The message in the dream was so strong that it woke me – hard to ignore a realization that feels heavy in my body. I am struck by the sophisticated and yet paradoxically simplistic efforts to link trauma among soldiers to personal or biological vulnerabilities that produce distress from scenes of human suffering and devastation or experiences of betrayal and institutional neglect. A focus on individual susceptibility. I believe that an alternative social-relational understanding of military trauma could lead us in an entirely different direction. It accounts for the importance of military identity and values in understanding trauma. Namely, that once a soldier has a direct experience of failures to meet codes and values or physical deterioration, he is faced with fundamental questions of what it was all about. She is often forced to face the hollowness of pride and specialness and the limits of comradeship. He may realize that nobody else wants to hear from him and the simple and painful truth is that he often has to keep quiet or he has to go.
Concerns about unit morale and operational priorities means that there can no space for ‘negative nellies’; there can be no conversation about the impacts of contradictions, dilemmas, and other realities of military life itself which may be injurious to its members. Training, perfectionistic standards amid silence and emotional suppression can erode one’s mental stamina especially when faced with the realities of deployments or domestic catastrophes. The 110% ones and the ‘go to’ guys seem to suffer the biggest fall from grace; pride is often replaced with disheartenment and bitterness.
These members can witness or experience things which are intimately personal and yet unseen by the person standing next to them. Their worlds can be immediately altered – they take a hit and the mirrors shatter. Values, beliefs, and expectations can come crashing down in an instant and they realize that they stand alone in an empty room. I have heard many times that in these moments of unwelcome clarity - which can happen in the blink of an eye - everything suddenly changes. It is this unchangeable moment, that soldiers try to ignore or deny, that can create the basis of trauma. And, in many cases these situations contain some unsolvable moral dilemma. They try to think their way through what is essentially an emotionally-centred problem – shame or outrage - that has no outlet. These men and women remain stuck with fragmented memories and bodily felt reminders of these internal struggles.
What if the negative ones, the ones who move to the fringes were treated as the valued social conscience of the military? I wonder about the need for safe places where these other voices and experiences can be heard and respected by others in uniform? We might come to a better place of taking care of each other and not leave it to the civilian world to try and figure out. Instead of occupying our efforts exclusively on individual vulnerabilities, we might be better off by also uprooting the basic nature of military training and culture and the inherent contradictions, including the downside of stoicism and individual secrecy. After all, we developed as a highly social species out of necessity – we are cannot survive physically or mentally on our own.
Serving in uniform on behalf of the country is a special life in many ways. It means taking on a new identity and adopting a set of values that few people in everyday life understand or fully appreciate. We develop confidence, pride, and self-worth linked intimately with our ability to carry out our military roles; the people we are at home is usually of secondary importance. We have very little in common with everyday people who seem undisciplined, lack focus, and occupy themselves with trivial things compared to the adrenaline-soaked military world. It also means that soldiers, sailors, and air force men and women live compartmentalized lives. One’s military life and civilian roles are easily divorced from each other – they have nothing in common. And, it is important to compartmentalize these roles. After all, it is not cool to act like an RSM when teaching one’s son or daughter how the dishwasher works and for those who do, strained marriages and parent-child relationships are often the lingering results.
When men and women leave the military either voluntarily or because of injury, the price to be paid for a lifetime of compartmentalization shocks many of us: “It was like leaving a huge part of myself behind.” It can feel like a profound loss and disorientation. Part of the way forward, or making the transition through no man’s land, if you will, means integrating one’s military and civilian worlds. One of the hardest things to face is having to do an honest values checklist – figuring out our true values which may or may not be the same as the ones we adopted to serve. It may mean giving up some of these values and remembering the other ones that had to be packed away. One of the biggest challenges comes down to the issue of emotional suppression – having to keep our true thoughts and emotions bottled up. The very things that make us human. Being stoic and focused were of primary importance. Having to face loneliness, uncertainty, or lack of confidence in managing day-to-day relationships and waiting for permission to be oneself have to be overcome in order to move forward. Admitting to anxiety but giving new things a shot anyway, taking time to say good-bye to the uniform on your own terms, talking honestly with family and friends about losses, irritations, or confusion, figuring out who you want to be as a good man or woman are all necessary parts of making the mental transition back to ourselves as people. It means learning to truly speak up.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.