“May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.”

"This report is maybe 12-years-old. Parliament buried it, and it stayed buried till River dug it up. This is what they feared she knew. And they were right to fear because there's a whole universe of folk who are gonna know it, too. They're gonna see it. Somebody has to speak for these people. You all got on this boat for different reasons, but you all come to the same place. So now I'm asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything I know this, they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, 10, they'll swing back to the belief that they can make people . . . better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running. I aim to misbehave." ~ Captain Malcom Reynolds

Saturday, April 19, 2014

I think I broke her.

Yes, it's been a prolonged absence - life does that. But school is done now, and perhaps, just perhaps, I can write for myself again.


So, as part of the whole "getting better" thing I did some group therapy work. There's good and bad to it, and I won't bore you or go into my judgments - it is what it is. But there are certainly moments.

During one session we had a certain female psych sitting in with the other two "regular" docs. Of note, one of the regulars is a good psych, lots of experience in the field - the other is a prior military shrink in a combat zone, and knows some people I know, so we have related well in out of session discussions. Just one of those things. Anyway, Little Miss Bubbly sat in on a few sessions before this - nothing "bad" about her, but she is definitely all positive outlook, look at the butterflies, let's just talk everything out sort of person.

Well the session that day had gotten into some dark spots for a few guys that I could read, though it was obvious she was missing it. The other two were letting her run as long as things didn't get ugly, but I was getting kind of annoyed at the fact she didn't grasp some fundamental differences in what she was dealing with. Then this moment took place...

We somehow got into discussing tools in terms of mental/emotional/physical responses - what the individual is capable of in terms of dealing with a particular stimulus/event/incident. And, I'll preface this with noting she had fallen into the mistake that it seems a lot of people do of equating certain backgrounds with ignorance or a lack of intelligence - even though she was bubbly she definitely talked down to people. Which didn't help my mood. So I told her about tools.

The point I made was this. I asked her what she might do if one of us made her mad - mad her so angry she couldn't see straight, hit at the core of her being, just straight out pissed her off beyond words? Then I explained oh yes, she might yell, she might throw something, she might even hit someone if she got pissed off enough. That she could throw a great little tantrum at the injustice of it all and truly vent.

Well, I'd sunk the bait, but then I set the hook.

In a very calm voice I explained to her that every person in that room had moved past that. We didn't "hold in our emotions because we were afraid of what we might do." We held them in because we knew what we could do. Big difference. Because everyone in that group knew how to take a life. I don't mean some theoretically concept, I mean we knew the sights and the sounds and the smells involved in a person's final moments. We knew that, if pushed to the wrong point, we could do what was needed. I told her I had a tool in my toolbox that I hoped she never, ever would - that I could kill a person. That my toolbox extended beyond anger, beyond even seeing the person as themselves, and moved into targets and options and reactions. And, that unless you are completely broken, once you've used that tool for good or bad you are forever changed. It doesn't mean you're broken, or evil, or wrong, or any of that other bullshit. But once you realize how easy it is to deal with mortality, you never look at life the same. And that's why so many combat veterans have that distance - because it's not that we're afraid we might snap, or somehow lose it - it's just that we know what happens on that edge, and we know to avoid it unless need be.

It was a strange thing saying it. Because it was almost like I could see my words hitting her like punches - I don't think she'd ever thought of it that way. Again, I'm not saying she's a bad person, and I know she means well - but to her death and killing are an amorphous concept. The actors get up after the directors call cut, and brush off the dust. The video game hits a save point and you end it. You close the book and move to another. She has never, ever conceptualized the fact that there are men and women in this world who have lived this as a part of their day to day existence, and then have to deal with the ways it changes you for good and bad in the aftermath. I could see and sense the reactions of the other vets in the room, and knew without asking that they agreed.

And parts of it reminded me of comments from my wife and others over the years. How it's not just my lack of extreme emotions, but that when I get angry, really upset it's not that I yell or rage or anything - it's that I go to a very cold, distant place where "I" am no longer there. Because I recognize this as the place I work from in these situations, where everything is based with dealing with the threats of the moment as opposed to the emotions of the "normal" world.

Well, that was the end of that session, and beyond sharing it with my wife I didn't think much more about it. But I did laugh this week - I was on an unrelated visit to the VA and dropped in to chat with the prior service psych about some other stuff. We were bs'ing and laughing and he mentioned it as well, because he said that he also noticed the way it affected her - that it was stunningly obvious she had never ever considered life in those terms, and wasn't sure how to deal with it. We shared a laugh or two about it for a moment and moved on to other thoughts.

But it also made me think about a fundamental problem we have in helping combat veterans adjust back to "normal" life in this country - the fact that the vast majority of the people attempting to do so have no common basis of experience with which to communicate. I suppose the closest I could relate would be in thinking about rape victims, and how someone who has never been through that will never have the common ground - not equating combat with rape by any means, but just as a level of internal change. That maybe instead of throwing a room full of PhD's at the problem, we'd be better served as a society with sitting them down with other people who've seen the elephant and can possibly relate on that level. Because in the modern world we have fewer of the warrior caste than ever, and perhaps we need to do a better job of sitting around the campfire and sharing our stories.

Maybe that will help us all in ways they never will.


Daddy Hawk said...

I've never seen your elephant, but I've seen a few of my own. I think your assessment is dead on. Hopefully, she will internalize the lesson you gently applied and be better for it.

Peter said...

Thank you SO MUCH for posting this! I'm going to quote you on my blog. You've stated very succinctly what I've tried - and failed - to put into words for years.

Well done, Sir.

tweell said...

My father noted that his generation came back from war on troopships, taking weeks to get back home. They met, talked it out among themselves, and healed each other as best they could.

In Vietnam up through today soldiers are put on a jet and flown home, then released. You go from one world to another, and are dumped out before the jet lag is over. There's no opportunity to deal with the soul wounding; by the time you can do that the scarring is well underway.

trailbee said...

Thank you for your post. I have just come from "Peter" and needed to read it all.
My elephant is different. I have been unable to understand why so many people could not relate to what I was saying about our current situation in the U.S., which is because they had never lived through my "elephant." That "aha" moment is missing and I shall stop ranting and railing. Pointless.
My deepest thank you for this post. Yes, we must find ways to help our returning Veterans and their families, especially, their children.

Old NFO said...

Well said, you've hopefully given her a 'different' perspective to think about. And welcome back.

Captain Tightpants said...

Thanks for the comments folks I appreciate it. Sometimes it's hard to say this things in the right words - sometimes it just seems like it's not worth the effort. But feedback like this reminds me why I try.

Angus McThag said...

Thank you for this.

I've always thought of it in terms of, "on this side of the line you think; on the other side you know."

Peter said...

A commenter tried to leave an comment for you here, but couldn't do so anonymously. He did so on my blog, and asked me to refer you to it there. You'll find it at:


Thanks again.

Tass said...

Capt. TP, your analogy of combat vs rape is to me a fair one. I had a stalker (a co-worker back in the day before such labels became common). I found out quickly that I was the only person responsible for my safety. I heard it all: I encouraged him, just go out with him anyway and he'll stop, he's just a good old boy...

After hearing these comments from the LEO's I confided in, I accepted the fact that I would do whatever I needed to do to protect myself. Thankfully, he is no longer a threat but I still carry that mindset.

My co-workers don't understand. They still think bad things only happen to other people. Self-defense and the 2nd Amendment theories to be discussed over coffee.

Surprisinging, the few people at work who understand are combat vets.

Anonymous said...

I agree with both you and tweel. The best 'therapy' I've ever had was sitting down with guys and gals like me and just talking. Sometimes we told war stories, sometimes we just talked about life, but we always seemed to get things out that we couldn't talk about otherwise.

Jon said...

I have never seen that elephant, and with luck I will never have to.

But I understand what you mean. People who have not done what you've done cannot truthfully understand things that to you are simply truths.

Glad to see you back Cap.

Gothelittle Rose said...

I won't pretend to know what it's like to kill somebody. I can give another example of an experience that changes you by taking you to the edge, though... I gave birth to three babies naturally, and one of them without any pain meds whatsoever.

When you come to the point where you feel as if you will die if you push, and you decide that you are going to push anyways... that did change me, to come to the point and to exceed it.

It's not a dark place at all, but it does change you.

Jeff said...

Thank you for your post. I have never experienced the things you have spoken of but that doesn’t mean I want to be left in ignorance. I feel the community on the whole needs to understand what you guys are living through. Even if it’s only a limited understanding it would at least be a beginning.
It doesn’t sound like the female psych should have really been there. If someone is to provide help to others then perhaps life experiences need to be considered and not just qualifications. Do you as a group ever meet just to talk or is it only ever with one of the psychs present? It might give that “troopship time” that someone else spoke of.
Great to see you posting again as I was wondering how you were going and again thank you for your insights. Take it easy and all the best.

geezer said...

As a rape survivor and after almost dieing from 17 stab wounds in the same incident, I under- stand profoundly your thoughts. I rarely say it aloud, but I have vowed never to be terrorized like that again. I will kill first if I have the chance. PTSD?? After eleven years, there are still vestiges of it remaining.

Unknown said...

CT, what you have said here is like a giant searchlight in my blackest tunnel.
I was in the Australian Air Force for 21 years, and two years Army before that, NEVER been on the two-way range, NEVER had to face your particular elephant.
On Christmas Eve, 1974 in Darwin, (then, pop 40,000+), Northern Territory of Australia, the city was hit by a cyclone,-Tracy,- and virtually obliterated, about 65-90 dead, hundreds of injured.
My elephant came to me that night.
I was 24 years old, married three years, two babies under three.
The monster raged in this blackest of nights for about 7-8 hours, my small house was destroyed around us, we survived.
Forward 37 years, I was asked by a 12 year old cousin to write about an Australian natural disaster, I wrote about Tracy.
I had NEVER written or said anything, even to my Wife, about that night of sure death before this, I was scared absolutely shitless all that long night, but I couldn't show it, I had to be the strong male, we also had company, my friend's Wife and their two babies, her husband was miles away, couldn't get home, so she and her babies took shelter with us.
I wrote my heart to my young cousin, but I left out things a 12 year old child doesn't need to know, I saw some very nasty sights, and smelled them, over the next few days.
My account, with my never before shown photo's I took the next three days after, made quite some impact on the adult teachers who saw it, though that was not my intent.
My point, I will never be able to get across to someone who was not there that night, what it was like, but I am significantly better for having got it off my chest, believe me!.
When my wife read my account, she said, Ï had no idea you were so scared, you didn't show it".
That was the hardest part.......
Stuart Garfath. Sydney Australia.