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:
Smith was a good kid. A hard worker. Kinda goofy but always good natured. So when my work phone buzzed in the early afternoon on a Saturday and it was Smith, I was surprised. He told me he was going to kill himself and thanked me for being kind to him.
As a commander in the GWOT Army, I had a checklist for this phone call. When a Soldier acts a certain way or says just the right words, and the checklist told me exactly which doctor to call, which hospital I could send him to, and how long we needed to wait before we could start a chapter to process the soldier out.
Nowhere in the checklist was – “ask Soldier what’s going on.”
And that is how, so many young men and women came through my hanger with bottles of pills, appointments with psychologists, and finally – chapters out. As the commander, I was part of the process that pushed them along, hoping that if we moved just a little faster, we might get a replacement before we deployed.
Johann Hari’s “Lost Connections” was incredibly eye-opening for me. The first part of the book speaks to the history of mental health medication and treatment over the last few decades. Hari describes how being diagnosed with depression at a young age greatly shaped his identity. Later, as he began to question his treatment effectiveness, detachment from his diagnosis left him unbalanced and looking for the true cause of his pain.
Hari’s quest to learn the true cause of depression and anxiety led him to nine breaks in critical connections. These disconnects range from exposure to childhood trauma, an absence of nature, and a loss of meaningful values. Hari then goes on to offer a number of ways to reconnect with what matters most to us.
Connect with others
“Reconnecting with others,” hit home with me thinking about Smith and how we, as a military organization had handled mental health. Most of my Soldiers had made some real bone-head choices. Sure, some Soldiers were struggling with multiple deployments, difficult family situations, and substance abuse. But the vast majority of the kids on pills had just been young and stupid, because that is what young soldiers do. And have done for decades.
So why now, did we punt them to pills and docs rather than our NCOS and leaders. These young men and women needed guidance from older men and women. Mentors. Friends. A sense of belonging and need to live up to a hero. Young Soldiers needed to know the feeling of letting someone down, having regret, finding forgiveness, and striving to not fail again.
Maybe Hari was on to something known by many an old 1SG – these kids need leaders not pills.
Smith didn’t die that day. There is no checklist for that kind of phone call. It is person to person – listening and talking – and praying. Every part of me was praying that he would keep talking a little longer so that the police could get there. Later at the hospital, when I saw Smith, it wasn’t the same goofy kid. Maybe they had him on meds, which is what I like to think, but he was hollow and gone.
I wept that day for so many reasons. Despite saving a life, I knew I had a checklist to follow. It was waiting for me at my desk. The next day, I would be starting his paperwork to leave the Army, his friends, and his support. I would start the process to remove him from the one thing I knew, deep down, he needed most: us.
Smith is a real story and a combination of stories. He is one of many casualties of GWOT that will never be thanked, memorialized, or have books written about. So I am writing it now.
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 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.
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!