Finding Life after Service

In war, there is nothing more definite than the line between life and death. For many who’ve seen combat and have developed their sense of self within the parameters of war, this line can become a barrier to successful reintegration or psychological recovery. It becomes the means by which a service member’s value system is defined. When they return home, every decision is weighed against the likelihood that it might bring death or save life. Even in the relatively safe confines of training, where mishaps can bring serious consequence, decisions are like a two-edged sword that can either muster success or dire straits. Even as I read these words, I realize there is no way we, as civilians, can understand the heaviness of carrying such a measure. The description seems like emotional hyperbole, yet when briefed by active duty members and veterans I know, I’m told it fits the mold for many who are now bound to their new normal by discharge or retirement.

If their sense of worth has become dependent on the stringent conditions of the military culture or the valor and grace of surviving war, then being without the structure provided by those conditions can seem like a disintegration of self. On the other hand, because service members have been trained to make decisions by using definitive guidelines while being prepared for flexibility, their transition can bring great asset to the civilian world. The mission for transitioning veterans includes shedding a now unnecessary “battle” mindset and shifting to one based on new parameters and guidelines for survival. Or perhaps that’s not it at all.

It might be helpful to encourage our veterans to shed nothing, holding fast to this “battle-mind” while, as civilians, we learn to help them apply those tenets to new situations.

With the task of transition upon them, many veterans are reliant on civilians who extend a hand of gratitude, yet that hand is void of the necessary understanding required to make the move successful. In addition to the necessities of providing for themselves and their families, veterans need support for clearing any detrimental residue of the military career. These effects include frequent separation from loved ones, loss of battle buddies, moral injury, or possibly post-trauma wounds. Each of these has effects that can be lasting if not responsibly addressed. Once separated from the military, they are often also separated from the cohesion of a unit that fed the need all humans have – a need for connection and validation.

The reinforcement that came from within this group of battle buddies could sustain an otherwise weary warrior and remind him or her of their worth. Without it, there is often a profound sense of loss – loss of self and purpose.

It becomes more valuable than ever that transitioning veterans retain the positive attributes of their development while building on the same with post-military growth. It is never surprising when a military or veteran client in my office includes disclosure about their lives prior to their service career. This includes their original trait development and how it may have affected or been affected by their military service. In these disclosures we often find the compass that directs their healing and growth toward a balanced, centered being. In helping them integrate their pre-military identity with their post-military growth, I often share with veteran clients the words of Edward Tick, author of War and the Soul, who stated, A warrior is a servant of civilization and its future, guiding, protecting, and passing on information and wisdom”. Together we decide that the virtues of “guiding, protecting, and passing on information and wisdom” are not specific to being a combat warrior and can be expanded to a greater sense of selfhood. For many, these qualities were present prior to their military connection and can certainly be nurtured after service discharge.  Reminding a veteran that their identity does not exist only within the confines of war (or training for war) is paramount to helping them find fulfilling lives after service.  Equally important is the message that they need not abandon their mental Kevlar and dismantle their battle-mindset in order to join the ranks of the civilian workforce.

Reminding a veteran that their identity does not exist only within the confines of war (or training for war) is paramount to helping them find fulfilling lives after service.

As a psychotherapist, my role is to help veterans eradicate, or effectively manage, any debilitating effects of time served while helping them rejuvenate and repurpose all that is positive about their core identity. At the same time, we call on our corporate and business community to create an understanding of how the transitioning veteran can move seamlessly into the civilian workforce and continue a mission of contribution, using vocational success toward a grounded sense of presence in society as a whole. Taking proactive steps in this mission can yield benefits we should hope are deemed worthy by every community.

Want to join the mission of helping transitioning veterans? Consider the following:

PsychArmor Institute (www.psycharmor.org) – a free resource that offers training on how to effectively engage the military community. PsychArmor has an extensive library of trainings that includes helping corporations/business leaders engage our transitioning veterans, as well as trainings for veterans on how to offer valuable peer-to-peer support.

Give An Hour (www.giveanhour.org) – helping healthcare providers in the community ‘give back’ by offering free services to the military community.

 

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Lessons from the Military Child

by Chris Cannida, LPC (April, 2017)

April is the Month of the Military Child

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She was a tiny, freckled soldier. Sitting alone. Frown on her face. Undistracted by art and activity all around, the significance of the day was not lost on her. Meant to shift her focus to being a carefree child again, to take her mind off of all that brought her to this moment, nothing seemed more worthy of focus than whatever was on her young mind. Not to say that the other children in attendance weren’t equally aware of this part of their life’s journey. Being a Gold Star child is surely worn as an uninvited string of heavy pearls around such young hearts. Yet, she stood out to me as she sat alone, eating her lunch, soft hair falling over her face. The others were at least tolerant of efforts made by the adults who had planned this day of honoring and nurturing. She was having no part of it.

Being a Gold Star child is surely worn as an uninvited string of heavy pearls around such young hearts.

I don’t even know how many days or months had passed since her father had been taken from her during his service in Afghanistan. Stepping carefully into her circle of contemplation, I wasn’t sure if my effort to strike up a conversation would be met with disdain. Initially, I just planted myself 3 feet to her right in an effort to join her in quiet, parallel presence at the table. The noise of the other 20 children playing ‘obstacle course’ and face-painting was nearly drowned out by the way she commanded that space with her stern look and pursed lips. Very aware that any dialogue she chose to have with me was on borrowed time and with all the graciousness a nine-year, fatherless daughter could muster, I started by offering my name and asking hers. I’ll never forget that 45-minute conversation for as long as I live. Etched forever in my mind is how her dad’s BDU (Battle Dress Uniform) jacket hung around her small shoulders. She offered me more than her name. She allowed me to hear her pain and her plans for the future. “I’m going to be a soldier when I grow up. Like my dad. I’m going to be a fighting soldier. Because I’m going to find the bad guys who killed my dad and I’m going to stop them from doing it again”.

Not one tear fell from her face. It was as if she’d decided to share the sorrowful moments of grief with the determination it would take to survive them. Today, in this moment, she was intent on using that determination to make decisions about how she would live her life. I was compelled by my maternal instinct to hug her and brush the hair from her big brown eyes. Instead, I just listened. She continued by telling me everything she knew about the day her father died. Thankfully, I’m sure she was spared the most egregious details. Yet, clearly, she used the strength it took to fill in the blanks with her young imagination of war in order to forge through the pain and find a decision to survive.

I’m not sure where she is today.  She’d be in the midst of her adolescence by now. That BDU jacket would still be loosely fitting her tiny frame. I want to have no doubt she continues to thrive. I worry that teachers in her schools probably don’t have the awareness to understand what she’s been through and may even minimize that it would still have such a profound effect after so much has passed. Her community may or may not produce the financial and emotional support she needs to launch into her young adulthood.

My mind wanders to the entire military child community, to the ones who continue withstanding deployments of parents, moving every two to three years, and waking up in a new place before they’ve had a chance to fully grieve the dimensions of loss that come with constantly leaving friends and comforts behind.  I grew up in the same community from birth until I left for college. I was never separated from my family for more than a week at a time for the occasional visit with cousins. My kindergarten friends were the ones who walked across the stage with me at graduation. The first time I grieved the losses that come with a geographical move was when I, by my own choice, moved away to college. There’s never been summer camp held in my honor because one of my parents died in combat.

April is the month of the military child.

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Most of the time my work with service members has been focused on the adults – the active duty soldier, marine, or spouse. Thankfully, on one that weekend, I was assigned to support the smallest warriors. One military child taught me more about resilience in that 45 minutes than most grown-ups could teach me in a lifetime. She knew to quiet herself long enough to figure out a way to manage her pain, wasn’t afraid to focus on that pain long enough to make a decision of fortitude to see her way through and had the courage to allow some support along the way.

Here’s to the Military Child. Thank you for the teaching us. May we always be dedicated, fully present learners.  

If you’d like to learn more about how you can support the military community, consider the following resources:

TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) @ TAPS.org – a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing compassionate care to those grieving the death of a loved one serving in the Armed Forces.

PsychArmor Institute @ PsychArmor.org – Dedicated to bridging the gap between the military/civilian divide by offering no-cost, high-quality online training to civilians, caregivers, veterans, employers, and healthcare professionals.

Give An Hour @ Giveanhour.org – an organization that helps providers in the mental health community ‘give back’ by offering free counseling services to our prior and active duty service members.

Photo credits: 1: Green Ramp 2003;  2: Used with permission by a military spouse and friend gracious enough to offer a rare photo of her own military child with “daddy”.

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lessons from the field

this is dedicated to my father who was in France on that day in the 1940’s.  he taught me my first lessons in loving a veteran. 

*Most come prepared. I wouldn’t expect a former green beret, a navy seal, a marine, or even the best infantry soldier, to attend a first-time therapy appointment any other way. Often, they’re carrying a clipboard or notepad that I watch them use to store notes and therapeutic assignments. The other hand they use to shake mine firmly.  What stands out is the contradiction of their seeming preparedness running parallel to the visible anxiety that engulfs them. Their palms are sweaty when we shake hands and their eyes wide open.   During our second appointment, they are surprised to learn that in the first session I’ve noticed how they quickly scan my office for potential harm while mapping an escape route. I ask all my veteran or active duty clients about SERE training. For those who have been through the training, they can quickly assess which phase their physiology is set on during the initial therapy hour. The acronym, SERE, standing for Survival-Evasion-Resistance-Escape, is a program provided to US military personnel that prepares them for worst-case scenarios. Once, I had a soldier tell me he was preparing for “escape” because the standard questions I was asking as part of my initial interview felt “like incoming fire”. To this day, information-seeking in the form of questions takes a backseat when I’m meeting a service member for their first session.

Once, I had a soldier tell me he was preparing for “escape” because the standard questions I was asking as part of my initial interview felt “like incoming fire”.

I usually hear some version of their presenting issue as “I’m about to blow” and are concerned that building anger will create an unbearable loss. They’ve often alienated nearly everyone in their families by vacillating between days of stonewalling and sudden bursts of rage. They describe, at times, being trapped in a corner with memories of hell and mayhem while painfully aware they want to protect loved ones from the uncertainty that they can survive this post-war battle. Even with me, they spend the first few sessions apologetically explaining that they’ve done “horrible things, ma’am”.

 They frequently express feeling foolish for what is perceived as a failure in overcoming the perils of being “outside the wire”.

For some, its been 10 years or more since they discharged from the military and even longer since they’ve trusted anyone other than their band of brothers. That first session is usually a big day for both of us. For me, I feel the urgency of needing to be at the top of my therapist game. For them, the step toward asking for help and trusting the process is nothing short of a quiet miracle.

Though the daughter of one and wife of another, I am not a veteran, so some would argue I am not the best person to help these strapping, tenuous warriors.  Yet, the courageous trust many of them have placed in me, coupled with my insistence on excelling at my calling, has taught me some lessons about the road to recovery many veterans must walk. On this Veteran’s Day, 2016, I reflect on some of those lessons in honor of the men and women who have become my most treasured teachers.

  1. Veterans need an absence of reactivity. Stories of combat are some of the most egregious ever told. Hearing them may evoke images and strong emotions in the listener.  The veteran needs to know you are strong enough to help absorb and hold that story. The emotional and mental hurt they’ve endured is overwhelming. The last thing they want is to harm someone else with their journey.
  2. Veterans are more than just the culmination of worst combat scenarios they’ve lived. Most veterans I see in my office are sons, daughters, husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers. They have goals and dreams that reach farther than their next abreaction or trauma response.
  3. War has changed them, forever. Significant shifts in values and belief systems happen when someone is trying to kill you or your brothers- and sisters-in-arms. I never ask the veterans I treat to check those values at the door. For some of us, the intensity with which a veteran might live their life can be overwhelming. For the veteran, it is the foundation for their ‘new normal’. It’s up to us to help them build a balanced, healed life on that foundation rather than have it come crashing down around them.
  4. Wanting to rejoin their unit in a foot patrol that carries great risk does not mean they want to abandon their family stateside. For some, there is heavy grief that comes with separation from the military. It collides with the guilt they feel at being separated from their families by catastrophic memories or an unusual urge to re-enter the pangs of combat.
  5. Even without deployments or combat, the sacrifices of veterans are enough to warrant our gratitude and ongoing service in the civilian world. For a service member, the training alone is more than most civilians could withstand on any given day. Their willingness to be ready for war is an intangible to be revered. Understanding how that work ethic translates into any employment or civilian opportunity would serve us all well.
  6. Banners of thanks are tolerated. Actions of support are needed. We must abandon any romantic notions we have about welcoming our troops home on the tarmac and waving banners of thanks. We need to continue our research on best practices in mental health care, strengthen our funds of support for their transition, and be the best at it.

Oh, and those veterans that choose my space to explore healing? The road to recovery is ongoing. Some days are better than others.  I periodically ask them what our number one mission is in working together. They always answer, in some form or fashion, the same way. “I just want to trust myself again, ma’am”.

If you are a veteran in need, or you love a veteran, please consider these resources:

Veteran’s Crisis Line – 1.800.273.8255 or http://www.veteranscrisisline.net

Vets4Warriors – 1.855.838.8255 or http://www.vets4warriors.com

Give an Hour™ is a nonprofit 501(c)(3), founded in September 2005 by Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen.  By utilizing volunteer mental health providers, veterans and active duty service members can get the support they need at no cost. To find a Give an Hour provider in your area, go to:

http://www.giveanhour.org

 

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lessons from the field manual

IMG_1156this is dedicated to my father who was in France on that day in the 1940’s.  he taught me my first lessons in loving a veteran. 

*Most come prepared. I wouldn’t expect a former green beret, a navy seal, a marine, or even the best infantry soldier, to attend a first-time therapy appointment any other way. Often, they’re carrying a clipboard or notepad that I watch them use to store notes and therapeutic assignments. The other hand they use to shake mine firmly.   What stands out is the contradiction of their seeming preparedness running parallel to the visible anxiety that engulfed them. Their palms are sweaty when we shake hands and their eyes wide open.   During our second appointments, they are surprised to learn that in the first session I’ve noticed how they quickly scan my office for potential harm while mapping an escape route. I ask all my veteran or active duty clients about SERE training. For those who have been through the training, they can quickly assess which phase their physiology is set on during the initial therapy hour. The acronym, SERE, standing for Survival-Evasion-Resistance-Escape, is a program provided to US military personnel that prepares them for worst-case scenarios. Once, I had a soldier tell me he was preparing for “escape” because the standard questions I was asking as part of my initial interview felt “like incoming fire”. To this day, information-seeking in the form of questions takes a backseat when I’m meeting a service member for their first session.

Once, I had a soldier tell me he was preparing for “escape” because the standard questions I was asking as part of my initial interview felt “like incoming fire”.

I usually hear some version of their primary concern as “I’m about to blow” and are concerned that building anger will create unbearable loss. They’ve often alienated nearly everyone in their families by vacillating between days of stonewalling and sudden bursts of rage. They describe, at times, being trapped in a corner with memories of hell and mayhem while painfully aware they want to protect loved ones from uncertainty that they can survive this post-war battle. Even with me, they spent the first few sessions apologetically explaining that they’ve done “horrible things, ma’am”.

 They frequently express feeling foolish for what is perceived as a failure in overcoming the perils of being “outside the wire”.

For some, its been 10 years or more since they discharged from the military and even longer since they’ve trusted anyone other than their band of brothers. That first session is usually  a big day for both of us. For me, I feetl the urgency of needing to be at the top of my therapist game. For them, the step toward asking for help and trusting the process is nothing short of a quiet miracle.

Though the daughter of one and wife of another, I am not a veteran, so some would argue I am not the best person to help these strapping, tenuous warriors.  Yet, the courageous trust many of them have placed in me, coupled with my insistence on excelling at my vocational calling, has taught me some lessons about the road to recovery many veterans must walk. On this Veteran’s Day, 2016, I reflect on some of those lessons in honor of the men and women who have become my most treasured teachers.

  1. Veterans need an absence of reactivity. Stories of combat are some of the most egregious ever told. Hearing them may evoke images and strong emotions in the listener.   The veteran needs to know you are strong enough to help absorb and hold that story. The emotional and mental hurt they’ve endured is overwhelming. The last thing they want is to harm someone else with their journey.
  2. Veterans are more than just the culmination of worst combat scenarios they’ve lived. Most veterans I see in my office are sons, daughters, husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers. They have goals and dreams that reach farther than their next abreaction or trauma response.
  3. War has changed them, forever. Significant shifts in values and belief systems happen when someone is trying to kill you or your brothers- and sisters-in-arms. I never ask the veterans I treat to check those values at the door. For some of us, the intensity with which a veteran might live their life can be overwhelming. For the veteran, it is the foundation for their ‘new normal’. It’s up to us to help them build a balanced, healed life on that foundation rather than have it come crashing down around them.
  4. Wanting to rejoin their unit in a foot patrol that carries great risk does not mean they want to abandon their family stateside. For some, there is heavy grief that comes with separation from the military. It collides with the guilt they feel at being separated from their families by catastrophic memories or an unusual urge to re-enter the pangs of combat.
  5. Even without deployments or combat, the sacrifices of veterans are enough to warrant our gratitude and ongoing service in the civilian world. For a service member, the training alone is more than most civilians could withstand on any given day. Their willingness to be ready for war is an intangible to be revered. Understanding how that work ethic translates into any employment or civilian opportunity would serve us all well.
  6. Banners of thanks are tolerated. Actions of support are needed. We must abandon any romantic notions we have about welcoming our troops home on the tarmac and waving banners of thanks. We need to continue our research on best practices in mental health care, strengthen our funds of support for their transition, and be the best at it.

Oh, and those veterans that choose my space to explore healing? The road to recovery is ongoing. Some days are better than others.  I periodically ask them what our number one mission is in working together. They always answer, in some form or fashion, the same way. “I just want to trust myself again, ma’am”.

If you are a veteran in need, or you love a veteran, please consider these resources:

Veteran’s Crisis Line – 1.800.273.8255 or http://www.veteranscrisisline.net

Vets4Warriors – 1.855.838.8255 or http://www.vets4warriors.com

Give an Hour™ is a nonprofit 501(c)(3), founded in September 2005 by Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen.  By utilizing volunteer mental health professionals, GAH is dedicated to meeting the mental health needs of the troops and families affected by the post-9/11 conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  GAH works to provide counseling to individuals, couples and families, and children and adolescents.   http://www.givenanhour.org

* The descriptions of veteran clients given are never from one, factual client. I intentionally change key details to protect the privacy of my clients and have, instead, borrowed elements of many who highlight my experiences over the course of 20 years as a counselor/therapist.  The essence of the lessons I’ve learned is completely and fully authentic.

Posted in 9/11, Military Mental Health, Therapy, Uncategorized, Veterans, War | Leave a comment

Everyday people, Everyday heroes

In remembrance of September 11, 2001

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In Remembrance of 9/11, 2001

September 11, 2001 is the day I became a much better therapist. The resources available to me grew exponentially due to an insurgence of funded research on post-trauma. My lessons from clients were enriched by the chance to serve alongside phenomenal combat veterans, military chaplains, “like-hearted” clinicians, and military families who showed me a new version of “Army Strong”.  Most service members and 1st responders with whom I’ve talked would ask that we not call them heroes, though in our simple-mindedness we continue. They are gracious in tolerating our need to herald them as such. My heroes are not heroes because they were willing to enter war zones and kill bad guys, although I remain stunned at the courage of anyone willing to negotiate with combat.

The heroes I reflect on today, those I have spent countless hours with, are heroes because they came home and were willing to persevere on days too dark to see the next step.  Everyday.  

An unfortunate discovery of trauma is how deeply embedded it becomes in us, on a cellular level.  These effects can remain, binding us for years, even decades. With a global response, new traumas were created and continue to date. Our efforts to dismantle stigmas of seeking mental health treatment can hardly keep up with the continual folds of new traumatic events happening in the world.

Honor and respect are noble enough reasons to give remembrance, though more importantly, it needs to fuel efforts toward helping the affected find and attain their recovery.  

To this day, I am grateful for those who serve and honored that some have trusted me to serve beside them. They entrust to me stories that continue to stir my soul and shape my life. Countless soldiers, marines, airmen, firefighters, paramedics, spouses and Gold Star families have left me speechless with their courage. I can only dream to mirror their walk in this life.  But my flowery words must be coupled with my diligence in being excellent in this vocation. Learning, advocating, persevering  with the everyday heroes revealed on September 11, 2001 must be a mindful effort, lest I join the complacent.

To all whose lives were changed 15 years ago today and especially to those who’ve shared their journey with me since that day, I remain humbled.

Veteran’s Crisis Line – 1.800.273.8255 or http://www.veteranscrisisline.net

Vets4Warriors – 1.855.838.8255 or http://www.vets4warriors.com

Give an Hour™ is a nonprofit 501(c)(3), founded in September 2005 by Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen.  By utilizing volunteer mental health professionals, GAH is dedicated to meeting the mental health needs of the troops and families affected by the post-9/11 conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  GAH works to provide counseling to individuals, couples and families, and children and adolescents.   http://www.givenanhour.org

 

Posted in 9/11, Military Mental Health, Tragedy, Trauma, Uncategorized, Veterans, War | Leave a comment

Memorial Day Safety Brief

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written by chris cannida, May 30, 2016

In the military, there is an event that occurs every week called a “Safety Brief”. The unit leader will offer several points of guidance to encourage safe living for the service member before they embark on their weekends or holidays away from the unit footprint. I was graciously invited to many of these. Some were intimidating (at least to me) as the commander barked stringent orders to remain free from self-induced conflict until their Monday morning return to work. Some were poignant if following recent news of loss within the unit as the leader nearly pleaded that no more loss be suffered.

Memorial Day – safety brief required

There are active duty service members and veterans who will spend time today, Memorial Day, remembering buddies lost in battle. Some will gather with others and pay verbal homage to those lost. Others will isolate themselves and review mental playbacks of the very moments of loss. Over the years, some have said to me they’d give anything to ‘go back’. Sometimes they will tell me they left their soul in Afghanistan and could retrieve it by ‘going back’.  I’ve seen them fold their arms as if cradling someone, eyes drifting to a place I could not go. They have explained how tbeir best friend had died in their arms and how they are not sure full recovery is possible. I reflect on these soldiers and pray they have, in fact, survived and recovered. To all those walking in those boots, here is a safety brief to consider for days like today.

  1. Don’t drink and drive. Sure, tip your cups and bottles of beer in toast to those lost. Then, stay away from your motorcycles and cars. And guns.

Grief can easily morph into rage when mixed with alcohol and untangling the two can be difficult.

  1. Secure yourself with the support of others. This support can be your emotional seatbelt as you lean into those quiet moments that will drift in throughout the day. Honor the memory of your fallen buddy with the silence that the civilians around you can never understand. Then, come back. Remember that you’re here now, not there. You are bound to take countless mental trips back to there, sometimes alone, sometimes with unit comrades. Avoid letting those trips in your memory lead to permanent absence from the here and now.

There is a great purpose in the now. Let someone help you find it.

  1. Walk away from violence. Let the control center of your mind, your thinking self, take control over the, sometimes impetuous, will of your emotion. You were trained to block your emotional self from activation during combat so that you could perform. However, the emotion part of your brain needs a voice and may try to create a surge of expression now that you’re out of harm’s way and senses you are safe in the confines of the perceived mundane civilian world here at home.

Your emotions need a voice, though may also need help regulating and creating parameters for safe expression

  1. Wear proper coping gear. Pack your mental and emotional rucksack with the mission essential skills needed to survive. This includes emptying that ruck from the burdens of loss, conflict, guilt, or near-death experience that can weigh you down. Unload those non-essentials by allowing someone to listen as you tell your story. Give yourself permission to lay those burdens down. Instead, pack the following. Determination – to make the losses you suffered count for something. Calming and grounding skills – to keep yourself balanced when those memories threaten to tip you over. Trust – in the many supports that can help you continue the mission that is your life.
  1. Reach out before you take action on suicide plans. Talk to someone first. Resist belief in the lie of trauma and depression. You know, the thought that “no one cares” or “they wouldn’t understand” or “I’m beyond help”. Those are untrue statements, symptoms of the burden. Before you buy in, call someone or go to your local ER. Don the steps of a church. Head to your local VFW – those guys DO understand and will listen!  Just reach out.

This Memorial Day and every day, take the time to remember and reflect. Then, reach out. Until then, be safe out there.

Wishing all survivors a peaceful and reflective Memorial Day.

For phone apps and grounding skills that might be helpful, check out: http://t2health.dcoe.mil

If you’re struggling:

Call 1-855-838-8255 or go to http://www.vets4warriors.com

Visit www.maketheconnection.com

 

Posted in Military Mental Health, Uncategorized, Veterans, War | Tagged , | Leave a comment

No Grief Like a Warrior’s Grief

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written by chris cannida, May 27, 2016

This is for seven men who died in the summer of 2009. They had made a one-way trip to war.  Because there had been a surge of conflict in Afghanistan in recent months, I’d been cautioned to be ready and responsive for early-morning calls, or calls at any hour for that matter.  I decided that on this beautiful Saturday morning in upstate New York, I would do just that, be ready. I’d jumped into the shower at around 6:30am and actually missed a call from the brigade commander. When I noticed the missed call, I responded quickly and vowed to be on brigade footprint no later than 15 minutes out.

There is no grief like a warrior’s grief.

When I arrived, there were 5 people sitting in a large conference room adjacent to the commander’s office. The Rear D commander, his deputy command, the chaplain, the wife of a down-range commander, and one of the unit’s senior noncommissioned officers were gathered to discuss how best to support the seven young families whose “Welcome Home” banners would now be lost in a sea of grief.  The air was thick and I could almost feel the sting of tears they refused to let fall and the cries being choked back. The notification to spouses was still in process, but they wanted to make plans for providing support. Seven men had been lost by one roadside bomb. I was fully prepared to offer my complete and mindful presence to these families. What I wasn’t prepared for was a quiet request from the commander later that morning in his office. His directive to me was to get his senior enlisted officer to open up. This man had trained these seven warriors. They were his pride and joy. He’d been chosen to stay behind and provide support in garrison, so being absent from this last moment in their lives was unbearable to him. The commander was concerned.

I was unable to reach him. For the remaining weeks of my time serving this unit with counseling, I exercised every quiet presence, every subtle and not-so-subtle invitation to talk, and eventually, just every prayer that he wouldn’t collapse from the weight of his sorrow. To this day, I imagine that some comrade he trusted did reach him. I’m not sure, though I have to believe that. I consider it a failure on my part that I wasn’t able to do so.   Every so often I consider what else I might have done to lend support so that he could avoid the hell that is true survivor’s guilt.  Most of us only know that term – survivor’s guilt – from a distance, as a headline or catchphrase in the occasional documentary on the topic.

True survivor’s guilt presents as an emotional, and even physiological, chokehold.

I can tell you, there is no one who experiences Memorial Day like a service member or veteran who has lost comrades in combat.  Warriors hold in their hearts, forever, their brothers and sisters lost in battle. So, I am certain he is somewhere this weekend remembering these seven. I can still see him sitting over in the corner, lips pressed so tightly I wondered if he was breathing. His eyes refusing contact with anyone, his mind surely locked and loaded on despair.   I can also say with some certainty that if we met today and I mentioned my concern for him, he would sternly redirect my thoughts to those seven men.  This is a weekend to remember them, not him, he’d likely admonish.  So be it.  Here’s to seven young men who had an outstanding and loyal leader.

I can reflect on those who’ve given their all to protect me.  My reflection will never compare to the way Memorial Day is experienced by those who survived as they remember anyone who served beside them.

If you are a veteran or active duty service member struggling this weekend, or any day, please reach out.

Veteran’s Crisis Line – 1.800.273.8255 or http://www.veteranscrisisline.net

Vets4Warriors – 1.855.838.8255 or http://www.vets4warriors.com

 

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