Mayhem and the Superhero Ethos

In honor of the National Suicide Prevention Day, 10 September, I think it is essential for all of us to recognize the impact of the mental health crisis in our society and the need for greater awareness and conversation about the things which may contribute to the kind of hopelessness that would make suicide seem like the best choice. The only way to make a change is to further discussion. 10 Sept 2020

A couple months ago, I was asked to write an Op-Ed for the SOFX newsletter by their founder and CEO Sam Havelock about the mayhem that is sometimes the focus of discussion about the military community.  Outside the military, people have forgotten or simply do not realize that the war on terror is not over and that we have service men and women experiencing the traumas of war and the tremendous amount of stress that goes with it every day all over the world.  After September 11th, there was a unity in this nation where by and large people stood shoulder to shoulder as Americans in support of… America and her interests in freedom.  When the war on terror was still in its infancy, there were ticker tape parades for hometown heroes and organizations lining up to support the troops and their families.  But in recent years, the press and the public have tired of those stories.  It isn’t that they’ve turned on the troops the way society did during the Vietnam War, but the wounds of war continue to be earned and there is a lack of understanding in what those wounds do to the human being. 

Inside the military family, there is a closeness that has come in knowing “we” understand each other.  We see the soldiers who put themselves in harms way happily forgotten by the press, because that isn’t usually what they want, and the soldiers whose horror stories create headlines be the only ones receiving press.  It’s disheartening and it has bred a situation where too often we are willing to ignore the mayhem in order to support the heroes.  That lacks not an understanding of those wounds of war but of what we must do to address them.

I’m writing a book about my experiences as an army wife because I’ve seen first hand what happens when the war comes home to the spouse and family.  Admittedly, I have a vested interest in seeing the military culture evolve and grow in a healthy way because I’ve seen some of the worst that can happen, but that interest is not because I carry the scars of a war that came home and does not mean for a moment that I believe that all those warfighters I know or may ever know can or will choose to do what my former spouse did.  

I simply recognize the humanity, the beautiful, broken humanity, of the sheepdogs who stand between us and the wolves and kintsukuroi is all about the beauty in brokenness, after all.

I simply recognize that we can and should do better in creating a space that will allow for change and I simply want to do whatever I can to open the dialogue to make that change possible.

And so I did what it is I do, and I wrote:

There is this mentality and mindset that goes with being a part of this small percentage of the population, whether connected by service or by marriage, of a superhero ethos.  It’s the unstoppable and unbreakable spirit that comes with this world as well as with the jobs and roles that come with it. How could you purposefully choose to run headlong into danger day after day if you weren’t unstoppable?  How can you place yourself in harm’s way, knowing it may mean your spouse and children spend the rest of their lives without you and that you may be ensuring the men standing next to you will be there for their families as a result, if you’re spirit is not unbreakable?  How else would you be able to get up every day declaring that today is a good day to die?

The problem with this mindset is that being unstoppable and unbreakable is an illusion and believing any of us to be so is a pedestal upon which it is impossible to stay.  None of us are infallible. It isn’t enough to come out of war with all limbs attached because none of us can experience trauma and hardship yet come out unscathed, untouched, or unaffected.  War is ugly and brutal, and despite the stories we tell ourselves, none of us are able to withstand or carry all that comes with war without being impacted or without ever stumbling.

Nevertheless, there’s this unspoken taboo about showing any sign of weakness.  On the surface we talk about the 22 soldiers who commit suicide each day and we talk about reaching out to our battle buddies, but it is rare to actually openly admit we ourselves need help because if we admit we need help, then we may also be admitting that we are weak.

The other piece that comes with being unbreakable and unstoppable is the piece that diminishes and downsizes one’s own needs and one’s own injuries.  “I’m fine, but my buddy needs help.” The number of times I’ve seen men willing to forego treatment and assistance in case someone else more in need comes along is astounding.  It’s beautiful because of its selflessness but it is also tragic because none should feel their wounds, whether physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual, are not enough to warrant care and healing.  Nevertheless, we take a knee, drink some water, and charlie mike.

In this military community, we see the best of us.  The small percent who are willing to be the sheepdogs and keep the wolves at bay see and experience the worst humanity has to offer and we expect them to be unbreakable, leaving one another to sit on pedestals or remaining there ourselves, until toppled or until someone has the wherewithal to do the work to climb down.  We praise them for having shoulders strong enough to carry it all and when we discover they can’t actually do so, when the inevitable happens and another hero falls from grace, we have to choose how we will respond. Unfortunately, it’s human nature to stop and watch a train wreck when we can so easily ignore the train speeding by without issue one thousand times.  Nevertheless, if we do not watch and start to learn from what caused the fall, nothing will change within this culture that sets us up to fall. If we do not create a dialogue about such things — dialogue and conversation with a mindfulness to change, not judgment, complaints, and blame — nothing will ever change.

We have to give ourselves the permission to get down off the pedestal.

We have to create a culture that allows us to do so.

You don’t know me.  I have seen the ugly side of what war brings home and when a hero falls from grace.  I’ve seen it dozens of times played out in friends within this community since I first became connected to it myself, and I’ve seen it in my own life.  I’ve seen others fall from their pedestals and I’ve fallen from my own. When the fall happens, it is much easier and much less painful for the rest of us to judge the one who fell or to wish to turn from them because we know that we, all of us, are better than the worst actions of one of us.  Everything from day one of basic training teaches us that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and every fallen hero is a reminder of that sentiment despite the strength we see in the remainder of the chain. We also know that outside of this community, we are collectively judged by the actions of the few.  Nevertheless, the story behind how a fallen hero got to where they are is essential, as are the stories of those who were caught up in the fall. If we silence the stories that come from the fall, from those who have fallen and those around them whose lives were equally impacted by the fallout, we are actively choosing to silence a source of intelligence that can help us create a space for change.

We are not individually or collectively strong enough to absorb all of the hell that comes with war and not have it impact us, and it is unreasonable for us to expect to do so.

We are human.  We can be broken and brokenhearted by what we see and experience even when our bodies remain physically intact.

I appreciate the willingness to open dialogue enough to start to impact a change by not hiding those stories even when they sting and even when they shine a less than flattering light on the 1%.  The willingness to foster open dialogue to impact change highlights one of the best qualities we have, and if we can harness that, we really can create a space for change.

The main body of this piece was published on 23 August 2019 on the SOFX website

Originally published here in 25 October 2019. I had held off on publishing this here for probably all the wrong reasons but after some conversation I had today, I felt like there wasn’t actually a good reason not to speak my truth.

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