by Joe DeCree
This first appeared in Britta Reque-Dragicevic’s blog “Life After War” on April 3, 2018, and is republished with permission.
Another day another screaming interview with someone who wants to roll back a few rights to increase their perception (sic) of safety. It is tough to hear these opinions, isn’t it? Every time I hear one of these people scream about how my rights are killing, hurting, insulting, offending, etc. them it starts a cycle of depression all over again.
Politicians talk about what the “American people” want and think as though they really know. These are the same politicians who sent us off without even a discussion and then are the first ones to blast us in the press to make political hay when there is an incident as if war is without its incidents. Every time I hear a new news cycle I want to scream the roll call list to anyone who is in earshot. You know the list. We all have one. It is the list of buddies who have died trying to guarantee the rights that now some of our countrymen want to give away. Everyone is worried about offending except when they offend us. It feels like we do not count.
This is what happens to me every time I see this news cycle. The first thing is just raw anger and that comes on very quickly in a rising wave. I think of my buddies who are not here. Their kids do not have their dads. Their wives make hard decisions to stay single and honor his memory or get remarried so the family has a good stable man in the house. If I am going to break something this is the time that will happen. Then the weight of years of service, combat tours, missed birthdays, missed anniversaries, missed Christmases, of having been the angel of death, of having seen so much destruction drop on me like a ton of cement mix. It hits hard. It can hit in the blink of an eye. The last and worst part hits next – that feeling that everything I did was futile, even pointless. That turns into “if nothing I have done meant anything, then nothing I will do will amount to anything either, and neither do I.” Yours might be different but that is me. It threatens to overtake each time. This sequence can take as little as half a second or as long as 15 minutes. It seems like every week or so is a new kick in the balls from a bunch of idiots and ingrates. Every week (that’s me you may be different) I have to fight from slipping into that black hole again. Just when you think you have it licked there is a whole new cycle that surprises you. It’s déjà vu all over again as the great Yogi Berra once said.
I go off by myself, often in tears, and say “Why God? What a waste. Lives and sacrifices wasted. 21 of the best years of my life I cannot get back made cheap and pointless by the flavor of the month story and the morons who just do not get it. What did I do it for?” In those moments I am ashamed that I served; that I left my family at critical times in my daughters’ lives; that I left my wife to be a single mom (almost forever). I am ashamed that I am unable to make the rest of the country understand how powerful their freedom and their constitution really are. It is as though we beat the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the Viet Cong, the NVA, the Soviets (by proxy), the Cubans (Grenada), the Iraqis (twice), and ISIS only to hand them the victory by saying “oh you were right. Our bad…” Most days I can fight off the rage from all of that but sometimes not. The depression is harder to deal with, isn’t it? After all, anger is easy. It is energizing, and it motivates you to do something. Its harmful effects are often long term but in the immediate it gets things done. Depression on the other hand is the dark hand that will not release you.
I tell myself the usual platitudes that democracies are messy; we secured the right to have the debate and debate is good; that Jim, Gene, Fritz, and all the other guys died doing what they loved and who knows what they would think now if they were alive. Except I am pretty sure that I do know. They would agree with me that giving up freedoms for security ends up with less of both. We know it because we have seen places that have made that trade-off. What happens in those places? Oh, right they ask us to come in and forcibly right that ship. I get a little pissed off with God sometimes that He did not kill me when I was deployed. How weak-spined and short-sighted are the people my friends died for. I just want to scream that my dead buddies’ sacrifices trump their issues (no pun intended) and pretend offenses. I also want to drink when I see the news cycle spin up. That is a weird one- drinking was never a thing for me but often I have to fight the urge to start when I watch the news.
Every time it happens you can feel your walls getting higher and thicker. You just want to be somewhere where you can live out whatever time you have in some semblance of peace, right? But the way our nation does news can keep us in trauma by trivializing that which we accomplished. Social media is like the mortar between the bricks sometimes. How can so many people be so blind and unappreciative even to the point of being callous?
I only have answers to some of these questions. The obvious is that America has a short attention span and politicians more than most. The news folks probably do not care about how we are doing because we are only topical sometimes. If enough of us kill ourselves over these issues, then maybe the remainder will get 15 minutes of respite until the next issue demands that sanity and consideration be suspended. No, I cannot change America. In fact, the debate might really be good for us. I mean what if we reaffirm who we are by discussion and no one gets hurt? That would be new. Folks talking around kitchen tables sorting things out is how America will go forward. We should be part of those discussions.
The implied questions I did not state above are how can I keep from being crushed by this when it happens? And can I keep it from happening again? Before I get into all of that remember that if you are being medically treated for PTSD / TBI or you are in counseling for those things then follow the therapists’ directions.
It should go without saying that you should turn off the TV or radio or log off the internet, but I am saying it anyway. Turn off the electronics and walk away. Do this as soon as you start to feel the color rise in your face. Then take a few deep breaths and take your tongue off the roof of your mouth. You did not know it was up there, but it is. When you are relaxed it is behind your bottom teeth. You laugh with your tongue down low. When you are stressed it is on the roof of your mouth.
Third, lower your shoulders because they are up around your ear lobes. Adopting a more relaxed posture can often slow the stress response. What you are trying to do is delay your anger response. It will increase the dwell time between stimulus and explosion. You need to extend that dwell time. Once the top blows you are just along for the ride so the longer you can delay until you can more appropriately vent it (not suppress it) the better. Keep breathing deeply.
Fourth, get to a less lit-up place (unless darkness is a trigger for you). I am not talking about “can’t see your hand” I am talking about less artificial light. This is especially true of fluorescent light which can really bother some people. I am a praying man, so I am praying throughout the process. I also tell myself that my feelings are not reality. This is not the same as not real-the feelings are real but misapplied. I tell myself that my career was a good thing. I keep this simple and say over and over “You did good, man.” Your therapist will not like this part of this approach because it smacks of the way we quash feelings and let them explode later. Hey, my take on this is I am getting through a bad moment, a moment in which my counselor is not there. I will tell him about it at the next session and we can do something more appropriate then. In the interim, my wife is tired of replacing things and the truck has too many dents now.
From here the process gets a little more psychological. You should be out of the immediate and now you are trying to push back the depression before it sets up. The next step is five if you are counting. And in that step, remind yourself of the good parts of your deployments or time in uniform (if you can). These are the days where you and the boys walked away from it all either laughing or just knowing you did good. Nobody killed, and nobody was killed. I recall troopers I helped out of a jam, cadets who graduated to become very successful, and a kid that I did not shoot in Jalalabad. I remember doing a personal record CrossFit WOD (Cindy) while taking incoming (funny story-ask me some time). Remember your buddies laughing.
If remembering anything from your uniformed days is a trigger then go to your mental happy place-baseball games, water skiing trips, fishing, vacations, or the best sex you ever had with your woman, whatever. At this point, I am still praying and probably slowing down to something near normal now. Seventh, call someone if it does not go away. Call your friend, mom, therapist, Vet Center, me, Britta, someone. If all of this does not work that IS NOT failure but it may also mean that your ability to deal with it on your own is overwhelmed. If that is the case, then do not do it by yourself. Go get some help.
You have to practice. Trying to remember sequences, when things have surprised you, is a difficult thing. Go over it with your counselor or doc and get a sequence in your head that works. Practice it like it was a reaction to a contact drill. Above all DO NOT DRINK. DO NOT USE OTHER NON-PRESCRIPTION CHEMICALS. DO NOT OVERUSE PRESCRIPTION CHEMICALS. That’s an order. You can do this. The above will get you through the initial crisis and hopefully avoid a meltdown so you don’t lose it on someone or break another wall.
The rest of it is longer-term stuff. This is an important transition because life goes on. Life does not reside in old trauma (that is the real point of all the counseling and meds, right?). Make sure you bring it up in your 1 on 1 session or group if you are going. If not, I suggest writing it down in a notebook, so you can keep track of these things. You never know when that will come in handy. I also have a standard list I keep in my head about the parts of the 21 military years that I thought were very productive. I also remember that my kids are in good shape and that was in part from having beaten back bad guys. At a minimum showing them that there are things worth fighting for was the right example. Remember too that walls are for isolating. More than any other thing we do, isolating keeps us in our problems. Do not retreat behind the walls, guys. We were not made to be loners. Make yourself a new unit of guys to hang with. Tell them the stuff you would have told buddies in uniform.
All of that should help but we still have to go forward in our lives, right? So there has to be a strategic plan that helps you advance right? Ok, that really gets into therapy which I am not qualified to do but here is a start: I have found that forgiveness is a most powerful weapon. Forgive who? You ask. Everyone. Forgive John Q. Citizen for being an idiot with no vision, no appreciation of what we did and what they have as a result of us. Forgive your buddies for dying. Yes, that is a thing, you know it is. Forgive yourself for living. Forgive your wife or husband for not getting it. I assure you they are trying. Forgive your branch of service for not caring and separating you.
Forgive God for making us live on. That one took me the longest. I finally forgave Him for that this past year – 15 years after I went over the first time. What a relief. It was at Thanksgiving. My wife and I went to visit my mother-in-law. Both my girls and their husbands came, and other family members came too. I never would have seen my kids so happy as they were that day had I not lived these last 15 years. That made it all worth it to me. Had I died then that gathering would have had a sad tone or edge to it. If they were happy then I really had done something that meant something. All of the crap I went through really had a purpose after all. I hold onto such moments and why not? I held onto the bad ones long enough. Forgiving is so powerful. It can take years to get to that level but the sooner you start the less your anger will burn you up. All those walls use up a lot of energy.
This is necessary too because we need to be engaged in the national debates. A warrior knows things that the protected cannot. They need what we figured out. I want to be able to participate in these discussions without feeling like someone who disagrees deserves to have their face ripped off. I want my buddies’ sacrifices remembered. No one will keep those memories alive if we do not. If we isolate, then our buddies are really lost because no one will know about them. Don’t let that happen.
I have a lot of talks with myself about how the news cycle and ugly debates might end up being good. America was designed to be glitchy like this. That is hard for us because of course, we know how it ought to be, right? Maybe. We just secured rights. We defended our freedoms. The space to sort out the national issues may be the biggest right that we secured for them. No, they will never understand that either. Only we can. What if the news cycle is not disrespectful to us but rather the ultimate respect to our fallen that they, the people, exercise the most precious right to be complete jerks and work things out in this glitchy messy society? Ok, we don’t like how they do it. I did not like how the Army did a lot of things either.
The real problem with PTSD and TBI is that they are boat anchors to the past. Don’t let the adulation of our dead be an anchor as well, but rather something to be cherished and something that gives us the strength to stay in this fight. We will never be able to stop fighting. It is just who we are. So why not get yourself in a position so you can do just that? Now don’t get me wrong, I still keep the list we talked about earlier. I always will. Memorial Day is my least favorite day on the calendar. I absolutely dread it. Every November 15th I will remember Jim and ask him to forgive me, as though I could have stopped the IED from 7,000 miles away. In my mind, I could have and just failed. Let us never forget them but do we best honor the dead by staying back there? Or going forward with our lives and keeping their memory alive rather than in the dead past? Life is forward not behind. Do not isolate. That means we have to get to a place where we can cope with the silliness.
Joe DeCree is a Maj. (Ret.) US Army, Green Beret, 19th SFG (A). He works with returning veterans and lives with his family in Montana. You can contact Joe directly at email@example.com or 406-871-0638 MT.