Reflections for Veterans about Surviving War and Killing
by James R. Holbrook
1. Understanding: “What you did will mark you, darken you.” Donald Pfarrer, The Fearless Man 301 (New York: Random House, 2004). Although you are forever darkened by war and killing, your path forward is to do the work to embody in you the journey of the archetype of the “Wounded Healer,” which is as old as Greek mythology. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wounded_healer.
2. Realizing: “Killing is what war is about, and killing in combat, by its very nature, causes deep wounds of pain and guilt.” Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society 93 (Boston, MA: Little Brown and Company, 1995).
3. Accepting: “Killing is what warriors do for society. Yet when they return home, society doesn’t generally acknowledge that the act it asked them to do created a deep split in their psyches, or a psychological and spiritual weight most of them will stumble beneath the rest of their lives. Warriors must learn how to integrate the experience of killing, to put the pieces of their psyches back together again. For the most part, they have been left to do this on their own.” Karl Marlantes, What It Is Like to Go to War 26 (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011).
4. Caring for your self: “The first step that a veteran needs to take, which is a precondition of healing, is to establish his [or her] own safety, sobriety, and self-care.” Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam 187 (New York: Simon & Schuster Touchstone 1995).
5. Grieving your loss of innocence from moral injury: “… I’ve come strongly to believe through my work with … veterans: that moral injury is an essential part of any combat trauma that leads to lifelong psychological injury. Veterans can usually recover from horror, fear, and grief once they return to civilian life, so long as ‘what’s right’ has not also been violated” [Shay at 20]. “When an emotional injury takes place, the body begins a process as natural as the healing of a physical wound. Let the process happen. Trust the process. Surrender to it.” Harold H. Bloomfield, Melba Colgrove & Peter McWilliams, How to Survive the Loss of a Love i (Algonac, Michigan: Mary Books, 2000).
6. Talking: “A large part of treating PTSD is simply getting the veteran to remember and talk about what happened to him.” [Marlantes at 17].
7. Re-creating your narrative: “Virtually all treatment methods direct the survivor to construct a personal narrative at some time in his or her recovery … Severe trauma explodes the cohesion of consciousness. When a survivor creates a fully realized narrative that brings together the shattered knowledge of what happened, the emotions that were aroused by the meanings of the events, and the bodily sensations that the physical events created, the survivor pieces back together the fragmentation of consciousness that trauma has caused.” [Shay at 187-88]
8. Writing: “Writing becomes an act of compassion toward life, the life we so often refuse to see because if we look too closely or feel too deeply, there may be no end to our suffering. But words empower us, move us beyond our suffering, and set us free. This is the sorcery of literature. We are healed by our stories.” Terry Tempest Williams, An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field 57 (New York: Vintage Books, 1995).
9. Appreciating: “Some men know numbers. Others know words. But none knows more than a man who knows war.” Manny Garcia, An Accidental Soldier: Memoirs of a Mestizo in Vietnam vii (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003).
10. Using your trauma to help heal others: “The Cosmos has given each of us a unique set of gifts and experiences, and asks that we develop them for service to others who uniquely need them. That, I believe, is the purpose and meaning of life. The Cosmos has called us to be healers to help ourselves and others in conflict to be transformed, experience a change of heart, feel reconciled to one another, and be renewed.” James R. Holbrook, A Path to Meaning and Purpose, 37 The Legal Studies Forum 87 (2013). Your combat trauma is actually an unrequested “gift” from the Cosmos. Sharing your narrative as a Wounded Hero of your journey of healing from your trauma will make you approachable, credible, and useful to others who also have been traumatized. You thereby will reenter the world of all the other “walking wounded,” but now as a leader and healer. [Holbrook].