Veterans are primed to be extraordinary healers

I am embarrassed to talk of myself. Like many others before me, I am wary of sounding like so many other braggarts who so casually boast of exploits at the local pub. For those who’ve served time among the noise and chaos of war, these loudmouths are as phony as a three-dollar bill. We are caught in a peculiar position which forces silence upon us in most situations. One the one hand we’ve seen and done things that never entered the world of possibility in our youth. As children, our games of soldier didn’t account for the aftereffects of car bombs, mortars, and the face of the brutality of war. Our country knows this, and fears us to be changed upon out return. Though what they consider changed is often a devolution into the more violent aspects of our nature. With much denial it is sometimes fashionable and easy to forget this energetic, violent side of humanity. It is easy for some to call veterans different in kind, as though we were a separate species altogether. And, often times we are feared, for we are the living memorials of war.

For many of us, war, in all its ugliness and heartbreak, gave stage for the noblest actions of selflessness, of valor, or courage. Examples abound of truly great men and women, giving of themselves, for their fellow service member and their country.

While it is fashionable to treat fighter, soldier, and warrior as interchangeable, a reading of literature and mythology would show this not to be the case.

A soldier is a person that is trained in the tools and techniques of war. There is nothing inherently moral or immoral about a soldier beyond the actions they perpetrate.

A fighter is grit, the desire to keep trying when all seems lost. This is easy to say, but developing this trait takes attention and time.

A warrior is defined as that class of people that willingly place themselves between what is loved and what threatens it. When we find ourselves joined by others who willingly do the same, we extend that sacrifice for them as well. The defining characteristic, then, of a warrior is, above all, love.

But again, if it were so simple it would be easy. It isn’t. Though we are guard dogs, dogs are descended of wolves. I was raised on stories of The Lone Ranger and other heroes that fought injustice and never enjoyed violence for its own sake. It was a surprise, then, when I felt exhilarated in combat. Life and death walked alongside me, we were actors on a gruesome stage… and I loved it. I abandoned myself to it, each day praying for opportunity to visit again. The constant waiting to be attacked only amplified my desire to find it before it found me. I became predator. I became wolf. And to tell civilians this I am met with a look of surprise, fear, and horror.

The first time I was shot at was on route copper, East Baghdad, 600 meters north of Sadr City. My emotions went from shock and insult at being shot at, to frustration at not having a clear shot at those attacking me, to reckless love of violence. I was pure aggression as I walked down the middle of the street toward my attackers. Years later, reading The Iliad, I identified with the moving passages of Ares instilling the Trojans with a bloodlust.

Ares is the Greek god of War. Yet Ares doesn’t start fights, he is provoked, such as when the son of Poseidon raped his daughter, for which he kills him instantly. He often took the side of the underdog, those who were likely to lose. Ares is not subtle or rational. He is impulsive, protective rage. To begin to understand Ares, you must understand giving yourself in hateful glee the fight. But to fully understand him, you must feel the need to fight on the side of the underdog. Ares may bloodlust, but he is so for something greater than himself. The second greatest aspect of the veteran is sacrifice.

Therefore there is some basis for the fears our families and communities have upon our return. Though we might protest this, history doesn’t lie. Veterans returning from war show increases in anger outbursts. The ratio of veterans in Oregon prison has almost doubled since 2006, making Oregon number 1 in the nation with the highest veteran imprisonment ratio.

But we are not unidimensional Greek gods, we are human, with a multitude of archetypes within us. Ares, the god of passionate war, and Aphrodite, the goddess of passionate love, had four children, among whom was Harmonia. If love is what propels us to willingly enter war, perhaps love is what will help bring us back.

The ancient Athenian Tragic Theater was conducted by combat veterans for combat veterans. It offered another stage by which veterans could transition back from war. Aristotle said it provided katharsis. There are 3 aspects of katharsis, representative of a more holistic approach to the health of the individual.

  • Religious purification
  • Physical cleanse, removing what is harmful
  • Psychological, removing obstacles to understanding

This is a much needed approach in our health, incorporating the totality of our complex selves than simply giving us a prosthetic, or anti-depressants, or confessing our sins. These overly simple treatments do not work because we’ve experienced the full range of our humanity, expansiveness, mortality, hopes and fears, the best and worst within our hearts. We’ve learned that we are grander than mere automatons influenced by operant conditioning. Why would anything less magnificent, integrated, and elegant work in bringing about our health?

Which Nhat Hanh said:

“Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation. If Veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding, and peace, they can share with the rest of society the realities of war. And they can teach us how to make peace with ourselves and each other, so we never have to use violence to resolve conflicts again.”

Not only can veterans lead the way toward peace, but also as acting as healers. What healer is as effective as one who understands pain? Veterans know pain intimately, whether spiritual, physical, or emotional, we lived it. Back in world that no longer understands war, or love, we lose out way. Finding our way out of that maze is too difficult, we get lost, there is no up or down, no Polaris by which to navigate. Fortunately, none of us are alone. For every veteran that cannot find the way out, there is a guide to aid us. For myself it was two years of work a therapist. I would come to session and teller “okay, lets jump in the middle of this emotional jungle and work our way out.” She told me of a tribe in Africa where the sacred duty of bringing veterans back into their village was handled by the Grandmothers.

In Greek mythology, two giants made a bold attack upon Olympus to steal off its treasures and brides. The gods rallied and barely beat the attackers back. Ares was captured and carried away. Chained and hidden inside a brazen vase, he railed against his confinement. The angrier he got, the more he fought, and the more he fought, the weaker he got. Very weak and nearly dead, he was rescued by Hermes. Hermes is known as the psychopomp, the Guide of Souls. Hermes was able to travel between both Hades and Olympus, across boundaries, in day and night.

I think that what makes Hermes so apt for this role is that he is referred to as the trickster of the pantheon. That is, he seems to embody both the light and the dark simultaneously. And as such I believe that it allows him a perspective unique among the gods. Veterans, too, have traveled between Olympus and Hades. We are primed to be extraordinary healers.

To quote Carl Rodgers:

“If the therapy were optimal, intensive as well as extensive, then it would mean that the therapist has been able to enter into an intensely personal and subjective relationship with the client — relating not as a scientist to an object of study, not as a physician expecting to diagnose and cure, but as a person to a person. It would mean that the therapist feels this client to be a person of unconditional self-worth: of value no matter what his condition, his behavior, or his feelings.”

Carl Rodgers “A Therapist’s View of the Good Life: The Fully Functioning Person”

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