have helpful understanding of their needs.

On this Veteran’s Day, 2015, take a moment to explore how you might offer solid efforts in the campaign to care for those who sign that blank check.   Secure your efforts in supporting veterans by exploring a few of the venues that allow you the chance to give back –

PsychArmor.org – an awesome organization rising to the challenge of bridging the gap between our military and civilian communities.

Giveanhour.org – an organization that helps providers in the mental health community ‘give back’ by offering free counseling services to our prior and active duty service members.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veteran’s of America (IAVA) – Founded by an Iraq veteran, this organization’s mission is to provide new veterans support in the areas of health, education, and employment.

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Bearing Witness


written by L. Chris Cannida, LPC – May 23, 2015

Without a witness, it just disappears.” – the character of Charles in Taking Chance 

I’d attended several by the time that day rolled around. Memorial services for fallen warriors had become an all-too-common event during my time working on military installations. This one, happening near Memorial Day weekend of that year, was grand, profound, and sustained by every military honor one could imagine exists at these events. The ground on which the service took place was very near historic Civil War grounds, which made it even more surreal and haunting.

Requested to attend were a plethora of civilian counselors (hence, my presence) and military Chaplains, there to support the Gold Star families (surviving spouses, parents, and immediate family members of warriors killed in combat operations) and active duty members grieving the loss of their own battle companions. Every flag, every wreath, every white glove worn by the soldiers tasked with executing the service was perfect, as I’d come to expect. What I did not expect was to be approached by an older officer, a Chaplain, with whom I’d worked on several occasions at briefings and trainings, who began to curse and grumble quite passionately about his contempt for these events.   I’d naively assumed after years of service that he’d built a strong psychological toughness in order to suppress his own years of mourning, leaving him able to comfort those families and soldiers he served. He began to voice his confusion about why the services were held and questioned the motives of anyone granting permission for them to become a common part of the military culture.

Admittedly, I’d been so focused on those who expressed their grief more traditionally that it never occurred to me grief over a fallen warrior might sound so gruff.  I might have otherwise grown irritated with this man who was invading my serene reflection with his angry lamentations, but I’d also developed an affinity for the harsh demeanor of the American warrior.  I credit God with gifting me the discernment and patience to create the space “Chappy” (as I’d heard men in his battalion call him with great affection) might need to work through the pain he was feeling. At first, I was tempted to defend my presence and that of others, to let him know some of us had pure intention.  God had also blessed me with the power of self-correction so that I did not destroy others’ moments meant for healing. I guess I used those gifts that day.

I just listened.

I listened to what turned out to be Chap’s emotional inventory of a life in service to our nation. He’d not always been a Chaplain. He’d begun his military career in a rescue unit some 25 years prior and had seen his fair share of combat loss. I began to realize he wasn’t loathing the memorial. He was exhausted from mourning so often and rightly so, wanting to ensure anyone showing up to the event did so with a clear understanding of the mission. The pomp and circumstance had become overwhelming and he feared the mission’s goal was lost.

To remember, express gratitude, and bear witness to all that is done for us by those who’ve said “Yes, I’ll go”.

This chaplain’s storytelling never quite softened as we stood waiting for the service to begin.  He spoke as long as I suppose he needed to speak before moving on to do his good work in serving the families being honored that day.  I moved forward, as well, t0 offer a listening ear to others and very few words of comfort (mainly, because there aren’t any worthy enough).  Chappy and I continued to work together serving side-by-side at various times during my stay on this installation.  Eventually, I moved on to another army post to be further blessed by this work that took my own life by surprise.  My work with our military members was forever changed and enriched because Chap took time to share his thoughts with me. Hopefully, I’ve been able to use those lessons learned in my work as I’ve matured in realizing war and combat will not soon disappear.  There will be more warriors give the ultimate sacrifice in our lifetime. More battle buddies will ache with grief when they look to their left and to their right only to see absence and hear the haunting silence in Roll Call.  The tender list of Gold Star families will sadly add names.

On this Memorial Day weekend, 2015, I warmly remember Chappy, his wrinkled, discerning face and careful eye, scanning the spiritual ground he was tasked with protecting.  I heard you, Sir, and am ever aware that my only mission this weekend is to bear witness to the sacrifices made by so many.  Sacrifices made for me by those who would never know my name.

“Without a witness, it just disappears.” 

* Please note there is no direct relationship between the photograph used and the person or event referenced in this writing.

* Photo used with permission granted by Chaplain David Meyer. Photograph taken by the AZ National Guard PAO at the time of the service in which Chaplain Meyer officiated. Chaplain Meyer continues to serve and is one of many who graciously chose to continue teaching me about bearing witness and serving those who serve my country.  I am grateful.

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American Sniper – ‘just a movie’.


written by L. Chris Cannida, February 6, 2015

I have never been to war.  I’ve never held a weapon while facing the decision of whether to pull the trigger and take a life.  I’ve never had my soul go from 100 to 0 while trying to reconnect with family and friends as I yearned for returning to battle buddies I’d left behind.  So, I can’t say first hand how well the movie American Sniper expresses what it’s like to be a warrior in the United States military.  Certainly, it’s a film that has drawn marked opinion, both positive and negative.  I can’t know if there is a side that speaks more truth than the other about the film.

What I have done is sit in rooms with warriors when they’ve returned from combat, to a land for which they fought, standing on ground that felt so still and seemed so unfamiliar it couldn’t be trusted.  I’ve joined dialogues with warriors and their spouses as they reintroduced themselves to one another after 12 months apart, both asking “who is this familiar stranger in my arms?”  What I can say is that I’ve seen the facial expressions and heard the words spoken by the actor portraying Navy Seal Chris Kyle, only the expressions and words I witnessed were those of actual people.  The kinetic energy present as these men and women told me their stories was palpable, undeniable.

I don’t know that there is a most effective way to help warriors find their way back home when home is defined as the ability to recognize oneself while wrestling the self-doubt or even self-contempt felt when looking in the mirror.  What I do know is that with all the organizations and advocates funded to help in the cause, we still fail many of our active duty military and veterans.  As a nation we must caution against just throwing dollars at the issue, and keep our focus on the mission of assuring the training we provide to those equipped for helping is sharp and set solely on supporting those whose spirits and souls need a reintroduction.  Not that there aren’t plenty of people with a sincere desire to help.  However, with so many platforms supporting these valiant efforts, those efforts seem lost in a sea of civilian patriots vying for a place at the head of the helping table.

I trembled through most of the film only because the scenarios depicted have played themselves out in my office by not only highly trained snipers, but by young staff sergeant infantrymen (and women) who are barely twenty-four years old.  I’ve witnessed tears falling down the face of a commander’s wife as she described the slow erosion of her husband’s identity through multiple deployments.  The stories are real for spouses and children who want nothing more than to enjoy the presence of their precious warrior during the backyard picnic only to find that warrior staring into a blank television screen.

After the film ended, there was a respectful silence as the movie credits rolled.  Every viewer seemed to be deciding for themselves the authenticity of the story, hoping it was realistic enough to honor our men and women in uniform and praying it wasn’t real at all. If real, the burdens carried by our nation’s warriors seems overwhelming.

American Sniper was “just a movie” (as I’ve seen some internet-dwellers scream).  Actual post-combat stress is anything but “just”.  It is baffling. 

The romantic patriotism some use to prop themselves up in alliance with the cause will not be enough to support the need.  I’ve even witnessed colleagues in my field (mental health) develop such fascination with the phenomenon of the American warrior that they lose sight of the task at end – to help healing take place.

The movie was dramatic.  My plea for situational awareness and well-developed effort is equally as dramatic, unapologetically.  If you feel called to help in some way, there are many ways you can begin.  For mental health professionals and collateral caretakers in the clergy, continue the mission with acute precision.  For all others, be steadfast in paying attention when veterans and their families speak.  We will learn so much that can turn our sentimentality into steps of concrete support.  We could possibly make all the difference to a former sniper trying to find a purpose that might match saving lives in sandstorms, or to a medic searching for the stamina to enroll in the home-town community college and relearn what she’d already learned while under fire in an ambush.

Here’s the thing.  American Sniper was a movie.  However, there are living, breathing veterans scattered throughout our country who are in the throes of reintegration everyday. Chris Kyle was one of them.  There are scores of that 1% scattered throughout the states. The adjustment can, and does, last a lifetime for some.  Let’s hope our steadfast interest in walking that journey with them lasts as long.

Posted in Military Mental Health, Movies, Tragedy, Trauma, Uncategorized, Veterans, War | Leave a comment

Standing with Veterans


Please note, the following story has elements changed intentionally to protect the identity of those involved. Name/initial/title, rank, and other details of a day in combat are altered.  However, the core of the story remains pure in honor of the service members involved.

The young lieutenant told me that while lying on an opposite side of the vehicle from where two of his soldiers were desperately scrambling to save remaining platoon members from an explosion, he could hear their cries of battle. The blast (an IED) had taken out 2 armored vehicles and the soldiers inside.  Lt. J. was one of them thrown from a vehicle and rendered immobile.  In his partly conscious state he realized from their words that they believed he’d not survived and were focused on helping those most directly hit by fire in the event they could save lives. He said he wanted to stand and shout to them in an effort to provide support and leadership. He could not stand. He was alive, but most certainly down. Of course, the fact that he was in my office telling the account of that day lets you know he did survive and was able to eventually stand and walk.  In fact, if not for his story I would never have known he’d been scarred by combat.

Now let me emphasize how selfless is the rest of this story. The part of this story most difficult for Lt. J. was his concern for the physical and psychological welfare of those under his command. His eyes welled up with tears that would never fall in my presence – surely left for free-fall in a moment when no one was around. He began to reiterate how he’d tried to shout out to them, though too injured to speak.

He needed them to know that they were not alone.

And so on this day, after having survived his own near-death experience, his focus was not on himself, but on his men. He repeated several times how concerned he was that his surviving men felt so isolated in that fight and now even more since returning home to a land of people who will never understand.  He shared that both men had expressed shame for not being able to save their buddies.  He stated that each had surpassed him in years served in the army – both being non-commissioned officers with 10+ years in for each, while he’d served but a mere 6 years after attending college.   Because of this disparity between their ages and career tenures Lt. J. assumed a position of humility in his responsibility as a leader by rank.  He knew his men led by courage and having paid their dues.

The rest of this story has details I will not share here.  Details of, albeit temporary, injuries so horrid most of us couldn’t imagine.  On the day I heard the story, I’d witnessed many tragedies through the words of the sons, fathers, aunts, uncles, daughters, wives, sisters and brothers who sat with me.  By the time Lt. J. sat across from me I was disgusted by my lack of response worthy to meet the moment.

………..response worthy to meet the moment.

When the blonde-haired, blue-eyed lieutenant was done speaking all I could think to do was stand.  I humbly explained to him I was at a loss for words and honored he found the words to share his story with me.  Asking permission, I stood up to represent that dreadful moment in combat when he could not stand with his crew.  We shook hands and he walked away.

Standing with him was all I could do. 

And I hope, as a nation, we find ways to stand with our veterans.  I hope we can find response worthy to meet the moments created by mankind’s darker side and homecomings that are actually less comforting and joyous for those coming home than for those of us who have been waiting.

Today, every time I stand up from my desk and onto my feet, I stand in the gap to honor the moments on that dusty road when Lt. J. could not stand on his own and assure his soldiers he’d survived and was with them on one of the worst days of their lives.  I stand for a captain who once shared with me that he was considering an exit from the military though wasn’t sure what civilian job would ever hire him – “my skills don’t exactly translate well, ma’am”. I also stand for the medics who responded to soldiers in the combat zone and who I later learned now must attend community college and start anew in order to prove themselves worthy to be EMTs, paramedics, or nurses in our civilian world – their training to save lives in the military under the most dangerous conditions doesn’t meet the civilian standard in the healthcare fields. Disheartened, some of them would eventually walk away from a skill set most of us would envy just so they could take more immediate jobs at the local steel mill (where they may or may not have Veteran’s Day off) to feed their families.  I stand for the young chaplain’s assistant I once knew who felt insufficient in combat and in life so he laid down forever with one pull of the knot on a rope, hard-pressed to believe his prayers for comrades was an act of service with equal worth. I stand with so many others who are creating ways to stand with our veterans.  Like the clinical director in Roanoke, VA who will ensure her clinicians are prepared to offer their best work in healing as veterans in the community gain courage to seek help. Or the therapist in San Diego who is feverishly working with a retired Marine Command Sergeant Major to train corporations in our land to hire veterans and contribute to their reintegration into the civilian workforce while also offering a hotline for therapists who want to be prepared and ready for the mission of healing.

And on this Veteran’s Day, 2014, I stand.  Knowing the cup of coffee I might buy for the soldier waiting in line behind me pales in comparison to some act of gratitude more worthy of his sacrifice, I silently pray for a better opportunity to stand in the gap.  To Lt. J. – wherever you are – I stand with you as you find your way and hope you are still standing strong today.

Call to action – For more information on how you can help stand with our veterans, please visit these organizations online.

PsychArmor Institute (www.psycharmor.org) – an awesome organization rising to the challenge of bridging the gap between our military and civilian communities.

Give An Hour (www.GiveanHour.org) – an organization that helps providers in the mental health community ‘give back’ by offering free counseling services to our prior and active duty service members.

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A Warrior and His Soul – The Initial Rally Point- by chris cannida


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

Posted in Military Mental Health, Soul, Trauma, Uncategorized, Veterans, War | Leave a comment

Standing for Those Who Can’t – by chris cannida, May, 2014

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.

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Making Sense of Tragedy

April 2, 2014, a Ft. Hood soldier took a gun and began firing, changing some lives forever.  Then, he turned that gun on himself.    And once again, as a society, we begin a frantic search for why.  The temptation to seek an answer for that question even reached my office in North Carolina when a client arrived for a session and asked me about it.   It has begun as it does anytime tragedy strikes – the effort to fill in the blanks of the story with an explanation.  As humans, we need understanding and this drives our behaviors in many ways, from spending millions of dollars on research, to the spewing of hate and rhetoric across the internet.

Filling in the blanks.  It starts in grade school – with worksheets and benign topics. Fill in the _________ with the correct word.  I personally found it satisfying when I could fill in all the blanks with sensible answers.  It reduced my 3rd grade anxiety.  But now, decades later, the blanks are bigger – responses not coming as easily.  When tragedies such as the Ft. Hood shooting happen, the temptation to ‘fill in’ the grown-up ‘blanks’ of why is enormous.  Filling in the “grown up” blanks makes us feel less vulnerable in a tentative world.

 Required is a tenacity to withstand the ambiguity of not knowing. 

With technology, we’re able to witness an uprising on social media and a constant stream of op-eds and news clips – all providing ready-made responses so that we can fill in the blank with whatever seems to resonate with us.  As humans we want answers.  Understanding frequently brings a reduction in angst, a peace.  So we search and we’re prey to instant answers.  The predator of a primal need to know overwhelms the masses.  We forego logic in order to gain quick resolve.  The problem is that the immediacy of just any quick response becomes our reality and a substitute for more accurate explanations.

I admit my temptation to stalk the “comments” section of social media to see what the world was offering in order to explain why this man would spray his pain across the lives of so many.   It wasn’t surprising to see that past presidents, our nation’s current president, and scores of military leadership and medical professionals were all to blame for this soldier’s choice.  That was a little too much for me to handle.  I quickly disengaged from the ‘blank-fillers’ and returned to what I’ve learned works best for me – using my faith-base to be okay with not knowing what would drive his behavior.  Looking within myself rather than to the world made the search more doable, more concrete.

Tapping into our own soul’s capacity for response to the human condition makes the search for peace realistic.  

First, I allowed myself to grieve.  I grieved the loss of a certainty that might bring us all peace.  I grieved the loss of hope that most things military won’t get much better any time soon.  Then, I rested.  I rested in knowing that I believe God has a plan much broader than we can imagine.  I rested in the compassion I could feel for that soldier’s spouse.  Or the compassion I feel for those who lost a loved one in Texas that day.  My compassion allowed me to refocus my attention to the young soldier on my own calendar that came to see me recently and shed tears because life hasn’t yet answered a call for personal peace from past hurts that still haunt.  This soldier and I agreed to meet again next week to build a tolerance for not yet knowing how that answer will come.  And this young warrior is placing trust in me to stand strong against the winds of uncertainty. When I allow myself to bathe in not knowing, I can imagine the Ft. Hood soldier all the way back to childhood where the seed of burden may have already been planted or maybe not.  I imagine him facing his own uncertainty as he works to fit into and live graciously in his own skin.   Maybe his hippocampus (the brain structure that initially holds trauma and burden until further processed) developed efficiently over years, maybe not.  He may or may not have suffered vulnerabilities to brain injury and trauma from whatever childhood he originally launched, only to be thrust into the full-throttle expectation of emotion suppression and dogmatic training required to help him survive as a soldier.  The medical team treating him may have been on the brink of making an accurate diagnosis leading to the most successful course of treatment in coming months – or maybe the dots weren’t connecting as they needed for that medical certainty to exist.  So many “maybe or maybe nots” in this story.  I could go on, though somewhere in my own development, I came across blanks I could not fill and guessing always brought more anxiety for me than not knowing.  And like anyone, I had to learn how to better soothe the anxiousness that precludes cynicism and generalized resentment.

And so I made a decision to resist filling the blanks with rhetoric or hate.

I had to become comfortable with the _________.  If I fill in the blanks incorrectly (with the ink of dogmatic thinking) I risk the inability to erase and correct as needed.  What disservice or even harm am I doing to another person and to my own opportunity for growth if I allow this to happen? In my profession of behavioral healthcare a tolerance for ambiguity is fertile soil.  If I resist filling in the blanks with what I want the answer to be, I get to hold out for something that makes even more sense.  When life makes sense I feel safer in the world.  It brings me peace.  For now, my peace comes in how I choose to cope with the _____.   For me, that means sometimes creating my own _____ and filling it with prayer, education, listening, compassion, and hope.  Sometimes, it means sitting right in the middle of the ______, in silence, freeing myself of political rhetoric, anxious rumination, and wondering. I believe sometimes it may serve a greater purpose to become comfortable with the ______, at least for a while.  If you recognize that you’re caught in the frantic search for why, and filling in the blanks for this tragedy includes anyone else but that soldier with his gun, I urge you to resist aimless blame and step away from the blanks of the story about a Ft. Hood soldier and begin creating the blanks for your own story, where your chances of filling them in with peace may surely increase.

Posted in Military Mental Health, Soul, Tragedy, Trauma, Veterans, War, While in My Mindfulness | Leave a comment