I read a lot: books, anthologies, poetry, prose, news, articles on things relevant to my life. Lately I’ve seen a lot of articles regarding the returning military hero fighting the demons that came home with him from his time in combat. These stories are easy to use as examples of overcoming personal trauma and tragedy as well as examples of the selflessly devoted wives and families fighting for their loved one. People love them!
Let’s face it:
The stories we grew up reading, that made the best movies, and that became the ideal we strove for always had a hero or heroine with something tragic to overcome and a loving companion who strives without tiring, championing the hero or heroine until things somehow end with a happily ever after.
In Ancient Greek mythology, the word used to call a hero a hero was often archegos which means hero, captain, leader, prince, and author (that is a résumé worthy list of character traits), and if not archegos would likely have been heros which encompasses all that is good and noble in the culture including the valuation of character over appearance (doing what is right even when people don’t like it), a devotion to truth over feelings (doing what is right and speaking truth even when you don’t feel it), and the willing sacrifice of self for others (whatever that may look like). Regardless of the word used, they encompass something greater than Everyman.
The hero/heroine genre goes back in its spoken (and later then in the written) form to long before Odysseus and Aeneas and was joined by “modern” literature like Beowulf, Lanval, Gawain, Lancelot, Saint George, and the Red Cross Knight, and even longer before the emergence of heroes of the last century or so, like Sherlock Holmes, Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, HeMan, GI Joe, Erigon, Harry Potter with Ron and Hermione, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, Captain James T. Kirk, Superman, Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, and oh so many more. Every one of them had at least one monster or demon to overcome in the epic quest they found themselves in the midst of in their stories. There were trials and temptations, personal struggles and feats of combat, and long journeys to take before something resembling happily ever after happened. And of course the same exists today in some form or another in nearly every movie produced. The hero or heroine has some deeply tragic personal thing to overcome on top of some wildly imaginative saving the world scenario that never seems to work out until he or she makes some progress as a human being and creates a meaningful relationship (or at least kisses the object of their affection).
Note: From this point forward I am only going to use masculine pronouns in reference to combat veterans because although combat MOSs (jobs) may have been opened to women, I have yet to hear of some GI Jane in special operations or deploying with a combat unit to a combat zone and being held to the same standard as a Warrior that her male counterparts have been held to for decades. It’s not to say chicks can’t but it is to acknowledge that the primary objects of this pseudo-hero-worship within the military are men while the objects of a similar pseudo-worship at their sides are primarily women.
So now we have generations of soldiers going to war having been told before they even get there that they are a hero and they, consciously or not, are likened to the heroes they’ve been bombarded with from childhood: the man above others, set apart, beyond. It’s not a bad thing that they embody the hero, but they aren’t prepared for the realities of life and war, and the noble ideals of the hero are skewed so that they are nearly impossible to accomplish. It’s a pedestal they land upon unwittingly and unnecessarily, and a pedestal they cannot stay upon because they are still men.
I’m not for a moment saying that men in battle don’t or haven’t done heroic and selfless things. I have known many men whose stories leave me in awe.
What I am saying is that when they come home, there’s this expectation that they’re able to achieve the perfect heroic persona as if some demigod-like Hero of old on a pedestal and the weight of that expectation is unrealistic at best and crippling if not devastating at its worst.
Every combat vet reading this needs only think of that brother who made it home but lost his personal battle on the Homefront to know what I’m saying is true.
When these men go to war, they do not know what to expect when they get to combat, not really. Countless hours in the field and doing trainings to prepare only tighten up the known actions and solidify reactions. Live fire exercises at home are designed to give you a taste without putting you in mortal danger; I’m reminded of a couple scenes in Heartbreak Ridge where a marine shoots live rounds at the feet of his men so that they will know what an AK-47 fired in their direction sounds and feels like in order that they don’t freeze when they get shot at in combat. But training is safe, as long as you have common sense and everyone does their job correctly, so there isn’t an opportunity to get shot, to step on an IED, to drag the screaming torso of your friend out of shit filled water in the middle of a firefight knowing you’ll be waiting for the medevac to get there and hoping the fight will be over by then so more friends don’t get hurt just getting him to it having dodged bullets to retrieve his foot out of the water in the vain hope they might be able to reattach it.
Civilians don’t get what any of that is like and often think of what we have seen in the movies for some frame of reference, the same hero laden movies that perpetuate the age-old ideal. Even if these not-yet-battle-hardened men have seen every brutally honest war movie of the last 3 decades it’s only glimpses of some very hard truths about realities of war: from Elias dying because of his idealistic naïveté in Platoon to multiple men dying to ensure a stranger could go home in Saving Private Ryan, from the foxhole realities of war 70 years ago in Band of Brothers to the worst case scenario of everything seeming to go wrong in Blackhawk Down, the story of some everyday Joes in Afghanistan surviving deployment in Restrepo to the loss of too many of the highest trained men in the military in Lone Survivor ultimately for weighing the cost of war and the ethics of collateral somewhere on a mountaintop in Afghanistan.
No matter what is seen or heard, no matter how training is conducted, nothing can fully prepare anyone for the traumatic and tragic realities of war.
War is ugly.
Men with combat MOSs leave home sometimes naïvely expecting what they see in a movie to be closer to reality than it ever can be. They want to be the Chris Kyle and Marcus Luttrell of their experiences. They want to be Beowulf overcoming the monster, maintaining their moral code like Elias, kicking all the ass like all the silver screen heroes they grew up watching, and fully intending to make it to the end of their epic quest to still get the girl. But the realities of combat have never been captured and even if they had would never be able to paint the picture clear enough to let everyone who hasn’t been there understand what it really is.
It is okay that we don’t know, by the way. It really is.
Most of the combat hardened men I’ve met have said at some point that they wouldn’t ever share enough with me to know the reality of what war is, that they would gladly carry that to their grave because their shoulders are strong enough to bear the cost of our freedom and safety.
The truth is, everyone serving today has chosen to do so and I am grateful for their service and sacrifice. I also really do understand what the demons of war look like when they come home because I’ve seen the hero fall from grace and I’ve seen the demons that come home from war impact my own life. I know the cost of our freedom, and that knowledge is why I’m writing this today.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a soldier say, “bullets don’t discriminate.” It’s true. Bullets don’t discriminate and neither does trauma.
You see, there’s no way to prepare yourself for trauma. You can plan your response and have a course of action laid out know that “if ____ happens than I will ____” but you can’t prepare yourself for what the trauma will feel like and how it will effect you as a human being in the short term or the long term. Military or civilian, man or woman or unicorn, age regardless, trauma will impact you in unexpected ways.
Coming back from war, we have an entire generation of men who carry with them the ghosts of combat along with the belief that if they ask for help or admit they feel broken by their experiences that they are not strong enough to be the hero of their tale.
I need to be really clear in this:
I do not blame the military culture for this self-inflicted belief any more than I blame politicians or society as a whole.
Every movie ticket you buy that glorifies a hero who is magically able to overcome all the demons, literal or figurative, feeds the much loved but unrealistic expectation as much if not more than the culture existing within the military.
If you’re a civilian and you are shaking your head at me thinking that I’m wrong, you clearly don’t know the military because the military establishment is in reality doing everything they can for these men and for their families. There are tragic failures along the way but it is not because nothing is being done.
However, while the military can break down the individual to build up the unit, it has so far proven unsuccessful in breaking the deep-seeded ideal of the hero that each person choosing to serve brings with them when they sign that contract and take that oath.
Even if they could break that ideal, why would they want to when that ideal can be the difference between loss of control in combat resulting in unnecessary loss of life and holding control when hell happens?!
So when these men return and discover they are unable to be the hero who overcomes all completely independent of any outside assistance, the things they do as a result continue to leave bodies in their wake, whether they are destroyed spouses and broken families, friendships with those who will be honest and straightforward with them, and the happiness of those they use as an escape from their reality (friends or extramarital affairs). Even their own happiness and peace is laid at the alter of war. Drugs, alcohol, and cheap thrills of every kind bring a rush of feeling alive again to someone whose experiences with trauma make them feel dead inside.
Having been told since they were children that the hero can do it all with minimal if any help, is it any wonder men grow up expecting to do it all alone? To carry the cross alone?
It is exactly what they were told is expected of a hero and remember, they’re told they are heroic from the moment they don the uniform because it is heroic to be willing to sacrifice oneself for the safety and freedom of others.
These men are placed on a pedestal that they cannot stand upon with expectations they alone cannot reach. They’re told when they’re just boys watching heroes on TV and the big screen that they have to do it alone. Even the unit mentality of the military that dictates you will never leave a fallen comrade behind isn’t enough to save all those who have been broken because as much as your brothers tell you all the right words and direct you to all the right places for help, you have to take the words and own them yourself, you have to go and openly receive the help that is available. Your brothers, no matter how devoted, cannot change whether you believe you must be strong enough alone or not and they cannot force you to accept the assistance that exists.
Sadly this pedestal isn’t just for the combat veteran, however, as it claims as its victims his strongest allies:
Spouses and families.
I love to hear of relationships that overcame the odds, but I hate to hear of relationships where the success of the one spouse in overcoming trauma and the success of the relationship as a whole is hung upon the other of the two in the marriage. Far too often I see women praised for being the rock for their man but with that praise comes the expectation and belief that it is her responsibility to always be the rock and that she should be and do all for him. It is not her responsibility to carry him and save him. Wouldn’t true success in overcoming the odds be better seen in him finding the inner strength to survive even without his wife always being there to drive and motivate him, to give him meds and make sure he sees behavioral health, to do the research for treatments and fight for the best care possible?! Perhaps this whole added dynamic is part of why I find it so frustrating to read about military couples where the wife has been given all the credit for successfully “saving” their spouse. It’s a pedestal they will topple from and when they do it will be ugly. Plus it’s flat out untrue and unfair.
I know. I’ve been on that damned pedestal and I’ve fallen from it. What I was expected to do and maintain was horrifyingly unrealistic, and the reality is that it was unhealthy for both of us to have the expectation that I was somehow able to be and do all, and that it was my responsibility to do so.
Having a loving spouse be there to be the champion is helpful and amazing but it is not the magical recipe for success and for keeping and bringing life to a relationship or a person coping with trauma.
Having a plethora of resources available to those who have survived trauma of any kind is not enough either.
The responsibility to choose to get up everyday, to choose to fight for oneself, to choose to be faithful in a relationship, to give 100% at work, to be a good person, and to do the right thing lies with the person themselves.
Only the person who survived the trauma really can choose to be saved and to seek healing. No one can force them to make that choice.
Blaming other individuals and trying to hold them accountable for not being better equipped to help is nothing less than an excuse and an attempt to have someone stand in victimhood by saying it’s someone else’s fault.
Even blaming the military establishment and society as a whole for the returning soldier’s failure to adjust is at some level making an excuse because every individual still has the choice to seek help or not to seek help regardless of the heroic genre that permeates our society.
Help is made readily available if one chooses to pursue it.
I hope and pray for every person who carries with them the ghosts of trauma, whether it is war or something else, and I pray that they find the inner strength to save themselves by seeking help and acknowledging their needs and choices without blaming others or living in victimhood.
I pray especially for those nearest to me.
Originally published 10 December 2017