Welcome to The War Within: Part 4. Perhaps one of the greatest metaphors for the return from military service is also one of the oldest. The Greek Hero Odysseus was returning from war in Troy home to Ithaca in Greece. As depicted in the map, the most direct journey would have been less than 600 nautical miles and probably would have taken no more than a month to complete. The actual journey home took over 10 years and spanned thousands of miles. Becoming a part of the warrior culture and entering the domain of war is much quicker and easier than the path home. Coming home is a process, each warrior’s journey is unique to that person, and the path is hardly ever direct. In order to rediscover life beyond the compression of military service requires preparation, humility, and community.
The greatest challenge to healing and discovering a post-military life is ignorance. Service members do not know what it means to transition back to society. Because we don’t know how to come home, we assume we can simply backtrack to recover and restore the life we once knew. Retrace our steps. Pick up where we left off. Too many Veterans discover that they cannot return to the way things were only when it is too late. Exposure to combat impacts the entire psyche in a lasting way. They, like Odysseus, are tormented and lost across the seas trying to find their way back home.
Here’s the riddle: The journey home is forward, not backward. We achieve peace through transformative growth. During the middle of the last century, Joseph Campbell combined the themes across time, culture and religion to create the Hero’s Journey to describe the process of entering into war and how to come home again (Figure 2). When you become a warrior you feel different because you are different. Military service and war plunges your psyche into an abyss bound by the haunting anxiety from trauma, guilt, shame, and regret. Like a parasite, war invades your body and mind and feeds on the soul. Left unresolved, it will continue to metastasize throughout the course of your life. Understanding that you will require a process of renewal is the first and most important step to begin healing Ignorance about the process of rediscovery leaves too many Veterans to wallow in despair, and knowledge about the process unleashes the opportunity for growth.
Preparation helps the service member or Veteran understand what is to come, and humility allows the healing process to permeate the mind, body, and spirit. Humility means nothing more than honest self-awareness. You have to acknowledge that you need healing by acknowledging how you have changed through your military journey. Unfortunately, humility is an attribute that runs counter to the warrior culture. We want our Soldiers to be assertive, decisive, aggressive, and dominating. Winning in war means imposing your will upon your adversary. We demand our leaders project a presence of strength and confidence. When you see me in my uniform, you feel the sense of pride, honor, and courage. Humility? Humility has no place in our military formations. Unfortunately, it is a virtue essential to start the healing process.
Committing the act of war goes against our nature and exposure to its horror tests the limit of our sanity. Emotional fatigue, trauma, guilt, and regret are the residue left from combat service to both the mind and body. Veterans will expend all their conscious energy trying to suppress unwanted, unhealthy, and unconscious impulses and feelings. This is where we need self-awareness that only comes from the admission that war has left behind its brand on your mind and body. Regardless of the moral justification for war, we need to forgive ourselves for the things we had done while in the Temple of Mars. We need to shed that burden, and we cannot do it alone. If we don’t, we stay in the abyss – we remain in hell. The greatest act of courage comes from expressing our own vulnerability, but to do that, we must first see ourselves as we truly are. We must first be humble.
One of the reasons we reject humility and the opportunity to heal is because we fear isolation from the very team, the very brotherhood essential for our survival. Our brothers and sisters see some of the darkest parts of our nature – the shadow of our soul – during combat. They are counting on us as we are on them to get through the abyss. I want to be strong for them because I need them to be strong for me. We perpetuate this facade long after we return from the field combat. We need to accept that we are not alone but rather a community of veterans simply seeking a post-military path to a new life. Once we admit, see, and share the pain from our experience among the community of Veterans, we release the shackles holding us in the hell within our mind.
We imagine that everyone around us is doing okay and if they can “suck it up” then so can I. After all, I am not going to be the odd man out. We don’t realize that our brothers and sisters share in similar struggles. We presume they are in control, when they too are struggling to find their own way. Trust me. My greatest comfort to address my anxiety was knowing that what was happening to me was completely normal, and if I ever felt overwhelmed, I only needed to look up and see the many Soldiers still standing beside me. My mentors and fellow Veterans convinced me that I wasn’t broken. I wasn’t weak. I was amazed when I started to talk openly about my problems how many of my fellow Soldiers admitted to many of the same challenges. The weight of these problems diminished. The journey home is personal, but as a community, none of us are left on that path alone. Understanding that you all share a need for transformation, atonement and healing to return provides the light of community in the darkness of despair.
Finding our way home and discovering life beyond combat requires a combination of preparation, humility, and community. We need to understand the process forward to return to civilian society. In order to seek assistance to re-calibrate, atone, and heal the body and mind, we need the humility to accept our vulnerabilities and see ourselves as who we really are. Finally, we need to acknowledge that no warrior is left unscathed from the compression of military service, we can share in the comfort that our journey may be personal, but the challenges to returning home are not unique. They are expected. They are normal. Although your path may not require 10 years as it did for Odysseus, these factors enable the process for you to come home.
This is Part Four of a Five Part Series entitled The War Within. The objective of this series of blogs is to increase service member, veteran, and family member understanding of how the warrior journey impacts their lives and the potential to heal and grow through the experience. We are here for you. If you require assistance (click here) or someone you love requires assistance (click here) please connect with us today. Stop Soldier Suicide is a non-profit organization committed to ending the problem of military related suicide, and we rely entirely on the generosity of individuals to fund our operations and advocacy efforts to improve the military to civilian transition process. If you would like to offer a donation, please click here.