This post was originally written as part of the ACA Blog Project. The original post can be found here.
Here is the veteran story paradox: Veterans sincerely and adamantly want those that they care about, those they interact with, to know their story and understand their experiences, without having to tell them a thing.
The challenge that veterans have is that they want to be able to tell their story, what happened to them during their military service, while simultaneously feeling that such an effort is totally pointless. Could you imagine that? Experiencing such a significant event in your life that it impacts you almost daily, and both desperately wanting to talk about it while also knowing that no one is going to drag it out of you with a team of wild horses?
Many veterans I’ve talked to indicate that there are hundreds of reasons why they don’t want to talk about the events they had while they were in the service. They want to protect the listener, because if the veteran told the real story, then they would somehow be harming the other person. They want to protect themselves, from the pain of re-experiencing the moment. They want to protect themselves from the listener, from their judgment and condemnation. And of course the listener would judge and condemn the veteran…how could they not? The veteran does that to themselves, after all.
Another reason for not telling the story they desperately want others to hear is the fear that, if telling the story makes the pain go away, then somehow that means the importance of those that they’ve lost is diminished. “If I don’t cry every time I think of them, then that means I don’t care about them as much.” There are going to be those days. Those anniversaries. Those bad times in the year in which the old veteran lifts their chin, furrows their brow, and allows a single tear to roll silently down their cheek; that never goes away. Those anniversaries have no need to take the veteran to a painful, tormented, get-the-hell-out-of-here-and-leave-me-alone place.
So the veteran is caught between two overwhelming urges: to talk and to not talk. Talking in the past has caused problems; in their relationships, with their family, with their friends. Not talking has also caused problems, in those same relationships, with the same family and friends. The veteran is told, “you’re not the same person who went away” and “I hardly know you anymore.” The veteran knows this about themselves, and feels exactly the same way.
The veteran also has to pick up and move on. They have to return to their mission, if they’re still in the service. They have to get a job, if they’re no longer in. The veteran has a need to move on from their experiences, put it behind them, find a career that will give them the same level of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose as their military service did; to ultimately deny that essential part of themselves, their core veteran-ness. To become something that they’re not.
Somehow, for the veteran to become a whole new person, this paradox must be resolved. The painful equilibrium of wanting to tell while not wanting to tell has to tip one way or the other in order for them to move on. There are several ways for this to be accomplished.
First, the veteran changes their unwillingness to talk about their experiences. This may happen naturally and willingly; I, for example, am willing to talk about my military experiences, and even the significant emotional events that I experienced, with those that are willing to listen (or read). This takes patience, awareness, and a willingness to answer questions on the part of the veteran. Another way for the veteran to change their grip on the “don’t say anything” point of view is to be challenged with an unwelcome consequence if they keep quiet: the loss of a relationship, or yet another relationship. Becoming involved in the criminal justice system…seeking help after thoughts and behaivors get them in trouble rather than before…can also be a motivating factors for veterans to finally address those challenges that they have been experiencing.
Second, the person who wants to listen to the veteran…the mental health professional, spiritual leader, family member…can provide an environment that helps the veteran understand that their worst fears about talking are not going to come true. This is best understood by being completely open to hearing whatever the veteran has to say in an earnest and nonjudgmental manner. For some who are close to the veteran, and who may have had endured hardships of their own, this may not be possible. Spouses of deployed veterans often experienced combat deployments in an emotionally stressful way, so funny stories about video game tournaments and meeting NFL Cheerleaders on Thanksgiving may not be very well received. For those who are not directly emotionally invested with the veteran, however, providing a safe place where the story can be told is critical. Nonjudgmentalness is key. If the person listening to the veteran’s story cannot keep from reacting with pity or horror at some of the things that they’re going to hear, then the veteran will not be able to fully express themselves.
A third way to understand the veteran’s experience is to learn about their stories in general through a third observer. There has been unprecedented access to combat veterans throughout the entire span of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of those who were embedded with units during deployment have written about their experiences, and told the stories of the men and women they lived with. For anyone who wants to listen to a veteran’s stories would do well by coming to an understanding of what it was like for them. Knowledge is the key to understanding someone; a lack of knowledge leads to fear, mistrust, and preconceived notions…even discrimination.
A compromise overcomes a paradox. A willingness on the part of the veteran to speak, a willingness on the part of the listener to hear, and a willingness on the part of both to understand. In this way, the paradox of the veteran’s story can be resolved.