Here’s what we didn’t teach you: how to stop being indifferent. How to feel again.
How after embracing a culture of violence, there is on the other side a lifetime of peace, should you choose to accept it. A life of home. I fear this is killing us. Literally. Killing our families, our friendships, our coveted brotherhood and our communities as we kill ourselves. We bought into a necessary reality for the days when we stood in the breach, but today at home in America, we hang on to a lie: you must be indomitable, still.
Vulnerability is not weakness. While antithetical to your training as a war fighter, in life, vulnerability equates to strength.
Anger, fear, shame, uncertainty, pride, regret, joy and sadness. These are emotions. You are feeling again. This is normal. Welcome home. Now let’s get to work.
Let’s cut the crap. Start being honest with ourselves and with each other. Call that buddy of yours, but do it with a spirit of vulnerability. Author Brene Brown talks a great deal about vulnerability, citing shame as the major barrier for living “whole heartedly,” or with a spirit of vulnerability and openness.
I think we may be ashamed of our humanity and the emotions we wrestle with today: days, months and years after living a life of abandon. We stay in our “box” after service; wear our unit swag, grow our beards long, tattoo our units on our bodies (I certainly did) and generally live with an attitude appropriate to when our job required us to be strong in austere eenvironments on the periphery of society.
Why do we still do this after service? Because we don’t know how to come home.
“We all pay for it. At some point, we will all pay the price.” I shared these words with my squad at “pool PT” (breakfast at Hawks Prairie restaurant) after we returned from Afghanistan our second time in 2003. Many of us were feeling uneasy around our community, out of place. Different.
Emotion is a human function. You can learn how to compartmentalize it, to ignore it, but it will not go away. From the most senior men in the formation to the lowest private, we are all people. All of us wrestle with emotions thought to be long forgotten. We have an insidious lie tearing into the fabric of our community. The façade, the lie, is that you have to be a stone-hard, emotionless killer to be “in.” I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted with it. If buying this lie every day is required to be “in,” then I’m out.
I think we hold onto “Ranger” more than we hold on to “brother” and I believe we are lying to ourselves if we think we aren’t afraid to be real and start talking about what’s really going on. I think we are scared to admit that we are hurting, that we don’t know how to fight what’s going on inside our hearts and our heads.
That we can’t figure out how to engage with our loved ones, that we can’t say “I’m sorry” or “I don’t know.” That if we admit it, we are weak and worthless. No longer worthy of our place within this brotherhood. I think we’ve become afraid to say, “help, please.”
“I don’t need help. I’m fine. Everyone else is wrong, nobody gets me and I will figure it out myself.” These and other lies we tell ourselves are the ones that are killing us.
Tell the truth, brothers.
I am angry much of the time. I burn my kids to the ground with my words. I hold myself and others to unattainable standards. I bury myself in work because I can control it. I avoid my life because it’s unpredictable, messy. I can’t recall the last night I slept through, the last day I didn’t feel the world on my chest or the pain from all the people I’ve hurt and how much I enjoyed it. I hate that I miss the rush.
I miss feeling the flow of being on the OBJ. I miss the unspoken link with the men to my left and right on target. I miss the power to end another’s life.
I am terrified that I will lose my wife and my children because I can’t get my act together and I have contemplated suicide when I have fallen into the darkness of a life owning the night.
There are good days and bad days, that’s life. But I have experienced many more good than bad since I walked into the V.A. and spoke those words of truth for the first time out loud.
You are not alone.
Suffering and suicide are not uniquely veteran phenomena, much like compartmentalization and conditioning are not uniquely “Ranger.” Mental health and suicide is a wholly human epidemic in America today (rising 24% from 1999 through 2014)1.
I write this message with a spirit of hope. If one sentence resonates with you, I hope you take action. Have a real conversation today, be honest and be prepared to be “seen”. Also, know the five signs of someone in emotional pain, seek out and attend a safeTALK training in your area to learn how to be more suicide alert and how to take action. Get out of your house and engage with your brothers, with others in your community. If needed, here are a list of resources that can help:
Brandon Young is an eleven-year Army veteran and the Director of Development for Team Red, White and Blue (Team RWB). Learn more at www.teamrwb.org