I write this post on the heels of a recent tragedy in my home province and once again PTSD and military veterans have captured media attention. There is a renewed focus on bureaucratic gaps and available treatment programs; questions about the true nature of military trauma gets lost in the PTSD cliché. Traumatic stress has faced us as a species since our beginnings - death from predators of all types, starvation, or natural calamities - forcing us to band together. We learned to interact and huddle together in small groups to survive and to thrive as a species. We became social beings out of necessity. Sebastian Junger (Tribe) does a very good job of outlining this basic need for social bonding and connection among military veterans. Veterans miss the intensity of intimate connections that are provided through the experiences of shared adversity. My own experiences and work have taught me that this is the closest that many veterans will ever feel to other humans; more than their parents, siblings, and even their wives and children. Being around other rough and ready men and women means that they don’t have to be mushy about love and brotherhood because these are demonstrated through actions. In essence, there is no risk of vulnerability, especially emotional vulnerability.
When veterans leave their sections, platoons, and units – their community of comrades in arms - they can face disconnection and invisibility and I believe that this is the real challenge facing veterans. As James Wright - a US military veteran and historian – noted, military veterans are increasingly separated from and unrepresentative of the larger civilian population increasing the likelihood of invisibility. This reality often gets lost in cliché conversations about PTSD. In contrast to the mandates of military training, learning to lower one’s emotional guard may be exactly what is required to move beyond trauma and to reconnect. Average people who have not benefited from military training do this everyday and they recover and move on in their lives. Many of them have not had the same pressures or exposures to horrific things but many of them have their own ghosts to manage.
If we are intent on discharging traumatized veterans back into the civilian world, we need to be honest about the benefits and the downsides of our socially segregated military and the warrior mentality. The truth is that we are all vulnerable, specialness is temporary, we all need other people, adrenaline mode is for the young, nobody is ‘ten feet tall and bulletproof’, and emotional connection to others is the basis of purpose and personal meaning. There are some things about military identity that need to be left behind before people turn in their ID cards.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.