Updated: Jul 27
Every once in a while I see a post floating around Facebook stating something about veteran suicides, asking you to share it to show that you’re listening, and care about the topic. It always seems the premise of not sharing it is that the issue isn’t important to you (and that you’re a commie bastard, which you very well might be, but that’s on you). I never share things like that. Not those, not the support cancer victims posts, not anything. I know it doesn’t really matter for the most part because most people don’t understand what they’re supporting in the first place. I’ve never had cancer. As such, I find it hard to sympathize. I have been in combat- been shot at and shot back. I’ve dealt with my own healing after the events in question, and have managed to come out of it more or less intact. And a post on Facebook- no matter how eloquently worded- isn’t offering the support that is required.
I fully believe that the reason I did so well was I didn’t bottle it up like some others do. It probably doesn’t hurt that I have read “On Combat” and “On Killing” twice each. Probably doesn’t hurt that I read and thought deeply about combat most of my adult life. “Starship Troopers,” “Doom: Knee Deep in the Dead,” “Blood on the Risers,” “One Shot, One Kill,” most of Tom Clancy’s works, and a host of other books on war filled my reading as a young adult and young Marine. Knowledge has been my savior, and has helped me cope with the things that I have been a party to. Poetry has given me an outlet, as has non fiction and fiction that I have written. But for the majority of warriors returning home, they haven’t the resources that I have had, and even some who do still find it harder than I did to fight through it- and make no mistake, it is a fight.
When I was kicking in doors, and hunting bad guys in Fallujah circa 2004, I did so with a vast support network helping me out from the Marines in my squad, to the on call fire support, machine guns, air, first aid and trauma system. For the Grunt on the front line, support is crucial, as it allows them to fight the fight rather than worry about minutia. When I got out the first time, for the first time I was truly on my own. My girlfriend at the time, though a great support and a good woman, couldn’t ever fully appreciate what I had been through. People I talked to (friends and family who never served) also didn’t know what I had dealt with. And the real reason isn’t that they haven’t ever been afraid, it’s because the real trauma for a combat veteran isn’t the fear of death or injury- it’s the fear of killing and failure.
It’s hard to envision from a civilian perspective (trust me- I was a young civvy with idealistic thoughts once too), but killing is the real difference between a combatant’s trauma and that of a noncombatant. Studies I read about in “On Killing” looked at the long term mental health effects of civilians in cities like Dresden who survived the fire bombings, prisoners of war in SS prison camps, and the guards of those prison camps and discovered that the guards had the most problems of the three, with prisoners and civilians fairing very well even though their situations were fairly craptastical themselves. Grossman does a much better job describing why this is, but suffice to say that the only real difference- that the guards may have to kill another human being- was the chief factor involved. Unless you’ve been conditioned to kill, and have been faced with killing, there is no way for you to relate to the real wounds that scar the minds of many who’ve been in combat.
Combatants are perhaps some of the bravest people we have not because they will willingly go into harms way to protect their country and way of life- fire fighters do this all the time- but because they are willing to do something that for most regular people is taboo in the extreme. There is only a small percentage- about 2%- of the human population that can kill another human being without any adverse mental health effects. This isn’t to say that they’re bad people- far from it. They could be the very best people we have, but they are gifted with the ability to kill without remorse. About 95% of us can be conditioned to take another human life, but the vast majority of us will suffer some form of trauma from the event. I never killed anyone (I did shoot at some people and watch a man die through my ACOG), and I suffered some mental scars from the events. The only “nightmares” I had after my first enlistment were of shooting and the target not dying and my fellows being killed as a result. I talked about these dreams with my family (who didn’t understand- couldn’t ever understand) and that was all I needed. I never had dreams of being in danger, of being fired at. The fear for me wasn’t of dying (at least in the dreams) but of killing and failing to kill and in so doing, failing my fellows.
I mentioned earlier that combatants dealing with trauma associated with this could still be fighting, and I meant that. Those who suffer from this stuff, who try and tackle it head on without support are like the insurgents we slaughtered in Fallujah. They’re outgunned and still they trudge on. I’m not going to say why they refuse help and support, only that they need it. I sought support in those who couldn’t relate and worked through these issues myself- my survivors guilt I overcame with help beyond the grave. I wouldn’t have made it on my own. Long term, no one can. The support I received wasn’t happy thoughts from Facebook passed around without any thought by friends and “friends.” The support I received was open ears, real life interactions with people who cared about me, and the final words I ever heard of a Marine I felt I had let down by entering the civilian sector rather than riding in his seat the day he died- “I’m happy for you, and can’t wait to EAS myself.” He wouldn’t have wanted me to feel sorry for myself for letting him down- he’d want me to live my life to its fullest.
What our combatants need from us isn’t empty posts on Facebook, or kind shotgun-blasted thoughts online- they need open ears, compassionate hearts, and maybe a shoulder to cry on (some do- I’m not judging). They need their fellows who do understand to be ready willing and able to listen fully and provide them the support they need to win their own small battles so they can win the larger war. It’s not easy to do, but it’s vital that we try. A whole generation of America’s warriors lost the war in their minds because our nation refused to support them. Politics and idealism prevented Americans from treating other Americans as people with injuries, and instead coerced them to treat those Americans like pariahs and trash. Fortunately, I don’t see this generation of warriors suffering that same fate. But it’s not the countless, “Thank you for your service” offered when we’re made, nor is it the “I support our troops” bumper stickers. It’s the vets themselves (and a whole host of noncombatants everywhere) who take the time to listen, try and understand, and give these wounded warriors the care they need to heal as best they can.
There will be scars. There will always be reminders and those moments when the things we were a party to come screaming back. There will be moments when we see not a city street with Americans walking around enjoying a bright summer’s day- but a hell hole of danger areas and potential roadside bombs and windows hiding snipers who need ventilated. We will always- in some fashion- be who we were trained to be. I know I internalized what I became to such a degree that if my DNA were ever sequenced, it wouldn’t be a double helix, but an EGA. It’s something that many of you won’t ever understand- couldn’t ever understand- but that those who do will understand intuitively. We don’t want empty words and stupid slogans.
Get in there, and kick in some mother fucking doors. The warriors are still fighting. Are you doing your part?
Principle Source: "On Killing" LtCol. Grossman