The nation is stunned. On Monday, 2 October, the world woke to the news of yet another mass shooting. This time, it was a heinous attack on innocent concertgoers from the Mandalay Bay hotel by Stephen Paddock. It has been a topic of conversation by everyone; parents talking to their children, friends and partners to each other. Everyone is writing about it, talking about it, speculating and wondering: how could this have happened? What would make someone do such a thing?
One thing I haven’t seen much conversation about: the unique point of view of the military veteran on the subject. I watched the news that day with different eyes, listened with different ears. I would imagine a first responder did so as well. My familiarity with weapons and military tactics took me to a different place in my mind. This happens with many highly publicized tragedies, such as the Sandy Hook shooting or the Orlando Nightclub massacre. It could also happen with the highly publicized suicides of Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington, or Robin Williams. There is the potential for significant emotional reaction for those who have experienced combat or served in the military.
It may be helpful to understand how this may have impacted a former service member. From my point of view as both a mental health professional and combat veteran, here are four different ways that a veteran may have reacted.
One of the key aspects of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is a state of hypervigilance. This is always being on the lookout for danger, scanning the room. I know many veterans who do NOT have PTSD that maintain a heightened state of awareness, though. Just because a veteran is scanning the rooftops doesn’t mean they have PTSD. A heightened sense of awareness is also something that was protective in combat. It was developed in training and reinforced by leaders up and down the chain of command: keep your head on a swivel.
The challenge lies in the fact that, when we return from combat, many veterans carry this hypervigilance with them. Some veterans may see this incident as validating that aspect of their mindset: “See? What did I tell you? If it happened there, it could happen here!” The truth is, there is danger in the world. The veteran knows that; they’ve seen it. This may cause that level of hypervigilance to increase; like many other things in life, however, if it starts to get in the way of daily living, then it’s gone too far. Physiologically, we cannot remain at a heightened sense of alertness or activation; sooner or later, the nervous system needs to rest. If a veteran finds themselves unable to reduce their hypervigilance, then it could be helpful to find a mental health professional to talk to.
As I mentioned, I watched and listened to the coverage of the incident with different eyes and ears. I was listening for rate of fire and caliber. My friends and I had many discussions, speculating about whether it was a belt-fed or drum-fed weapon, what kind of ammunition was used. Of course the sounds triggered thoughts and memories of my own, and it may be the same for many veterans. Each of these things were grounded in my own experience, both in the military in general and combat in particular. Many of the conversations I’ve had with veterans in the intervening days has been the same.
There were also stories of sacrifice and individuals running towards the incident in order to help, rather than running away. This is also something that many veterans will identify with. A connection of mine, a former Army medic, was on the Vegas Strip when it happened, and she was frustrated by her lack of ability to help. She and I had a conversation about it on the Head Space and Timing podcast, which you can listen to here. One Marine exercised the audacity principle by jumping in an empty truck with the keys inside and transporting the wounded to a hospital.
Another key component of a veteran’s military service was a sense of responsibility for those around them. Veterans felt this the strongest for those in their unit, their brothers and sisters they’ve served with. In the book Adaptive Disclosure, the authors identify that the concern that a service member had for those they served with was more like that of a parent being protective of a child, rather than between friends or siblings.
This responsibility also translates, in a broader sense, to their fellow countrymen. I used to explain my absence overseas to my children, when they were young, that I had to go away to fight the bad people so that the bad people didn’t come here. Veterans served overseas in order to shield people from the horrors of combat, only to see that show up on our streets. A veteran is likely to feel anger and frustration at not being able to prevent this sort of incident.
I clearly recall my immediate thoughts after the series of bombings in Paris in 2015. I thought to myself, “I need to get over there…they’ll need someone who understands trauma and combat to help them recover.” Never mind the fact that I don’t speak French. My urge was to go, to do something. As with many other things, veterans will react with a desire to act rather than reflect, to engage in something rather than talk about it. “Let us help solve the problem” might be a common response. Not being able to do, and only talk about it, can lead to a sense of frustration and helplessness. Not many people I know enjoy feeling frustrated and helpless, but I know that veterans especially don’t.
Reflecting on what is actually possible and taking action in an effective way is more beneficial than shaking our fist at a TV screen. From all accounts, Paddock meticulously planned and executed this incident, with little forewarning. What I can do is to help other veterans understand their reaction to it; that’s my role, how I engage in action in response to it. Each of us can find effective ways of responding, rather than being frustrated by what we can’t do.
Perhaps these thoughts are helpful. Maybe they’re wrong; they’re my own opinions and based on my experience, and some of the conversations I’ve had over the past few days. I’d love to hear about your thoughts, whether you agree or disagree, by reaching out to me on social media or in the comments below. It’s only through conversation and the exchange of ideas that awareness is generated.
The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!