Combat Veterans May Have the Antidote to What Ails Us

An icon of the music industry had just died and a 22-year Army veteran with five combat deployments sat in my office crying. His sorrow was not for the departed celebrity. He was grieving for U.S. fallen soldiers, and for the irony that so many of us were mourning the diva's death while so few of us knew the name of one soldier or Marine cut down in Iraq or Afghanistan. This man's grief lay in the chasm between a world view forged in battle and the norms of mainstream American culture. In the words of psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, soldiers realize that they have made the ultimate sacrifice to a country in which they feel they no longer belong.

Over two million service men and women have returned from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many survivors of Vietnam and other wars are still with us. It is estimated that 20-30% are suffering from PTSD, while others struggle with depression, addiction, or both. Whether infantry, supply, combat engineers, the war zone is rife with potent traumatic events. Veteran Affairs and other medical centers across the country are working to provide "best practices" in treatment. Despite the best efforts of the VA and other clinics, many of our combat veterans do not benefit sufficiently from the treatments offered.

Members of our armed services suffer from something more than the stress of war. An acute sense of alienation often rivals the distress of the traumatic experiences they may have experienced. Grave loneliness emanates from feeling that there is no one who could possibly understand the profoundly changed world view that the war has shaped in them. They have undergone a fundamental shift in values, as the war zone teaches these men and women life lessons at a depth at which few of us are forced to grapple.

In psychotherapy sessions with these veterans, I hear revelations about the preciousness of life and the foolishness of materialism. I hear testimonies to unflinching commitments to protect the vulnerable, and loyalty to a friend that transcends any thought of self -- not just Army slogans, but rather values that have been rooted in action. Back at home these veterans seek to continue to live according to what they have learned, and they cannot tolerate that we do not all live by standards borne out of necessities of survival. Upon homecoming veterans feel ambushed by a social climate of perceived immortality, selfishness, materialism, shallow relationships, and celebrity idolatry.

In many ancient cultures, the warrior returning from combat held revered social status. Warriors were seen as a source of wisdom from which society could learn and benefit. Drawing on the principles they had learned and lived by, they continued to serve their community in roles of protection, guidance, and leadership. According to today's clinical models, the combat veteran's desire to withdraw, the lack of trust, the avoidance of reminders of war, are all manifestations of psychiatric distress we call PTSD. Yet, these same symptoms can also be understood as the product of a culture that does not honor the sage wisdom with which warriors return. Indeed, they may not fully know it in themselves.

Many men and women are suffering from severe psychiatric diagnoses that are a result of their service. Yet, to only see this as psychopathology is to overlook the depth of character and clarity of values that can emerge from life altering experiences. Veterans of war have much to offer us. Psychologist Ed Tick writes, "civilization needs the sensitivity and valuing of life that only one who knows its fragility can develop." Soldiers and Marines return with insights that can guide us and deepen the meaning in our own lives. We must seek to understand what they know. If we can stop long enough to listen closely and without judgment to what they may only have the nerve to whisper, we might heal some of the wounds and dysfunction of our own society.

The views expressed in this post are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the VA.