From meeting training objectives, being told that we have unique or exceptional skills, or being selected for specific deployments or duties; many military people learn that they are special. Even wearing the flag on one’s shoulder signifies that military people are set apart from everyday citizens. When we discuss operational stress, we generally focus on the particulars of bad events. We wonder why people won’t admit or talk about their problems in spite of the many well-intentioned efforts aimed at this issue. So, what gets in the way?
Pride! From day one, we are required to continually prove ourselves along with everyone else if we are to belong. We learn the costs and the value of pride. However, when we talk about mental issues, we often miss the impact of losing our special status. The constant pressure to be perfect and excel comes with a cost that most people do not understand until the wear and tear begins to show. Work harder, try harder, shut out any signs of vulnerability because it is too painful to face honestly – like falling into a bottomless pit. If everything was invested in the role; if family life was sacrificed for the job, the slide into self-judgement or giving up can be irresistible as an only outlet for those things that cannot ever be said out loud.
What do you do when you believe that the best you ever were is behind you - ‘when we shone as brightly as the sun with limitless possibilities?’ Each of us knows that everybody is replaceable – everybody that is but us. That is the blind spot in the service of pride. Losing special status can be a crushing blow to ego and self-image but most people are embarrassed to even talk about this loss. Most theories about mental distress miss it entirely. To go from being a key person to invisibility is often the real struggle for many people in uniform. “Where am I supposed to go now?” Veterans struggle with repairing the identity and self-image they developed in uniform; there is no going back to the people we were before joining. Many people struggle with attempts to go back to school, retraining, or taking on a civilian career after leaving the military. We often think it is due to their mental diagnoses but it is often the loss of confidence that drives their anxiety and the constant second-guessing: “I can’t do it, I won’t enjoy it….” Many people fear that the new thing will not measure up because they are looking to regain their former status.
Being special meant being content with ourselves. There is much talk these days about transition from the military to civilian life but these conversations leave out the importance of coming to terms with this changed identity. From my view, it is something to be dealt with head-on before people leave the military. It takes years to hone one’s military identity and I think we should spend at least some time and training to learn to take the uniform off with pride and dignity left intact.
Yesterday was a great day to speak with veterans and local therapists about military PTSD. I heard from many of them about the need for additional ways to help serving and retired military people. I also heard that despite all of the great improvements in addressing operational stress injuries that we are 'only scratching the surface' in terms of the many who continue to suffer silently. There seems to be much work left to be done and there are many people willing to take on this work.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.