The violence of action paradox is this: those actions and emotions that protected us in combat are dangerous to us at home, and those actions and emotions that are supportive at home were dangerous in combat.
A recent discussion on LinkedIn points out a significant truth that seems to be evident to many veterans: the military does a great job of training us, but doesn’t do a very good job at retraining us after we return from combat. More to the point, we don’t do a very good job at retraining OURSELVES after we return from combat or transition out of the service. Without coming to the point of awareness that what we experienced changed us, and that we need to continue to change and grow to succeed, we can become trapped in thoughts and behaviors that were comfortable to us.
If you’re a veteran, think about the emotions you had when you were deployed to a combat zone, especially if you went outside the wire. Emotions that were extremely effective there, in combat, but are not helpful here at home. The primary one was anger, of course; it drove us, it fueled us, it kept us awake, and it kept us sharp. Anger is a powerful motivating force that helped us accomplish our mission. Vigilance is another one; being totally aware of what is happening around you, what could potentially happen on the route in front of you, being focused on what happened in this area two hours ago so you can be prepared for something that may happen two minutes from now…it kept us alive. It kept us, and those we were responsible for, safe. It helped us to ensure that the mission is accomplished. As leaders, we modeled aggressiveness and anger as a way to get things done; we may not be very proud of it, if we think about it at all, but we’re pretty good at it. We passed along that this is how things got done: The Staff Sergeant on his third deployment taught the Sergeant on his second deployment how to teach the Private on his first deployment to be aggressive. Because it was necessary.
Contrast that to when we come home. How do we turn that anger off if we don’t realize that we no longer need it? Stuff makes us angry here. Things happen at home that makes us feel as though we have to be prepared. I can’t count how many times veterans I talk to, who have been out of the service for nearly ten years, say, “but I always have to be ready in case something happens.” Forget the fact that someone hasn’t kicked in my door in a decade, I have to be ready in case it happens in the next few minutes.
What about the other side of the coin? What emotions are acceptable at home, at the park with the kids, walking through the mall, but were dangerous and potentially lethal when we were deployed? A sense of safety is a huge one. Mention the word “complacency” to a combat vet and see what happens. “Complacency Kills” is a phrase you’re likely to hear; a mentor of mine in the 82nd used to say, “the moment you stop feeling fear when you think about jumping out of an aircraft is the moment you have to start paying more attention, because you’ll start to get sloppy.” Feeling safe, feeling like everything is okay and something’s not about to happen…that’s when stuff really kicks off, and if we were not ready for it when we were over there, then bad stuff happened. Compassion is another one that is absolutely necessary when we come back home, but sometimes got in the way when we were deployed. I’m not saying that all veterans become emotionless sociopathic drones while we were in combat, don’t get me wrong. Ill-placed sentiment and compassion towards the wrong people, however, was extremely dangerous, and it was easier to put it off, suppress it, not engage it, rather than deal with the consequences. Realizing that we need to turn these back on, while simultaneously turning off the emotions that protected us in combat, is key to a successful transition.
So the military doesn’t do a great job of helping us get to that point of awareness. There are lots of great transition programs, but they are focused on helping us write resumes, dress for success, prepare for an interview. Maybe how to apply to school or submit a business loan. In my experience, however, the military doesn’t help us become aware that we no longer need to scan the rooftops; that we don’t have to check the security of the perimeter whenever we hear a noise in the middle of the night; that we don’t have to use the most effective multi-tool we have, anger, for every situation.
If you’re a veteran, and you find that you have struggled or are struggling with this paradox, then reach out to someone. It doesn’t have to be a therapist or counselor, although that can certainly help. Reach out to anyone, start talking…but be safe about it. Find someone in your life that you are comfortable enough to tell them anything, while also recognizing that you don’t have to tell them everything. If you are a caregiver, or someone who is working to support veterans, the best course of action is to just listen. Don’t judge, don’t react with shock or surprise, don’t respond to their story with, “I know how you feel, because I experienced….” Just listen. Support. Be present.
If you want to join me on my mission regarding veteran mental health, comment, like, and forward to your networks. As I have mentioned in other posts, awareness is the key; until veterans, their support network, and their community become aware of the reality of what veterans experience, change cannot happen.