We all have painful memories in our lives. Loss. Regret. Mistakes and failures, real or imagined. It’s part of the human condition, and I don’t know anyone who’s immune to it. Those who served in the military, though, have had more opportunity to accumulate painful memories. I’m not talking about when the Drill Instructor yelled at you, or when that gal or dude you were seeing broke up with you. That’s small potatoes when it comes to the really big stuff. Combat, mistakes that were made by me or someone else that cost someone their life. Things that a service member or veteran saw that can’t be unseen. Navigating through life with these memories inside our heads can be like walking through a minefield. Dangerous, but possible, if you know what to do.
The meaning of the minefield of painful memories in post military life can be significant. Our emotions, our relationships, our careers…all can be impacted if we don’t address these painful memories and put them in the proper place in our minds. This doesn’t mean burying them and ignoring them…like real minefields, ignoring them and pretending like they’re not there simply doesn’t work. Instead, taking the time to understand, to process, to reduce the impact of the painful memories is the surest way to move beyond the minefield.
You Can’t Get Through The Minefield Without Knowing You’re In It
Bosnia, 1996. My unit was transporting supplies from one base to another when we ended up on the wrong route. No Lieutenant jokes, please, although there was one leading the convoy. We started seeing signs in Cyrillic, meaning we were heading into Serbian territory…no bueno. We start to turn around in a wide area near the road, when this old man came running out of a nearby house, waving his arms…the lead truck had pulled into a minefield. Slowly, carefully, they pulled back out in the same tracks they made pulling in. We didn’t have awareness that we were in the minefield…but the old man sure did.
The problem of being stuck in a minefield is that you don’t know that you’re in it until something blows up. It’s the same thing with painful memories. We think we have it figured out, it was all in the past, and it doesn’t matter anymore, anyway. Except…it does. A lot. Even if it’s only certain times of the year that it impacts us, we’re still changed by the experience. So the first step in navigating the minefield is to become aware of the fact that we’re in the middle of it. To start recognizing the signs before we get hit with a painful memory, rather than recognizing the aftermath.
You Don’t Navigate The Minefield by Avoiding It
One of the most common ways of dealing with a minefield is to avoid it all together. Works great, if you can do it. In the story above, we didn’t need to turn around in the field; we simply backed up until we found a parking lot big enough, and used that. The minefield of painful memories, however, can’t be avoided. It stretches across our path, blocking the way to the clear land on the other side. There’s no way around it; the only way to get beyond the minefield is through it. Again, we can blunder our way forward, doggedly absorbing the blasts until we finally make it to the other side; or we can find a way to navigate it safely.
If we continuously reroute ourselves around off limits areas that we place in our lives, we will never truly get to a place of peace. If we start down this path, then the painful memory pops up…and we avoid it. By ignoring it, denying it, burying it in distractions or drowning it in substances. We back off and try to find another route. And we keep coming up against it. The way beyond the minefield is not avoidance…it’s acknowledgement.
Navigating the Minefield is Possible
“Why would I bring that up? I want to forget it, not relive it.” In the meantime, we’re experiencing problems in our post-military life. Substance abuse. Uncontrollable emotions. Disrupted relationships. Pretty much all of the factors of the comprehensive veteran mental health model. If we don’t navigate the minefield, then we don’t resolve these challenges, either. The key, however, is that navigating through, and beyond, the minefield is possible. Maybe it’s possible on our own, we make it through by luck or by sheer determination. It may be easier, however, to have someone help us get through it. By showing us where the painful memories are, by carefully defusing them and removing the danger. By understanding how the painful memory got there, what it’s doing to us, and why we react the way we do.
It’s not that we’re broken, or crazy, or a monster. Service members have seen and done stuff that’s outside of the realm of experience of our neighbors, if they haven’t served. We’re not perpetuating the stereotype of the broken warrior, any more than addressing the psychological impact of an automobile accident or natural disaster makes someone crazy. It’s simply the truth of our experience. Painful memories can impact us long after the events have happened, and if we don’t acknowledge and address it, then we can’t move on.
And being stuck on the painful side of a minefield is a dangerous place to be.
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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!