I was asked to write something, the more personal the better, about what I believe to be helpful in talking with or working with veterans. To be honest, I don’t have a clue. I speak regularly in the Portland Public School system about my military service and I usually let the class know at the outset I cannot speak for anyone but my experience and myself. My understanding about the after- effects of military service is that Post Traumatic Stress can masquerade as a variety of affects and expressions. There is no particular affect or persona, although there is a tendency for the dominant culture to homogenize the image of combat-trauma-affected veterans.
I served in a high-performance rapid-deployment unit in the mid 1980’s. The mission of the unit was to conduct combat military operations during peacetime, among other things. My experience for three years was a blur, as if I sprinted through, with no time to catch a breath. It wasn’t until I was out of the Army and at relative rest that I was visited by intense and profoundly life altering night events (rather than nightmares) that had me questioning my sanity. They are related to the death of my platoon leader on the border of Nicaragua and Honduras in 1984 and an experience where I had to search for a soldiers’ body in the woods of Ft. Lewis, Washington. He fell to his death from 9000 feet, the result of a parachute failure. I refer to the night events in the present tense because I still experience them regularly, although my relationship to them has changed.
The other night at a meeting, a man behind me opened a folding knife to puncture the foil topped can of hot chocolate mix. The sound and movement of his body, in the periphery of my awareness triggered a shock of adrenalin that came on so quick; I was overwhelmed with heat under my skin. This state of arousal is something I am familiar with and also more comfortable experiencing because I have a context and acceptance that my body reacts to cues, sometimes beyond my senses. However, the man returned again, several minutes later and did the same, flicked open the knife with urgency. In addition to the arousal, I was filled with violence and rapid-fire impulses. The images flash through me quicker than I can process: stand up, kick the back of his knee at the crease of the leg, pull forcefully back on both shoulders to the floor, lunge my knee on his throat, break the knife from his grip, pound that knife blade into his chest. I write this now, almost a week later and still, there is something activated in me, charged up, that my sleep has been fitful and unsettled and my gut is raw and unsatisfied. I am in what I call, a hard place. Something about my physicality is wound up, like a spring—tension twisted through my core, holding itself, waiting. Ready.
In this hard place, not lately but in the not so distant past, I wake up screaming, on my feet and rushing toward the silhouette at the threshold of my bedroom door. Sometimes I yell out, “Who is it,” or “Quien Es!” the sound of my voice echoing against the walls of the room is what I hear as I come to consciousness, on my feet, mid-rush, arms up, a quickening fear coursing through my body. And I wake up to the picture of my son, now 18 years old, and larger than me, hands up in surrender, wide eyed, telling me, imploring, “It’s ok, dad, it’s me…”
How to express my feeling of shame that lingers still, shame about my powerlessness to the process of my body, it’s storage and expression of fear and violence. Once, in Nicaragua, after the army but during the war I participated in, I was walking in the dark with a group of other North Americans. We were in the mountains building a school for the Sandinista Government. That night, some unknown assailants with AK-47’s fired on us as we headed up the road from the school toward the town. When the firing started, despite my thinking, my body reacted to the gunfire by turning toward it and barreling down the slope off the road toward the attackers.
Accompanying this instinctive movement was a rage-filled conviction and singularity of purpose buzzing under my skin to find them and kill them with their own weapon. Thankfully, the reckoning that my impulse demanded did not happen. The firing stopped and I came back to myself as the others called me from the road. This moment was pivotal for me in that I knew I needed help to reconcile my desire to be a peaceful and loving civilian with the fierce and violent impulses that live just under the surface of my skin.
From this and other less dramatic situations, I learned that my body is the repository of trauma and violence. Left unaddressed, my natural response to physical and sometimes, psychological threat, is to attack.
And here I sit writing this piece, this bit of news and information—from a perspective that is new to me—that of the somatic reality of my military and combat experiences. That coiled spring inside the centerline of my being from the crown of my head to the seat of my pelvis stores within it the tension and memory of perhaps a fear that transcends time and place: I’m privileged to have access in a different way, the fear of my ancestors.
With the support and leadership of other veterans, both inside and outside formal institutions, I have developed awareness and acceptance that I can never go back to who I was before my service. Much of my pain and suffering post military has been directly connected to a wish to be normal. My thinking of what is “normal” has changed. The new normal is the common link I have with other veterans, the foundation from which we can now build upon the strengths of our experiences. We can claim our space in our culture as teachers and examples of peace by learning to live with our un-peacefulness.