by Joe DeCree
This first appeared in Britta’s blog, “Life After War” on April 30, 2018, and is republished with the author’s permission.
Why do we need hope? Everything alive hopes. Without it, the deer would just do mass suicide every winter. Yet the animals wait for spring knowing that food and warmth follow winter. The very seasons seem to revolve around the hope for life. Hope springs eternal unless you are a combat vet.
Why do we deny ourselves this most basic of things? What is it? Why do we need it? Britta [Reque-Dragicevic] and I recently were e-talking about this very thing and the idea of what we are connected to came up again and again. Humans seek connection with other humans and with something higher than us, bigger than us. We seek something with more meaning than our mere existence. For us warriors that was service to the nation. For many people it is God. For others, it is karma, enlightenment, volunteer work at the animal shelter, or political philosophy. We want a bigger reason than us for why we are here and why we are doing what we do. A warrior has that. We fought for Uncle Sam, Mom, and apple pie. As combat wore on we probably just did it for unit and family. That is hope at its most basic level-that by our actions their lives are made better.
Then we came home.
You think back on the things you had to do, the stuff that just happened, and the sheer weirdness of coming back to America, and gradually, hope died. You may not have consciously noted its passing. It was not a decision you made. You had an argument about something (probably with your significant other) and somewhere in that argument, you started yelling louder against anything that smacked of life getting better. Maybe you felt it die when you watched the last IED go off. Either way, it is weird – in the land of opportunity and plenty we suddenly feel as though there is no hope. Not for us. We don’t deserve it and we are afraid of it. Yes, we are afraid of it.
Many people lose their faith in God at those times because without hope what faith is there in anything? Well, I am not going to fix this in 2000 words, but let’s look at some questions to try to get you back on track:
How do we define hope?
We are military people. We need to define it, so we know how to attack the problem. Let’s just keep it really simple. Your therapist can break it down finer if you want them to, but for now, it is the belief in bigger and more meaningful things than us. It is also that our efforts on this rock will contribute to that larger meaning. Kids have Christmas, graduation, prom, sports seasons, a new dog, etc. Adults have the big promotion, marriages, new jobs, vacations, faith, elections, etc. While we were deployed it was the hope of getting back home in one piece. Our world revolves around better things over the horizon.
Why is hope such a struggle?
The problem for us vets is we don’t think we deserve it and we are afraid of it. Oddly enough, we want it for everyone else. We deal in reality. Hope is not reality, right? I would counter that with “Why” is reality always so depressing?” The bigger problem with our philosophy is that hope and purpose are tied together. We need purpose in our lives, too. They are intertwined. Lose one, lose both.
You are tired of feeling fragile. You are frayed emotionally. You have physical problems — like you were a stud just a few years ago and now your body is twice as old as your age, right? You went from being Superman to being one step up from assisted living. It sucks. The VA does not help that either. You can’t seem to get a timely appointment and when you do get one it only means that you will have other appointments. Resolving your issue does not seem to be on their radar. The result is you dumb down what you hope for. Instead of hoping to return to fun and fantastic you shoot for something much less like “sort of normal” because you think ‘gosh, if I could be almost what I was I might almost be ok. After all, a warrior adapts, right?’ That is not hope. It is bargaining. How is that working for you?
We judge ourselves too harshly. We say things like “I don’t deserve better after what I have done/seen.” I am assuming there were no war crimes or sexual assaults perpetrated here, but that being said, I call shenanigans. Deserve has nothing to do with it. Hope is a necessity if you are going to have anything close to a meaningful rest of your life.
Remember hope and purpose are cousins in your soul. You can try to reclaim a bit of that or keep sitting on the edge of the bed three nights a week staring at that pistol. That gets really fun when the Mrs. hollers up the stairs, “What are you doing, honey?” What do you say, “Oh nothing, just thinking about ending it all because I have no hope?” Is that you? Or do you lie about it? Hope cannot live in an environment of lies and you are not being noble by “keeping it to yourself.” What is she supposed to think when you finally explode? She will have had no warning and you will have done to her what is happening to you now.
What is life when death appears to be a better option? It is a life devoid of hope. Stop lying to yourself. The lie is that you are fine, that you do not need hope, and that you are “dealing with it.” Hope is a thing we tell our kids. It is like the tooth fairy. They need it. We don’t; besides, it never really works out. Sound familiar?
Here is the truth, we are wrong to persist in non-hope. That fragile feeling? It goes away when your attitude improves. Hope does that. What if the depression you have been diagnosed with is really just a lack of hope? There is no pill for hopelessness. That is both the good news and the bad news. It does require that you work at it though. By the way, if you are on anti-depressant meds then stay on them. You probably have other issues as well. You and the doc can work out the plan for coming off the medications or not.
What do we do about hope?
We avoid hope because we have seen so much death. We have seen so many hopes snuffed out in a second. It is hard to believe in anything higher when you watch it all blown up by a JDAM. Not a lot of higher purpose in ISIS or the Taliban killing a village for not believing in the right brand of Islam. Am I right? What do we do about hope?
Hope and purpose are a chicken-or-egg kind of thing. Hope begets purpose begets hope. If you cannot go right to hope then work on purpose first. Nailing down one will lead to success on both fronts. Here are some suggestions. Go back to school and study that thing you would have done if you had not been a grunt. Oh, by the way, “husband” and “father” are job descriptions with real purpose, and remember purpose begets hope.
Refusing to hope is giving in to your fear that it will never be better. If that is you then you might be signing your own death warrant. Do not do that. First things first, though, you need to get that cinder block off your chest.
Talk to someone about why you have no hope. Find an older vet or a peer at the VFW, Vet Center, community center, bowling alley, church, or wherever. Get whatever is eating you out of you. It cannot live in daylight. It only lives in the dark inside. It’s like that old movie Aliens. It just grows inside you until it destroys you when it explodes out of your chest. Do not be so comfortable in the dark that you forget what light is.
Be very honest with yourself. Admit that you fear hoping for something better. You do not want to get your hopes up only to have them dashed again. You see your life as a failure from the moment you took off the uniform. Failure is a part of life, but so is success. What if you could get up tomorrow morning and not be afraid of what you are going to think? Hope is like a vaccine for that kind of day.
This is tough stuff. War is transformative like it or not. You think to yourself, “If the world were a good place and God existed your buddies would still be with you.” You get conflicted because you are trying to forget the bad parts, but not the guys you went through them with. You are finding out that you cannot do both and it is very hope-killing. Is that you? This starts your downward spiral from confusion to anger to isolation to hopelessness. News flash: no one has these answers and your hopelessness and isolation may be some false nobility like only you really know the score in life. You are a “realist.” You understand life in ways others cannot, right? That is only partly true. It is true because people who have not fought in a war do not understand life the way those of us who did fight understand it. But it is only partially true. Here is the litmus test – in your expanded understanding of how life works why does reality always suck? That is not realism my friend, it is hopelessness.
None of us have life’s answers. That is why we must hope. We try to cram all of life’s experiences into the box we can handle. Frankly, the military box is smaller than most. We can control everything in it. The world is bigger than that box. We will never control it. Hope fills in the places where there are no answers, or the answers do not add up to the sum of the parts. Your answers will always be incomplete, but we know how to work with that. Ever go out on an op with perfect intel? You just laughed at that, didn’t you? Yet we require that level of surety in our everyday lives and no one is shooting. Weird.
Does all of this internal conflict mean your life is all bad?
It does not. Your life was an example to others when you served, and it will be again. That is all of our hope for each other and it is valid. Are we going to know why our buddies had to die when they did? We will not. We can give their deaths meaning like freedom, rights, delivering from oppression, or something else. That is true, but it is incomplete and does not tell us what is the great cosmic reason for their deaths. How is humanity furthered by their death? We cannot know that. It is not cause for hopelessness. Allowing that is, again, taking counsel of our fears and darkness.
I do believe in God. He and I have come to some understanding. One of those is that I am not God. I cannot know all that I wish to. The intel will be incomplete. It is frustrating. I cannot bring guys back from the dead. I cannot trade places with them. Heck, I cannot even understand my wife some days so how am I going to sort out the meaning of life? It ain’t happening. However, the process of trying is so worthwhile. That is how we grow. You still need to grow. You are not done yet. Your life did not end when your tour did. That process is much easier with a little hope.
How do you get your hope back?
Being crushed by our perceived failures of understanding and our inability to get things going in a new direction is not a growth path. Neither is staring at that pistol. We are made to seek higher things. Hope helps us do that. The biggest hope I had after I was finished being pissed off for not dying is that the rest of my life still has a purpose. I dared not allow myself to hope that was true for many years. Since purpose cannot flourish where there is no hope, guess where that philosophy got me? Right, sitting on the edge of the bed three nights a week staring at a pistol and lying to my wife that I was doing fine (FINE-Freaked out, Neurotic, Insecure & Evading). I was afraid that the answer might be that there was no hope and no purpose. Too many failures, too much blood. I did not deserve it. I finally figured out, however, that I was putting myself in a no-win situation. I took a chance and started to hope.
Yes, there were disappointments that shouted “SEE? THIS IS WHAT YOU GET FOR HOPING.” Eventually, with patience, faith, and a little courage hope will rise up out of the well of your soul, but it needs a push to get going. You buried it deep, but it is in there. We are hard-wired for it. You can suppress it like you suppress your anger and fears, but it is there. Go find it.
You and I will have issues for the rest of our lives. These issues do not have to define us or even determine the quality of our lives. We are bigger than that. Life is bigger than that. Things are going to improve. Hope.
No job or enterprise will rise to compete with the importance of fighting for my country. I have heard that from too many older vets to ignore it. But that does not mean that life is not worth living now. You have to force yourself to be positive. Force yourself to hope until it creates a critical mass all its own. Here is one thing that will help you out-get to work on that marriage! I mean really work on it don’t just check boxes like “See, I did some chores and she still ain’t happy.” What if you find out what is bugging her, and you attacked that like it was a high-value target? What would happen if you gave your bride the kind of effort you would put into a tighter shot group or a personal best lift? What if you were honest with her and she really is the partner you married? What if she can help things lift for you? How much more would you hope if your marriage started working again? Try it, wild man. What you are doing is killing her hope, too. The troops will do what the leadership does. If you model no hope, so will she.
What purpose and hope have I got now? Well, I am still a husband. I am still a father. I try to help my brothers get back on solid footing in their lives. I choose to act on that rather than the opposite view — that I am doomed to another 30 years that I do not want on a planet I do not like in a country that is too stupid to understand life and none of it is worth the dirt I am living on. I tried that one for years. You are at least flirting with it too. It ends in a bottle or a bullet.
Learn how to hope again instead. It takes courage, but that is something we possess in buckets, isn’t it? You know you do! Sometimes you have to turn around, plant your feet, square your shoulders, and face the darkness that is stalking you. When you do, things get a bit brighter.
The darkness fears your courage, your strength, and your hope. It cannot live where you hope. Do that for yourself this time and put away the pistol. There are no answers there. Man up. Talk to your other half. Show some courage. Not the bravado nonsense we show to pogs who wear our sunglasses to be cool, but the kind we showed our brothers when they ask “You scared?” and you say “Yes” and you both kit up without another word. You had a purpose and hope then. My hope is that you will be able to scramble out of the hole you might be in and get up into the light. It is so much brighter than the bottom of the pit. Lean into it.
I will give you a hand.
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.