Action and Avoidance, Then and Now

Soldiers stack outside a locked door during a patrol of a section of Rawah, Iraq Photo by SSG Kyle Davis,

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” ― H.P. Lovecraft

Veterans are among the most courageous people that I know. Dauntless. Unstoppable. The Army has established seven core values that all Soldiers should possess: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage. For many years, I thought that Integrity was the most important, for how could I have any of the others if I didn’t have integrity?

After 9/11, however, my thinking changed somewhat. Courage. For those firefighters to run up while everyone was running down…just like someone I’ve touched on briefly, Rick Rescorla, from We Were Soldiers, Once…and Young…that’s courage. That’s sacrifice. To run towards the sound of gunfire, instead of away. To stand firm in the face of danger, to even care less about your own death than you do about those you are with, and knowing they feel the same.

In the military, you have hundreds of daily chances to overcome fear. Hundreds of thousands of service members, like me, have decided that they would jump out of a perfectly good airplane. In all of my time in the military, I never saw someone refuse to jump, the cardinal sin of the Airborne community. Never saw someone freeze in the door, never a saw someone not do what they have committed to do.

Combat. When you take point on patrol, or lead vehicle on a convoy, or stack on the door as the breach man, you did it. When I was leading security escort, I had a team that was always lead truck…and, if I had someone else do (not that I can recall such a thing happening), then they would want to know why.

What about calling for support when you were in the military? You didn’t do this alone. Say all you want about the fobbits back at the command post, they were (mostly) there when you needed them. Intel? On point. Fire support? Whenever you needed it, if not always wherever (sorry, Redlegs). Snipers in overwatch? Yes, please. There was little hesitation to reach out to request help if you needed it, and you needed it often. One of the most amazing things to me was the amount of support I had in the air as a Platoon Sergeant in Afghanistan: Kiowas right above me, drones above them, F-16s above the drones, and, somewhere up on the edge of space, a B-52 bomber. Just to make sure me and my guys and gals were safe.

And then we come home.

How is it possible that I can jump out of airplanes, take point on a patrol, stand firm in the face of adversity, but yet start shaking in my boots at the thought of my first civilian job interview? How is it that I can get on the comms to call for support anywhere from a mile ahead of me to a mile above me, but I can’t reach out for the assistance I need here at home? I’m still the same person, the dauntless service member. I can stack on the door of a compound in Sadr City, but I hesitate at the door of the therapist’s office? Doesn’t make much sense.

I’ve thought about this: I think it has something to do with confidence. In yourself, in those around you, in your support. And confidence is about certainty.

When you prepared to bust down a door in combat, you were confident. You didn’t know what was on the other side of that door; at that moment, the immediate future is completely unknown. You know what might be on the other side of that door, or was even probably there. But you didn’t know. And you went anyway. Why?

You were confident that you would be able to handle whatever it was. You had certainty, based on your training and experience, that what was unknown in the world was not greater than that which was known within yourself. You knew that your team had your back, and you knew it with certainty. The same goes for support; it was rare that you called for support if you were in contact and didn’t receive it. When you called, you got what you needed.

When you stand in front of the therapist’s door, however, or going into your first interview, somehow that certainty has gone away. You somehow have lost the certainty of your ability to handle whatever comes next. It doesn’t matter that whatever is on the other side of the door here is nowhere near as dangerous, physically, as what was on the other side of the door there.

The same goes for your support. Somehow, we lose the confidence that someone will be there when we reach out for support. We hear the stories of the horrible service at the VA in Alabama, for example, and think that the same thing happens at the VA down the street. We hear stories in the media of someone getting an answering machine on the suicide prevention hotline, and say to ourselves, “well, that’s another example of the fact that they don’t care about veterans. Might as well not even try.” We turn around and pack up our kit before we even roll outside the wire.

That’s not who I am. That’s not who we, veterans, are. The profession of arms is now, and has been for as long as I remember, a noble and honorable profession. Even if it seems as though some in our lives may not think so, it is.

When you were in the military, you had the courage to face death, because you were confident in your own ability to overcome it, the ability of your brothers and sisters to bear it with you, and the presence of support. Now that you’re out, you can once again become confident in your ability to handle anything. There are brothers and sisters out there, veterans, who will be there if you need it. Support is there, all you have to do is ask and ask and don’t stop asking until you get it.

Over there, you were courageous enough to face certain death. Over here, are you courageous enough to face certain life?

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