A thought-provoking confluence this week.
“If I read ‘I know this Marine . . .’ in your blog, then I’ll be sure you’re talking about me–and that should be good for a few laughs, at the very least!”
Well, as it so happens, I know this Marine . . .
This week I saw again the speaker of that quote, a Desert Storm veteran, Semper Fi to the max, whom I’ve known for almost three years now–and who is apparently a reader of this blog. He’s indeed good for more than a few laughs, believe you me. If I were to tell you that his favorite TV show is Family Guy, you should then be able to figure out exactly what I mean. As he’s wont to say, “They’ll say the things on that show, right there on television, that you soooo want to say, but wouldn’t dare.” (And true confessions: I’ll laugh at Stewie’s pre-school play, ”Terry Schiavo: The Musical,” until doomsday. I’m a wicked person, destined for the Flames, I know, I know.)
Yet we have not always been able to laugh together.
Around the same time, on Tuesday I read a blog entry that has haunted me all week. In her entry entitled “Monumental Victories and Then Some,” the blogger Uncle Sam’s Mistress of Living with PTSD & TBI writes about the day she and her husband, a combat veteran, learned that he had received a Permanent and Total disablity rating from the VA, meaning that he will never again have to go through follow-up re-evaluations. She was elated. He could only say to her “Sweet” and walk out into the backyard. She fumed mightily at his lack of enthusiasm and appreciation–until she went out and saw him.
“I got up to go chew his ass out,” she wrote, “but then I saw him staring out across the yard with his hands in his pockets . . .It didn’t dawn on me until I saw him looking out over the lawn how lost and sad he looked. Although just feet away from me, he looked so far away. I realized then that it’s not about money, it’s not about the win, it’s not about the disability with our Veterans; it’s about losing. I watched him through the window and I realized that award letter really meant nothing but knowing the rest of his life, he will live the war.”
I’ve not been able to rid myself of that image of that man staring out somewhere, definitely sans rainbow, ever since. It easily could have been the Marine. He’d once loved his job: he had often had the opportunity to work with fellow veterans to make their lives better, and he had been proud of his accomplishments. Yet as the years had worn on, the emotional roller coaster, the nightmares, the flashbacks, the constant vigilance: they took their toll. I apparently was the first who ever dared ask him to consider whether all the struggles were worth it, whether he should, instead, take a medical retirement. He fought that tooth and nail for a while, but soon he was too worn. He retired. He sought the P&T rating, as the Mistress’ husband had, and he finally got it.
Then he was home. Permanently and totally. At home.
How many times he has told me of his struggles, trying not to excoriate himself for taking this route, remembering over and again how hard it had been sometimes at the job simply to walk out for a cigarette without going postal. He has struggled with much physical pain; that has not abated any in recent months. He wonders whether he made the right decision–but he acquiesces in the wisdom behind that decision. He has no clue what to do next with his life–yet his internal energy keeps pressing him to do something, anything, only then to betray him as it pushes him into a harsh word with a pedestrian or a tirade at his wife. He told me this week that he has thought of getting further training in his religious tradition–but that he was afraid that he couldn’t be trusted with such responsibility, given his symptoms.
My response to the latter was quick and no-nonsense: this man is anything but all-PTSD, all-the-time. He’s smart. He’s witty. He’s sincere. He can handle ritual tasks quite fine, thank you very much, and I told him so in just those words. I remember him looking at me kind of funnily, but he said little, preferring instead to imagine some certificate on a wall somewhere that would let all who enter his domain know that he’s not the hick some think him to be.
Then later that night, I got the following message from him:
“I know when my family and co workers look at me with “those eyes” wondering if I am going to “snap” or “explode” around them today or when will it happen. They put on this false front and I swear to you I can tell when they do it. It’s like they start treating me like I am special or I am very vunerable. That is what usually pisses me off. You told me today that I dont suffer from PTSD all the time. And, that made a impact. I have moments and situations that makes my life difficult . . .
“I have tried writing this damn email for the past hour and I cant get my freaking thoughts in order or to make sense of them. I mentioned to you that I wanted to show something in my life that I accomplished. After today appt, I went home and opened up my old war chest of mine and looked at my awards. I don’t need a college degree, or a certificate to show myself, my family, or the world that I accomplished something in my life. I already did that 21 years ago. I survived a f***ing war. I went through not one, but, two f***ing minefields, secured the International airport of Kuwait, and helped liberate Kuwait City.
“My next accomplishment I will work on till the day I die. That is to accept the fact I am sick both mentally and physically. I dont suffer all time like you said. There are moments that aggravate my PTSD. I will con’t to seek your treatment, to provide and care for my wife. I guess, that about sums it up Doctor D.”
The only phrase I’ll quibble with is in that previous paragraph, i.e., “that fact I am sick both mentaly and physically.” Yes, he struggles with physical and neuropsychiatric-physical disorders. But in no way, in the colloquial way, is he “sick.” He’s just brave. And tired.
Even among some of the professionals I work with, I can hear an occasional “All he seems interested in is getting disability.” I recommend to all of you professionals out there that you make a pledge right now–never, ever to say that, at least when you’re talking about combat veterans. Let us have a brief review:
1. We’re at war.
2. We have an all-volunteer military.
3. Therefore, all the young men and women have volunteered their service during a time of war, and therefore
4. They’re not shrinking violets waiting for a handout (They’d have lived off their parents’ or the civilian government’s dime had they been so.)
The combat veterans of today are intense men and women who once found a place to put their intensity to a use that made them proud to be alive. Combat does not wipe that energy away. Quite the opposite: it intensifies it. Therefore every man and woman who returns stateside is deeply wanting to re-engage with that energy and make life work.
Yet emotional roller coasters, nightmares, flashbacks, fears, memories and concentration difficulties: these all can make re-engagement with life seem like nothing more than a cruel farce. Sometimes, I’m afraid, war takes away the option of an easy return to fulfillment. Sometimes you just have to get through the day and hope you don’t run into any persnickety people or have to solve any multi-step problems.
My Marine, Uncle Sam’s Mistress’ husband, though? They, along with almost every modern combat veteran, hate that challenge–and hate the payments that remind them monthly that they can no longer handle easily what they once handled with aplomb. They appreciate having some financial pressures relieved with their disability checks, but they resent and regret the very existence of those deposits. Like the blogger’s husband, they stare into the future fearing that there will never be sun after the rain and therefore never be the residue of a prism arching through their sky–and certainly not one with a pot of gold at its end.
Never assume this is what they want, a lifetime on the government payroll without a corresponding time card at a federal facility. Never.
I wish there were easy answers I could give the Mistress’ husband. I wish there were easy assurance I could give my Marine. There aren’t any. For either of them. So it’s up to all of us professionals to help them find places in this world–even if that means struggling with them to coerce this world finally to adapt to them, and not the other way around. Happy little blue birds may not fly over the spectres of their rainbows, but there don’t have to be vultures either.
Eagles, maybe. There, that’s a thought. Eagles.