When we discuss military trauma and PTSD in North America, we usually focus on external events that produced overwhelming fear, guilt, or even disgust which leads to talking about these events in intimate detail. This includes addressing reactions of guilt which often focusses on what should or should not have been done externally to correct the awful thing that happened. It can be very helpful for soldiers and veterans to revisit events to develop a clearer picture of their roles and realistic options under the circumstances. But, among many veterans, this focus on the external is not enough to help them put bad memories to rest.
There is another component of trauma – shame - that is rarely discussed in the official diagnosis of PTSD or in our treatments, even though it has been written about for many years. For soldiers, reactions of shame can exist from mild embarrassment to severe humiliation, like making a mistake during training or in the field. In other circumstances, it can also lead to social/self-rejection: “I hate myself’, “I am a failure", or "I don’t deserve to enjoy my wife and children.” Where do these kinds of extreme statements come from? It is a reaction or a judement of oneself – a failure to live up to military values and self-values for which one can never be forgiven – worthy of being shunned and rejected. An example, I worked with a soldier whose patrol came under fire during a non-combat, observer role. He had been setting up a tent at dusk when incoming rounds ripped through the fabric, nearly catching him in the head. Instinctively, he dove for the ground and froze for probably 5 seconds when he heard the screams of one of the guys in his section who had been hit. Once he got his bearings, he belly crawled to his buddy and helped to get him under cover. Afterwards, when he thought about the attack, everything zoomed back to his time in the tent. He would freeze up and zone out, sometimes for hours at a time. In his mind, he was a coward, he was a phoney. What other people saw afterwards was a soldier who went from bouts of anger/rage to periods of not caring about anything. Despite lots of PTSD therapy, he continued drinking, he tried to end his life, and he was eventually released. He could never tell anybody how profoundly ashamed he was for freezing in that tent and that he did not deserve to even live – those 5 seconds defined him as a soldier and as a person - this is the power of unspoken shame. It can be deeply painful for proud soldiers/veterans to mentally go to this place, to admit to the gap between what was expected of them, what they expected of themselves and what happened. For many soldiers, to be put in a position of helplessness is a place of dishonour, a crack in military identity that can never be talked about and never repaired. The result is often hopelessness which, as we all know, can lead to a preoccupation with ending it all to stop the pain in living.
Many soldiers and veterans know this place, they have also been there. When they can trust enough to talk openly about the ‘unspeakable secret’ without fear of ridicule they start to come back to life. Soldiers and veterans have in common the wonderful ability to back each other when the going is tough and help each other to revisit awful things and face and resolve those things. Getting well again, can start by telling the secret to one buddy or someone else that you trust.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.