by Britta Reque-Dragicevic
This first appeared in Britta’s blog, “Life After War” on March 4, 2016, and is republished with the author’s permission.
You were trained to be violent. That’s obvious to you, but it’s not to civilians. They see veterans who struggle with violence or violent tendencies as someone who has lost control (or never had it) and they fear you. Warfighters and LEOs are the only callings in life where you are trained to use violence as part of your role. Not only trained, but rewarded for it. So, let’s be clear on this. It is as much an issue of training as it is habit, now that you have been to war and back.
In a perfect world, warfighters would remain with other warfighters throughout their lifetimes, deployed away from civilians, where they are inherently understood and can be who they are. But our world doesn’t operate like that, you either get out of the military when you don’t re-enlist or you are discharged. Either way, you are separated from the culture, lifestyle and accepted norms of behavior that you’ve lived with, only to meet a world that has vastly different expectations of you. You come home displaced, with a ton of emotions and experiences that no one can see, you don’t really know this civilian world, and yet, you don’t want others to know you’re struggling.
And you are angry and you are used to having violence be a way of solving problems.
That doesn’t work in the civilian world. So what can you do about it?
1.) Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Man (or woman) up and realize that you are responsible for your life now. There is no one else to blame or hold responsible anymore. When you left the military, they handed ownership of your life back to you. You may not know what to do with it, but it’s yours. This is a new concept for you if you have spent your entire adult life in the military where someone else was in charge, someone else told you where to be, how to do things, how not to do things, and made life very simple (not easy) for you.
2.) Get a good understanding of PTSD and of the spiritual impact of combat. Know why you are angry. Learn why you react the way you do. Spend time thinking about the connection between how you were trained, what you experienced, what was acceptable in the military, why you react/don’t react the way you do. You need to look inward and understand the Why behind your tendency to lash out in violence.
3.) Don’t overlook the physical/biological reasons. If you have a TBI, it may be more challenging for you to control your emotions. The same is true if you are chronically tired and not getting enough sleep. Sleep deprivation makes it harder to control emotions (and so much harder to be in a good mood). It also makes you crabby and far more likely to lash out. There’s an interesting theory about OTS (Over Training Syndrome) where your body/mind/spirit is depleted from endless training/deploying/training/deploying. Understanding the physical/biological reasons that impact your emotions is essential.
4.) Decide to change. This sounds oversimplified. It’s not. There are many things you cannot control (having a TBI, PTSD, nightmares, etc.), but the fact is that until you decide to control the things you CAN control, you won’t change. I’m not talking about being a controlling person, I’m talking about showing up for your Self, owning responsibility for your attitude, perspective and beliefs in life, and taking action to live the best life you can. There is no room for a victim mentality in true warfighters, nor do you have the luxury of remaining stuck in a life that is not yours anymore. If you have made it home alive after being in combat, you are here to Live your life. You are here to honor your fallen by living as fully and deeply and joyfully and truly as you possibly can. You owe it to them. That means you have a future and you have a hope. And at some point, you are going to have to close the door on What Is No Longer and be here, right now, in What Is. But the choice is up to you. You want to change your life, you find a way to do it.
5.) To change your life, you have to accept What Is and surrender to the process of transformation. It’s your nature and training to fight to solve something, and if it doesn’t work, you fight harder. It’s necessary in battle, right? Most of the time. The only problem is, you are not in combat now and there is no enemy trying to kill you. When you take a “fight harder” approach, you turn your Self into your Enemy. But there is no one who needs your Love more than your Self. And you don’t need to be fought, you need to be acknowledged, valued, loved, heard, given room to change. Who needs to give that to you? You do. (I’m going to write more about this in another post, as it’s very very important and such a huge mindshift for warfighters that it deserves some true contemplation and exploration. But for now, realize that fighting may not be the way to transform your life. Surrender to being a learner of new ways of being is.)
6.) Learn how to master your power. Anger spikes violence, right? You can learn to manage anger. This is about power management. You are an intensely powerful being and unlike most civilians, you’ve been trained to control and unleash power that is lethal. You don’t get more powerful than taking a human life, right? Wrong. True power comes from mastering your own passions, from learning to control your power to be as effective as possible. Warfighters are the few who must learn to control immense power within themselves. You are not exempt from that requirement now that you are living in the civilian world. There are anger management classes, yoga, mindfulness, martial arts, there are leaders and authors like Mark Nepo, Mike Dooley, and so many others who have ways to teach you about how to honor your power while seeking inner peace and being who you are meant to be in this world. Start looking. Start searching. Do the work of finding the perspectives that make sense to you and open your mind to whole new ways of thinking about life and purpose. The more you learn how to Be Present with Life, the less anger is required to make you feel alive.
7.) Take it out on something safe. Get a punching bag, go to the gym regularly, learn how to box, burn off that extra tension and energy that builds up, find a physical way that is non-destructive to express that energy. Get off the PS4, put your beer down, and move your body. Dance! Get silly. Laugh. Just move. Physical fitness in the military is not just to keep you in fighting shape. It is to help you manage your energy and power. Put that practice to use now.
8.) Know that the desire for violence does not make you a monster. It makes you a well-trained and experienced warrior who hungers for what was once most fulfilling to you. It makes you someone who must learn to master that desire in order to retain your honor and protect your brothers’ dignity. It makes you someone who has been given great responsibility – the knowledge of how to use violence in this world – and that responsibility is one you carry to the grave and on into your next lifetime. If you struggle with fantasies of violence, consider writing fiction or song lyrics. You can express it safely in writing – whether you pen a novel, screenplay, song, or just write stories that no one ever reads. Try to find a way to move that energy out of you in a way that does not harm anyone. It’s the feeling you are craving, and those feelings can be created through story. The brain does not know the difference between what is imagined and what is real. (How else do you feel emotions from the films you watch?)
9.) Get help. You’re not alone. Sometimes the relief you find in sharing what’s really going on in you is enough to help empower you to feel more in control and take action.
10.) Safety has to come first. Repairing or addressing relationships comes second. If you feel that you are putting others or yourself in physical harm, or if others feel threatened by you, know that they absolutely must leave you and be in a safe place. They are not betraying you if they do not feel safe, or if they decide they need to live elsewhere while you focus on learning how to master your power. If you are suicidal, call 911 or go to the local Emergency Room and let someone help you to find a way through this.
Remember, you have to be the hero in your own life. Only you can save You. Others, like me, serve as guides, but ultimately, this is your life and you have to make the choices to find new ways of getting help, coping, being, adapting and thriving. You are here to support life now; not to destroy it.
Stand firm and have faith. You have the power to change your life.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.