Military men and women spend their careers training and preparing for deployments - learning codes of conduct, military identity and values, and dependability. Alongside practical skills they also learn another essential skill; keeping their emotions in-check, especially the negative ones. Being a team-player means focusing on the positive and keeping negative comments to yourself. The realities of faraway places, however, can bring many things - they see first-hand the benefits and limits of their training, the values and costs of comradeship and an intensity of life that can not be repeated anywhere else. Some veterans describe it as becoming a supercharged version of themselves that they have to give up again to fit in back at home. For some people, it feels like spiraling down into emptiness and this is where problems begin; they face troubling questions about who they are, the value of what they did, and about the world in general. Memories of deployments begin to pop up to be reconciled but the need to keep emotions suppressed keeps these experiences locked in place with no outlets.
The promise of being larger than life is fleeting – ‘it’s like a drug’ - even though the physical and mental costs of adrenaline mode can continue for a long time afterwards. They miss the rush. Military veterans tell me many things: ‘It was nothing like I thought it would be but I still miss parts of it, it’s crazy - the excitement, the never knowing … I mean all the training and that was it … there is nothing more, just come back home and forget about it … it’s not finished … It’s not like what you see on TV, you’re just there, man. Who do you tell this stuff to? ’
There are two common ways to describe reactions to extreme events - as a form of brain dysfunction affecting memories and secondly as an inability to return to some former pre-event status. While the first explanation is the subject of ongoing research, the second one is usually the focus of nearly all forms of PTSD treatment. So, what keeps people from returning to their normal; preoccupied instead with past experiences? Some do not want the past to end because coming home brings a tremendous loss; they simply don’t want to came back down to what feels like emptiness. But, there is not much room for super-charged people in routine life. They are left to rely on strategies to avoid losing emotional control (remaining externally-focused and maintaining mental toughness) which paradoxically keeps the good and not so good parts of past experiences alive – they pile up and threaten to explode. The number one fear among those who may be traumatized is losing emotional control because it goes against everything they have been trained to do – they don’t know where it might lead. Some people carry secrets that can never be said out loud for fear of embarrassment or ridicule; they try to ignore reactions of emptiness or outrage linked with guilt or the failed promises of being larger than life. It takes incredible mental energy to keep these emotions in-check – it wears people down.
Getting back on track does not mean wallowing in uncontrolled emotions. Instead, the creation of safe environments where military people can speak candidly and honestly without fear of repercussions or being emasculated may be the real challenge in heading off OSIs. People get well all the time; first when they feel safe enough to be real, and secondly, when they have the courage to begin the business of facing themselves.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.