Veteran Voices: Behind the Generator

Part 1: No one goes behind the generator

The sound is deafening. It smells like JP8, exhaust, and dirt mixed into a toxic, sweltering cloud.  Usually, the ground is littered with an array of ancient plastic bottles, relics of some past water bottle contract. Generators are positioned in hard to reach corners of compounds and only barely accessible for refueling. They are usually semi-entombed in concrete barriers to protect them from mortars – which traps the tiny, noxious, atmosphere within protective walls.

No one goes behind the generators.

I went behind the generator. In the noisy, hot confusion, I found a quiet safety in which to fall totally and completely apart.

If the generator could talk, it would tell of great sadness. A sadness born in an unimaginable world that is unfair and cruel and ruthlessly selective. It would tell of frustration – trying to remember my mission despite feeling our objective was just recycled from a different theater or an older war. Knowing surely that I mattered to the people I served, but questioning some days if they even know I existed.  Feeling with every email or post, that the people I left behind were slowly leaving me. Watching my dreams get harder and harder to catch.

And fear. The bitter taste of true fear that comes when I saw how easy and final death really was.

The generator would also talk of strength. Of looking the fear, and death, and sadness squarely in the face – feeling every bit.  The generator would tell of the birth of courage, which came in the moment when the tears ran dry and sobbing stopped with a rattling gasp. In those eternal seconds, courage would be born. Birthed in the decision to continue on.

Behind the generator- the Soldier chooses to stand, wipe the tears and dust, sling the rifle, and simply go to chow.

The next day, the mission will call. And we will choose to go out again.

I learned to go behind the generator from a good friend. She too lived this life that was both so full of reality and yet so empty. She knew how the conflict of emotions after death, crashes, sandstorms, pointless missions, and nearly dying for some dumb ring route could rip at the core of person. One day, she told me to go behind the generator and feel it all. “No one goes behind the generator,” she said. The generator won’t talk. No one will ask questions. She said I would be okay.

She was right.


This post is part of a series called Veteran Voices. Photo credit of those pristine, clean generators: US Army.

Veteran Voices: Series Introduction

Every Veteran has a story

We owe all veterans the right to tell their story – as they see it – without our judgement.

Delivering that story in their own unique voice can be the first, critical step to healing from the experiences of war. It is our solemn duty to listen. As citizens, we likely hold no individual fault in the prosecution or decision to go to war. But as a Nation, it is our responsibility to participate in recovering from it. In listening to these stories – as Veterans and citizens together – we can begin to heal and find peace.

The stories that follow are told directly by Veterans. This series consists of multi-part stories anchored by a single event that occurred on a single day. Yet this event played out long after that day. It was relived in the mind.  It was shared. Lessons learned were passed on over years and across continents to help other Veterans.

A single day and a single voice can have lasting impact. When we choose to listen, we choose healing. Here are their stories:

Book Review: “The Happiness Hypothesis”

Author: Jonathan Haidt

Choosing Curiosity, Taking Control

Emotions are flares to guide your path. They will help direct your journey, but be careful to not let the heat consume you.

I learned anger after my first deployment. Anyone who sat through a command&staff with me, or was there when the local police called – again – about one of my soldiers, certainly saw my anger. My husband saw my anger. My friends saw it. In the military we hide anger with jokes, and cynicism, and booze – but it sits there – seething under the surface.

I learned isolation from traumatic family events. For all the calls I didn’t return, the help I refused to take, and the nights I did not sleep worrying about everything that I didn’t know how to handle – I still refused to let any of it go. I put everyone else before me, isolating myself in the name of protecting and caring for my wounded family.

Jonathan Haidt’s book, “The Happiness Hypothesis” was my first exposure to thinking about the source of my emotions. Haidt uses a powerful metaphor to describe the relationship between our “conscious mind” and our “emotional response”. He describes the relationship as a rider (conscious mind) trying to steer an elephant (emotional response). The rider thinks he has control but really – come on – at the end of the day, the elephant will do what it wants!

“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is a creation of our mind” – Buddha (taken from Haidt’s book, Ch 2)

Haidt describes 10 Great Ideas drawn from his studies of the world’s major religions. He talks about how even across oceans, humans approach concepts like reciprocity, seeking happiness, love, the power of adversity, and many more Great Ideas in very similar ways. He explores how our rituals, our art, and our social customs shape our perceptions of the world around us. Using the metaphor of the rider and elephant – it is pretty clear how a lifetime of experiences ultimately train our elephants.

As I walked with Haidt on his Great Ideas adventure, I began to see how my life experiences – from my education, to my family traumas, to the experience of war – had shaped the way I interact with the world fundamentally. I began to see that my world shaped my thoughts yet my world was also created by my mind.

Finally, with this kinda confusing, “chicken and egg” realization – the words of a good friend finally started to make sense. “The Trauma happened only once. We then experience that Trauma a thousand times over as our minds struggle to process it. That is the cycle of PTSD.”

About the same time I was reading the “The Happiness Hypothesis,” I was also exposed to the concept of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) at a Veteran retreat. CBT is a tool used to help people learn methods for interrupting negative feedback loops to help control responses that are physically or emotionally harmful.

Situation – Thought – Emotion – Physical Response – New Situation

There it was again. My thoughts. Armed with the confidence that I could deliberately shape my thoughts, I realized I might be able to re-learn how to responded to the world. I did not have to be angry. Or feel isolated. I became curious about my thoughts – without judgement. I learned to pause in the emotion and wonder why it was there. What experience from my past had trained my mind to respond in such a way?

“The whole universe is change and life itself is but what you deem it.” – Marcus Aurelius (Haidt, Ch 2)

Learning to be curious about my emotions – to catch them and investigate them – was the first step in taking control of my subconscious. I was riding an elephant yes – but I was training him along the way. My emotions were my guides – now telling me to pause for exploration and giving me control over how I responded.

Little by little, I chose to stop being angry. I decided to stop feeling isolated. And so – I wasn’t. My world is my thoughts. My world is created by my mind. I chose my world.

I am the elephant.


Here is the VA’s page of resources on PTSD and the VA Crisis Line

These are just a couple amazing Veteran retreat options I know:

Book Review: “Thank You for My Service”

Author: Mat Best

Not Your Normal War Story

I loved war too. Thanks for telling your story Mat.

In late 2007, somewhere in Iraq, sometime between 2 pm and 2 am – I sat on a dusty couch watching, with 10 or so other people, a 20 year old crew chief that smelled like dust, Skoal, and sweat perform the most incredible rendition of “One” by Metallica. His fingers flew across the instrument so fast I could not follow. None of us was ready to try this song. But here he was – slaying it. As the final note passed, we all went crazy cheering like he had hit the game winning home run. And at the moment, he had. He was a Guitar Hero. For that moment – he was a god.

There is a LOT of time to kill in war. 455 days of deployment was more like 445 days of sheer boredom, 8 days of “hey that was cool,” and a couple of days we just don’t talk about – all dosed out in 8-10 hr increments thanks to flight hour/crew rest restrictions. We also played a lot of Call of Duty, Halo, some dumb WWII airplane game, and my personal favorite, Tony Hawk (for the soundtrack).

We did missions too. Those were fun most of the time. – That’s right. Fun. I loved flying and still do. There is no place in the world that a pilot can push, test, and utilize every feature of their aircraft except war. Even flying a routine mission can push the platform and the pilot (dust landings and AFG mountains are no joke). I miss the fun of flying in those environments (the “res” just doesn’t quite cut it). And I miss the people. Nearly every veteran I know misses the camaraderie that is built in combat.

Mat Best’s book “Thank You For My Service” is his story of his time in the service of our nation. Mat unapologetically describes how his time shaped him, gave him confidence, and propelled him to be the entertainer and creator he is today. He clearly loved every minute.

Mat is honest in his rendition of his service – doesn’t sugar coat it. If you don’t know Mat Best, I suggest checking out his videos linked at the end of this page before making a purchase to calibrate your expectations – this is not your normal veteran war book.

Which is why its worth reading.

Mat uses humor to drive a spike right into the heart of sensitivities, language, or veteran cultural taboos (suicide, PTSD, sexuality, and alcohol – mostly whiskey). If you are able to set aside judgement, for the week or so it takes to read this book, at the end you will have gained an honest look inside one part of the culture of war. You might not like it. You will probably not agree with him. You will almost certainly be offended by something. But you will have given him the chance to tell his story – which is one story of many from the veteran community.

Perhaps we owe all veterans the right to tell their story – as they see it – without our judgement.

For many, we loved our time in War. Most days, we miss it. Yes – almost all of us have scars. Yet today, we are thriving and kicking ass not in spite of war, but because of it.

Check out more Mat Best creations at Black Rifle Coffee, on YouTube, and on all sorts of social media platforms…

Book Review: “Tribe”

Author: Sebastian Junger

Small yet Mighty!

Purpose and connection will build your Tribe, but you must decide to join.

In 2016, I felt unsettled. I had been out of the military for about 4 years. Everything was just fine. I was steadily grinding on a PhD, raising an amazing family, and I had wonderful friends. Yet for some reason, I could not shake the feeling that I was wandering in life.

It was around this time that I heard an interview with Sebastian Junger on the Tim Ferriss Show Podcast (#161) about Tribes, which led me to immediately purchase this book.  Junger’s book was the first time someone put a label to what I lost when leaving the military – my Tribe.

Junger describes the roles of Tribes across the history of humankind. He talks of purpose, belonging, and acceptance.  Tribes have rituals and process complex emotions together.  The strength of the Tribe is greater than the sum of its members.

The military is a culture connected by shared behaviors and values. The people with whom I served were my Tribe. We found purpose in serving both the mission and the team. The Tribe always provided a way to handle the emotions-together. We mourned publicly, as a group, when we lost friends. We celebrated milestones in our careers or achievements with ritual ceremony. Our culture gave us a collective framework to process this messy world together.

I walked away from my Tribe. I left.

Junger ‘s book helped me realize how hard it truly is to leave the military. Leaving my Tribe felt like choosing isolation. Junger was the first person to tell me, through his book, that this was all okay.  Yearning to return to combat, fly aircraft again, to swap war stories – these were all manifestations of my primal need for my Tribe. I was grieving the Tribe I had left.

Connecting with the loss of Tribe helped me to finally see – clearly – that my Tribe was still all around me. Yes, I had left the military. But my Tribe remained.

My Tribe were the people – not the uniform. We had first formed by bonds of culture and clothe and ritual.  The bonds remained, however, long after the uniform hung in closets. My Tribe wasn’t lost at all. We had simply changed clothes.

My Tribe thrives–living a life of purpose, defined by the values of sacrifice and service. Join us!