The news about vets/returning soldiers and suicide has really caught my attention in the last few months. This is primarily, because it is such a waste to lose them after families, friends, as well as the soldiers themselves, prayed so hard for their safe return from combat tours. I have also been interested in the conversations in the media about the post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis. The ongoing debate about labeling our vets with this diagnosis and what this means socially or militarily seems less of a conundrum than it is made it out to be.
Being affected by traumas of war is what makes us human, not less than human or a ‘problemed’ human or disordered human. Would it be more honorable to be unaffected? I am not so sure. The war is disordered, not the people who experience it. Wouldn’t referring to them as ‘a person who has experienced intense combat stress and trauma’ be a more validating label?
Soldiers and Suicide
There are many emotional, spiritual and physical consequences to the atrocities of war. Of course, this stress and trauma affect us all in different ways– flashbacks, hypersensitivity, fear, guilt, grief, sadness and shame, to name a few. All of these ‘consequences of the trauma’ can be despairing. Riddled with news of suicides, drug abuse, domestic violence and homicide among returned soldiers, our hearts break. When I hear these sad reports, I think, “Where has the value of life gone for these vets?” But I know the answer.
The ‘consequences of the trauma’ sometimes plays mind games. For example, one message that often comes to the soldier from the ‘consequences of trauma’ is, “How could I have participated in killing people, or not saved someone even though I grew up knowing killing and violence was wrong?” The war has disrupted this valuing of life. Often experiencing trauma can disconnect people from the sense of who they were before.
They think that they no longer hold that value, because how could they have done this otherwise? They come to identify themselves as someone who does not care about life. Life and living is no longer sacred. I argue that re-connecting them with their value of life is a crucial suicide prevention tactic. In fact, this re-connection can decrease many of the effects of trauma.
Therapeutic conversations that help re-connect are possible.
These concepts are from the ‘absent but implicit’ idea of Michael White (a world renowned therapist who spent decades studying and treating trauma). For example, the very presence of the guilt and shame often suggests that they do value life. So, questions about what is absent from the expression of guilt, but implicit in its meaning, are very important.
Guilt suggests ‘remorse’ about one’s participation in, perceived responsibility in hurting or not protecting something they hold precious. Naming ‘life’ as precious is a common response of the vets I meet with. The conversations can then follow the ‘preciousness of life’ they now recognize and trace its history to before their tour of duty and link it to significant people in their lives. It connects them to their sense of self from before the combat experience. I argue that this value never left them but they just feel like it has.
Help for healing
Another way to help this re-connection and decrease the consequences of trauma is conversations about how our brave soldiers have responded in many ways during their combat experiences. Some of these responses may go unnoticed but, they too link with values these men and women have from before. Reconnecting them to their values will help them reconstruct their lives. Once noticed and linked to history, this could have them standing in a different place, hopefully a place where they not only want to live, but also feel good about themselves.